A conversation with Isaac Larkin

He asked Joe Biden some spicy questions on CNN. Now he’s here to explain why.

With less than a week until the first Democratic presidential debate in Iowa and the state’s primary caucuses only 24 days away, it’s time to start talking about the role climate accountability will play in the 2020 election. 

This week, I talked to Isaac Larkin, PhD candidate at Northwestern University and climate activist for the Sunrise Movement. You might remember him from the time he grilled Joe Biden on national television for attending a fundraiser with fossil fuel executives.

As you might expect, Isaac has some opinions on climate action, accountability, and how to get to a better world — and where that all fits into the politics of this primary season.

Our interview is below — my questions are in bold.

How did you get involved in climate activism? What got you started?  

I come from Silicon Valley, so I spent most of my life thinking this was a problem that technology could solve, and that I just had to figure out what technology I could learn to do so I could contribute to being part of the solution. I went to college in undergrad in biochemistry and went to grad school to develop an expertise in synthetic biology and engineering, thinking, this could contribute to helping with that climate thing. It didn’t really come to the forefront of my life until the past year or two. The election of Trump was sort of a wake-up call that everything is not going according to plan. There’s nobody at the wheel. A lot of grad school is just moving small volumes of liquids back and forth all day, so I listened to a lot of audio-books about climate change and the directions we might be headed if things don’t change. For a while I started feeling a lot of despair. I started questioning whether I even wanted to have children. Then in the spring of 2018, the Intercept was putting out stories about these primary challengers who were trying to take on establishment leaders in the Democratic party, trying to get them to be more ambitious. And in particular there was this one — Alexandria Ocasio Cortez. She had the right ideas, she said we needed massive action on climate change. And so the day of her primary I was like screw it, I don’t think this is gonna matter, but I taught myself how to phone bank. I called like 5 people, and I don’t think I got any of them to go out and vote but I did it. And that evening, the results were coming in — have you seen the video of her face when the results were coming in? 

Oh yeah. It was beautiful.

So at that point I was like okay, well, maybe a better world is possible. I started reading more and more about the Green New Deal, this idea of a massive, government-led mobilization in the spirit of the WWII-scale mobilization to tackle climate change at the scale required by the science. To build a coalition that could seed a better world, and use that coalition to get past the entrenched interests of the fossil fuel industry. I was like man, that’s a great idea, if only more people were talking about this. I think it was November… the Tuesday or something after the midterms, and the Sunrise Movement sits in at Nancy Pelosi’s office, and AOC joins them, and suddenly the Green New Deal is national news, it’s on everybody’s lips. So I was like oh wow, this could actually happen, I need to try to get involved and help make this thing real. I went to meetings and did a couple of actions with them, met with some Congress people and Senators. I linked up with a bunch of other activism-minded young scientists on social media. I think it’s a really important thing for more scientists to get involved with activism. I think we’ve reached a point where it’s no longer enough for scientists to say “here’s how things are.” We need to say “and also, here’s how we think things should be.” So there’s now a caucus of young scientists within the sunrise movement — the Sunrise Scientists. 

It’s really invigorating and despair-countering activism. I can’t recommend it enough to people. There’s a quote by Roberto Mangabeira Unger: “It is a common mistake to suppose that hope is the cause of action. Hope is the consequence of action: you act and then, as a result, you begin to hope.”

At CNN’s climate town hall this past September, you brought up the Exxon Knew story, or the fossil fuel industry’s decades-long campaigns to deceive the public on climate change.  Why is it so important to you that our next president hold the industry accountable for what you called its “crimes against humanity”?

There’s sort of a moral answer and a pragmatic answer. The moral answer is that these people and organizations are monsters, and they’re on track to be responsible for the suffering and death of thousands, millions, maybe even billions of people. And so from a moral standpoint, they should be held accountable. From a pragmatic standpoint, I think it’s important to talk about this because people need to understand that this industry is not and will never be a partner in significant climate action. These companies are not your friends, and they need to be held accountable rather than worked with if we want to achieve our goals.

What do people who aren’t regular climate activists say when you tell them the deception story? Do you think that this narrative can get more people off the couch, or is it just the growing obviousness of the issue?

There are two different responses from what I’ve seen. One is something like despair: it reaffirms how powerful and unaccountable this industry is, and it can make people feel deflated if that information is just given in isolation — because it’s like, well what can we possibly do about this now? On the other hand, if people are already a little activated and motivated by the idea that we have to address climate change, and that maybe there’s a path to doing so — and then you bring it in as “and these are the people who need to be defeated to do that,” then it can be a powerful organizing tool. Basically, there is a good future that is possible, and that we want to reach. These people are keeping us from doing that, they have been lying to us for decades, and we need to defeat them. 

The idea that we should prosecute oil companies for lying about their products and hold them liable for the resulting damages has never appeared on the debate stage until this election cycle. Why do you think that is, and why is the climate conversation taking on this new frame?

From my own experience, I spent years with climate change in the back of my mind — it was something I knew was happening, but I didn’t want to think about it or I’d just tell myself it’s gonna get addressed. Because if you don’t have an idea of how things could get fixed, it’s a really scary thing to think about. So I think having a program for mobilizing against climate change and building a better world based on that mobilization enables more people to face the reality of how bad the trajectory we’re on is, because it seems like there’s a possibility of changing that trajectory. So I think the Sunrise Movement, AOC, and the Green New Deal have really helped get climate change to the center of the conversation over the past couple years. 

