Most people would expect 17-year-olds to be enjoying their summer to the max. For Zero Hour's founder and co-executive director Jamie Margolin, operations director Elsa Mengistu, and partnerships director Arielle Martinez Cohen, this involves taking on the herculean task of organizing a three-day climate change summit in Miami, FL, focused on providing education and activist training to a community that could be underwater in just a few decades.
"The focus point of the summit is to engage a community like Miami, where the sea level is rising. This place won’t exist several decades from now," Elsa told Refinery29. "That's a travesty. And though people talk about this, there is not a lot of action."
This Is Zero Hour: The Youth Climate Summit will be held from July 12 to 14 at DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel Miami Airport & Convention Center. Jamie said registration for the event, which is free, is still open. The teens are expecting a few hundred people to show up and participate in a weekend full of workshops, networking events, and events designed for both experienced activists and those who are just joining the fight against climate change.
Speakers include Nobel Peace Prize nominee Greta Thunberg, who at 16 has revolutionized the climate justice movement; 11-year-old Mari Copeny, better known as Little Miss Flint, who has been fighting for clean water in Flint, MI, for nearly five years; and Alethea Phillips, whose family helped organize the Standing Rock movement in North Dakota.
Zero Hour credits Elsa as the mastermind behind the summit. The 17-year-old came up with the idea and worked on organizing the conference during her senior year of high school. "She is the reason this is happening and why it's possible," Jamie said. The team worked across time zones, sometimes until the early hours of the morning, to organize this event. The idea that a teenager would help organize an entire conference as a senior — while juggling exams, worrying about college, and being a normal high school kid — can seem extraordinary. But that's how Zero Hour, which Jamie founded in 2017 at the age of 15, rolls as an organization.
"I had a vision for a climate march for a very long time, especially after the Women's March. At this time, there was no climate strike movement, there was no mass mobilization for youth," Jamie said. The teen hoped that someone else would take on the challenge of organizing a youth movement focused on climate justice. But it didn't happen. In 2017, Jamie was outraged by spread of wildfires in Canada, which lead to smoke covering Seattle and the Northwest region. Jamie described witnessing the chaos as "apocalyptic." Then, Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico. Jamie had a special connection to the island, which is the first Spanish-speaking place she had ever visited — even before her mother's native Colombia — which made her appreciate her Latinx roots even more. The teen decided it was time: "I said, 'Fuck it, we have to do a climate march.'"
So they organized a climate march. That's how Zero Hour was born and since then, it has grown into an organization with a network of local chapters all around the globe. She added: "The team grew and it was no longer just me with an idea. It was a bunch of kids working, saying this organization is ours. It’s a relief to not have to do something alone."
Social media has played a crucial role in how Zero Hour organizers have connected with each other, despite being in different parts of the country and the world. "I read an article Jamie had on CNN calling elected officials out. At that time, I had been organizing March for Our Lives and a bunch of other movements," Arielle said. "Climate was something I was passionate about, but I didn't know where to get started. ... So, I DMd Jamie on Instagram."
The climate crisis is perhaps the greatest threat humanity is currently facing and young people have been acutely aware of what it could mean for their futures. A report released by the United Nations’ scientific panel on climate change last fall stressed the globe will be facing a multi-faceted crisis of disastrous magnitudes by 2040. The panel urged that the only way to minimize the damage by then is to transform the world economy at a scale and pace that has "no documented historic precedent." Another report, commissioned and released by the U.S. government soon after, found that public health and the national economy will be put at unprecedented risk by climate change in the next century.
It's no shocker, then, that teenagers and young people have been at the forefront of demanding political leaders take action before it's too late. The Green New Deal, an ambitious reform that seeks to tackle climate change and income inequality in a decade, became part of the mainstream discourse in great part due to the work of young activists. Climate youth organizations have led the call for a climate debate during the Democratic presidential primary.
The intensity of their activism — just like that of the Parkland students and the Dreamers who've fought for immigration reform — consistently elicits a specific "Yaaass, teens will save us!" type of response. But Jamie, Elsa, and Arielle are tired of adults' support ending there. "The most annoying thing ever that I get is politicians who say they’re supportive, but they are not really taking action. You would expect, like, Sen. Ted Cruz to be a climate denier," Jamie said. "But a lot of centrist Democrats, you'll talk to them and they'll be like, 'Climate! I believe in it! Give me a cookie because I believe in climate change!'"
Jamie added: "That is not enough. Simply believing that the house is on fire, while the house is burning around you — I'm not going to applaud you. But the worst thing I get is when people say: 'Oh my God, you kids are gonna save the world!' There is no time for us to grow up and save the world later. It's now or never. And what kind of burden is that to put on high-schoolers? ... Get off your butt and help us. Young people’s power depends on our ability to influence the people in power. Why are they not taking action now?"
With or without adults, the Zero Hour teens will push forward. About 20 organizers, many of whom are girls of color, have spent the week ahead of the summit staying together at an Airbnb in Miami. "It's a little society we’re running," Jamie said. The summit, she added, is designed to give back power to the communities that are the most impacted by the threat of climate change. "It’s not another conference," she added. "It’s something revolutionary."