In recent years, youth activists like Greta Thunberg and the Sunrise Movement have been a growing presence on the frontlines of the climate movement. Now, a group of New York City mothers are joining them, worried about the impact of climate change on their children’s generation – a concern that feels even more urgent after the dystopic, smoky fallout from recent wildfires in Canada.
Climate Families NYC organizes protests and campaigns aimed at some of the biggest funders of the fossil fuel economy, many of them headquartered in New York state. One of their biggest targets is Citigroup and Jane Fraser, the first woman CEO of a major Wall Street bank. We spoke to Liat Olenick, one of the founders of Climate Families NYC, about their movement and why they’re going after Citi and Fraser.
What’s the thinking behind Climate Families NYC?
People were feeling really inspired by what the Sunrise Movement was doing, and wanted to make a subgroup for people who had young kids. It was just a group of moms that came together and started planning actions and doing playdates and postcarding and canvassing and things like that.
Our mission is doing direct action on climate, targeting either government or financial institutions, in a way that is meaningful and age appropriate for the kids. And enjoyable for them.
If you’re a parent of a baby, or toddler, or a little kid, joining a regular activist group is really challenging for a lot of very practical reasons. A lot of meetings tend to be at bedtime, or dinner time. A lot of events are in the evenings, which is usually the time when, as a parent, you really need to be home with your kid.
Or the events or the actions themselves are not really appropriate for kids. Even if they’re appropriate, it can be really hard to drag little kids to them. They can be really long or really intense.
Why target Citigroup and Jane Fraser?
Citi is the second biggest fossil fuel funding bank on Earth. And it is the top US funder of coal.* So it’s pretty bad, basically.
But at the same time, they have a new CEO. Citi, in particular, is very focused on women and women’s empowerment, and has a female CEO who’s a mom, which is really a rarity on Wall Street. And we’re moms. So it felt like we could make direct appeals to her as a mom, and maybe reach her in a way that we couldn’t reach others.
There’s been a lot of expression of commitment to things like equity and social justice and diversity, and a lot of talk about caring about climate and leaving a better future for our kids. They have all this rhetoric, yet they’re the second worst bank in the world when it comes to funding fossil fuels.
Ultimately they need to stop financing coal and phase out fossil fuels. It’s really interesting because on the building by their entrances, there are big LEED-certified plaques. And then there’s a big TV saying how many plastic bottles they’ve saved. So it’s very superficial. They want to be seen as a company that cares about climate change and the planet and natural resources, but then their policies don’t match that.
So those things combined, I think, make them a compelling target.
Why do you feel it’s important to look at financial institutions?
The IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change] report that came out this year basically said: “No new fossil fuel expansion, period.” Banks and investment institutions that lend to fossil fuel companies, or underwrite projects, or invest directly in them, are enabling not just a continuation of fossil fuel projects but major expansion into new projects that aren’t necessary in terms of our energy needs.
Once people connect the dots about what these institutions are doing, and also that we’re New Yorkers and all their headquarters are right here, people see that it’s a big opportunity. It’s exciting for people.
How did you get involved in this?
I was teaching science and teaching about climate change, and was really passionate about telling the truth to kids, and not pretending it away or sugarcoating it. But also empowering them to be part of the solution and do activism and learn about activism. I spoke on a panel about talking to kids about climate change, and that’s where I connected with some of these other moms a few years ago.
What’s it like talking to kids about climate change?
Most kids understand what they’re ready to understand. So for example, when kids are really little, and they learn about climate, they tend to focus on the animals and the plants, and not so much the impacts on the people. But then as they get older, they start to realize oh, this will affect me, and people, not just plants and animals.
But also, if kids are just seeing things on the news, or hearing their parents or community talk about it, it can be really problematic. It can be really guilt-inducing, because so much of the way that people talk about climate is about personal lifestyle choices and consumption. For a kid, that’s totally inappropriate, because they don’t have control over those choices. And also, it’s not an individual problem. It’s a collective problem.
I’ve definitely encountered kids feeling guilty about “oh, I use a toy with electricity, I should save electricity”. I think doing active activism with kids is an antidote to that. It’s like, no, actually, this is not your fault at all. Nothing could be farther from the truth. It’s 100 really rich people’s fault. I don’t know if you can print that.
Where are the dads?
That’s a great question. Dads are welcome. I would say our actions and events often have some dads at them, but all the core organizing and the labor is done by women.
I think it’s a combination of a society that expects women to do everything, like women are the ones who volunteer at school. But I would also say it’s a skill thing.
Not to diss dads, but organizing is a very social skill and takes a lot of emotional labor. And I think that’s something that — this is generalizing, obviously — a lot of women are taught to do from a young age and men are not taught to do it as much.
Maybe we need to have a “Where Are The Dads?” meeting in my group to get to the bottom of the mystery.
*Citigroup is the largest US lender to the coal industry; Vanguard and BlackRock are the largest investors, according to 2022 research by Urgewald, a German nonprofit.