In terms of prosecuting the oil companies, I think there’s probably a couple things behind it--one is that the damaging effects of climate change are becoming impossible to ignore, and people are starting to look around and say “who caused this?” I think the other thing is that this election cycle you have more people running for office and in office who are not beholden to corporate interests, so they’re able to say things that are antagonistic to these powerful industries, things that more cowardly politicians would not. 

Very true. And I think the idea of accountability also speaks to some values of plain old fairness the fact that taxpayers and regular people have been paying the costs of climate damages that oil companies have been pushing onto them for decades, I think that’s something voters across the spectrum can get on board with.

Oh yeah. It’s a much more compelling and just invigorating truth and narrative. It’s not “oh, climate change is this collective original sin that all of human civilization is guilty of.” No, this is primarily caused by a small number of very rich people, and action to stop it has been delayed by the oligarchs and companies that are profiting off of it.

You asked Biden some pretty tough questions regarding his promises to address climate change given the fact that he would be attending a fundraiser co-hosted by a fossil fuel executive. What did you think of the answer he gave you? 

It wasn’t a very good answer. Basically, he tried to split hairs about the exact definition of a fossil fuel executive. To be completely fair to him, Andrew Goldman is a founder and investor in natural gas companies. He’s not listed in SEC filings. He merely organizes and profits in other ways off of the destruction of the planet. So to be totally fair to Biden, if all he did was check SEC filings, he wouldn’t have known this. But the thing is, he’s known this Andrew Goldman guy since like 2008, and the guy’s been invested in all sorts of shady stuff, so it’s just generally reflective of Biden’s comfort with legalized corruption and not indicative of anyone who has the convictions and backbone required to actually take this industry on.

How do you think candidates can demonstrate their willingness to take on the fossil fuel industry?

They can start by taking the No Fossil Fuel Money Pledge, which is a pledge to take no donations over $200 from any fossil fuel executives or leadership. They can also treat that pledge like a baseline. Instead of saying, “I can get away with technicalities,” no! You should follow the spirit of that pledge, which is saying this is not an industry that should be influencing our politics. And they can sign on to support the Green New Deal, which is the best hope I think the planet has to decarbonize in time to stave off catastrophic climate change, and will require shutting down the fossil fuel industry. They can also call for prosecuting fossil fuel industry executives. It can be done — in civil suits, maybe in criminal suits, and potentially in an international crimes against humanity trial. 

Have any of the candidates’ positions on climate accountability stood out to you? 

Bernie Sanders has the most ambitious Green New Deal policy proposal, he’s been the most aggressive talking about criminally prosecuting the fossil fuel industry, and perhaps even more important than the plans that he has are that he is successfully building a grassroots movement that could potentially enable the political mobilization required to overcome the entrenched financial and political powers to get this stuff implemented. If you don’t have an independent and massive grassroots support base, it’s going to be really difficult once you get to Washington to have any hope of overcoming the corporate resistance. Elizabeth Warren has good ideas on this as well. [NOTE: After we talked to Isaac, the Sunrise Movement officially endorsed Bernie Sanders for president, but expressed gratitude to Elizabeth Warren.

What can voters do to make sure this issue is in the debates and on the ballot in 2020?

The original question I submitted to CNN was much shorter and milder than what I asked — it didn’t say anything about ‘crimes against humanity,’ for instance. So if people want to really call out the malfeasance of fossil fuel corporations and their executives by name, submitting a milder, more abstract version of their question and then spicing it up after you’re invited to come ask it is one way to do that.

That’s great advice. Last question: do you have any recommendations for writers and other activists who are speaking out on climate accountability and who we should be paying attention to?

There are a bunch. Kate Aronoff I think is the first person I can remember seeing on Twitter talking about trying fossil fuel executives for crimes against humanity. I’m a big fan of Julian Brave NoiseCat. The leaders of the Sunrise Movement, like Varshini Prakash, are awesome, and Jamie Margolin at Zero Hour, and obviously Greta [Thunberg]. I would also recommend Eric Holthaus on Twitter, Brian Kahn’s work as a journalist at Earther, and of course Naomi Klein. Those are all good people to follow. 

Anything else you’d like people to know?

I’d just emphasize one thing: A lot of people think about Sunrise as a thing that the young people do, and I’ve seen older people saying “the young people will save us.” The young people alone will not save us. We need everybody. In particular in the Sunrise Movement, one thing I’d like to see is older people getting involved and organizing around their professions and their areas of expertise. We have a small Sunrise Scientists coalition right now, but I’d love to see the people reading your newsletter getting involved and starting Sunrise Engineers, Sunrise Teachers, Sunrise Nurses — all these sorts of things. I would love to see that.

You can follow Isaac on Twitter at @Eyesgack. If you’re a scientist interested in joining the Sunrise Movement, email him at eyesmo@gmail.com to learn more. 

ICYMI News Roundup

Sorry, rough week…

Anger Into Action

Now for something much more fun: I turned to Isaac for our section on how you can take climate action this week. His suggestions:

1) Join the Sunrise Movement, of course!

2) Isaac adapted several union and protest songs for Sunrise and the climate movement (links below!), but claims to be “pretty mediocre at singing and recording.” If you can sing/play guitar/record music well, send your version of any of the following to Isaac or me (eyesmo@gmail.com or emily@climateintegrity.org). Who knows — maybe yours will be featured in a later issue!

Masters of Coal

Which Side Are You On/Does It Weigh On You At All

So Are We (Sunrise Chant)

The Times, They Are A-Changin’ (Updated)

There Is Power In a Movement

The Green New Deal