Like many 17-year-olds, Jamie Margolin looks ahead with some impatience to her final year of high school, preparing to apply to colleges and confessing to a case of “senioritis.”
She’s also got another nontrivial project: saving the world from a climate catastrophe.
Margolin, who attends Seattle’s Holy Names Academy, won’t be eligible to vote for another few months, but she has racked up a résumé of political involvement that would put most adults to shame.
She co-founded an international nonprofit, Zero Hour, by age 15 and organized a climate rally in Washington, D.C. She’s lobbied state lawmakers and is part of a group of youths suing Gov. Jay Inslee and the state of Washington over greenhouse-gas emissions.
On Wednesday, Margolin is scheduled to testify before a U.S. House of Representatives committee on a panel titled “Voices Leading the Next Generation on the Global Climate Crisis,” alongside Greta Thunberg, the Swedish teenager who has drawn international attention by leading climate strikes.
Oh, and she’s also writing a book, due out next summer.
“It kind of makes us feel like failures, doesn’t it?” said Denis Hayes, president of the Bullitt Foundation, who organized the first Earth Day in 1970. The foundation has financially backed Zero Hour.
Margolin whirs with energy and ambition. She keeps a handwritten list of 2019 goals taped to her bedroom wall, to include finishing her book manuscript and getting an op-ed published in The New York Times. Her Twitter bio declares “Future POTUS.”
But she says you’d be wrong to assume she’s exactly thrilled to be devoting her youth to climate activism.
“People are like, ‘Jamie’s so passionate about climate change.’ Um, people are passionate about sports, and they’re passionate about nature. I see a ticking time bomb and I want to turn it off,” Margolin said in a recent interview.
“I’m very urgent because it’s a time bomb and it’s going to explode. Do I have an affinity for time bombs? No. But if I have that emergency situation, of course I am going to act.”
Margolin in some ways typifies a growing generational movement, as teenagers fearfully eye a future that scientists say will be increasingly wracked with severe storms, droughts and other calamities unless global greenhouse gas emissions are rapidly reduced. A Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation poll released this week found about 1 in 4 youths have taken personal action on climate change, whether it’s joining walkouts and rallies or writing to public officials.
In Seattle this week, youth activists and their adult allies, joining a Global Climate Strike, plan to walk out of school and work Friday, gathering at 9 a.m. at Cal Anderson Park and marching to Seattle City Hall at noon. A similar protest is planned on the Eastside, starting at 1:30 p.m. at Houghton Beach Park in Kirkland.
“I feel like Jamie is representative of a larger culture. Jamie is the tip of the iceberg,” said Kendall Kieras, a friend and fellow Zero Hour leader who is also a senior at Holy Names, the private, Catholic all-girls school in the Capitol Hill neighborhood.
Margolin’s father, Mark Margolin, said he and his wife, Janeth, are proud and supportive of their daughter, while also trying to keep her grounded. Jamie showed herself to be an independent reader and writer from an early age, he said, and is a diligent organizer, continually jotting down goals in planners.
“She is crazy about making lists,” he said.
In a familiar story to many progressive activists, Margolin traces her surging political interest in part to sadness over the election of Donald Trump in 2016. She had volunteered for the state Democratic Party, translating Spanish at the campaign headquarters and writing a Seattle Times op-ed in support of Hillary Clinton when she was 14.
Margolin now calls those her “dreaded centrist days” and has shifted to support more radical politics in line with U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a New York Democrat, and the Green New Deal.
“I actually have some stake in this as a woman, as a queer person, as a Hispanic person, as a person with an immigrant family,” said Margolin, whose mother immigrated to the U.S. from Colombia.
Margolin said she started out attending a meeting of climate activists, “and it just sort of snowballed from there.”
Soon, she was in Olympia testifying for climate legislation, calling lawmakers’ offices from school and wrangling friends to do likewise. Then came her idea for a youth climate march — a notion she put out on Instagram. A friend in Baltimore, Nadia Nazar, was the first to sign on.
They recruited more volunteers and formed Zero Hour, organizing a climate march that drew hundreds to the National Mall on a stormy day in July 2018. Margolin says she was moved to act by Hurricane Maria, which devastated Puerto Rico. She had previously visited the U.S. territory.
Last year, Margolin joined a lawsuit filed on behalf of youths alleging the state of Washington and officials, including Inslee, were violating their constitutional rights by failing to adequately regulate greenhouse gases.
The case was dismissed last year by a King County Superior Court judge, who ruled while climate impacts are real, “the issues involved are quintessentially political questions” and must be resolved by the Legislature and governor. That ruling has been appealed to the state Court of Appeals.
“The youth understand the urgency of what the scientists are telling them,” said Andrea Rodgers, the attorney for Margolin and the other plaintiffs. “I think that’s bolstered by the fact that they are experiencing climate change impacts on a regular basis.”
Hayes said the climate demands from teenagers and college activists echo past struggles, such as the civil-rights movement and Vietnam War protests.
“Whenever there is a profound social change being proposed by a group, it’s almost always led by young people,” he said.
Margolin has mixed views of Inslee, who ran for president this year on a climate-centered platform. “I’m glad he ran. It was a good PR stunt,” she said, that “put climate in the news and on the debate stage.”
Yet she’s disappointed in Inslee’s record as governor, pointing to a continued increase in greenhouse gas emissions, and the decline of Puget Sound orcas.
“He talks good and he has good intentions and don’t think he’s a bad person,” she said, “but there is a reason why we are suing him.”
Both Kieras and Margolin said they’ve grown depressed at times over the future that adults have wrought by failing to launch adequate climate countermeasures. That’s left their generation feeling like they’re carrying a daunting burden. Kieras pointed to the Greek myth of Atlas bearing the weight of the heavens.
“Sometimes it feels like we are kind of holding up the sky,” Kieras said.
Margolin said she tries to avoid thinking about the consequences of failure by staying focused on the “nitty-gritty” of her work, like answering 400 emails and setting up the latest march.
“I don’t even get to think about the end of the world, because I am too busy fighting it,” she said.