Biden Betrays Youth With Willow Project—and Breaks His Own Promise

We need a youth movement more powerful than the fossil fuel industry. Why Sunrise Movement organizers are fighting to end the fossil fuel era.

Dejah Powell

Young climate activists in Washington D.C. in November 2022 urging Biden to reject the Willow project. (Photo by Jemal Countess/Getty Images for Sunrise AU)

Despite overwhelming outcry by young people and climate justice advocates, President Joe Biden broke under the pressure of the fossil fuel industry March 13 to approve ConocoPhillips’s Willow project — the single largest oil project ever proposed on U.S. federal lands. It’s $8 billion of fossil fuel infrastructure in Alaska that impacts Indigenous communities, that will destroy wild landscapes north of the Arctic Circle and will erase nearly all of the climate benefits of Biden’s current renewable energy projects on public lands. 

Willow also concretely breaks Biden’s 2020 climate promise to stop new drilling on public lands, and the disastrous decision must serve as a wake-up call for all of us. 

In order for humanity to survive, ordinary people must build both the grassroots and the political power needed to abolish the fossil fuel industry. If we don’t, companies like ConocoPhillips will do everything to protect their bottom line — destroying humanity’s shot at a livable future.

In the short time since this decision was made public, I’ve spent hours scrolling through TikTok and Twitter, where thousands and thousands of young people are expressing their disappointment, disgust and despair. Despite our generation saving Democrats year after year at the ballot box, despite the more than 650 million views on TikTok of mostly young people screaming to #StopWillow, the White House made a decision to throw a middle finger to our generation. Many are now throwing their hands up, proclaiming that government does not work, that Biden’s choice to move forward with Willow is proof of the inadequacies of our government system. 

Biden’s choice isn’t a reason to give up on our government — it is only proof that the fossil industry is winning and that we must get serious about building the type of leverage and power that can compete with them. The fossil fuel corporations have spent decades building power to control both political parties, and now they’re on a joyride, profiting off of the destruction and exploitation of our people, our communities and our planet. When gas prices went up for working people in 2022, the world’s biggest oil companies made record profits, reporting billions of dollars in yearly earnings. In 2022 alone, ConocoPhillips made some $19 billion in profits and their CEO took almost $20 million. 

When gas prices went up for working people in 2022, the world's biggest oil companies made record profits, reporting billions of dollars in yearly earnings. In 2022 alone, ConocoPhillips made some $19 billion in profits and their CEO took almost $20 million.

If we want to stop them, we can’t turn away from the government: We must force it to govern in the will of the people. We need real power and leverage. It’s a tug of war that the fossil fuel industry is winning. For us to defeat them, we need as many hands as possible pulling toward a society in which people and planet thrive over profit and corporations. 

To win, we need people in the streets ready to halt business as usual. We need entire industries ready to strike and students refusing to go to school — everyone activated unless the government bends to our will. We need public support from every corner, demanding the scale of climate policy that meets the urgency of the climate crisis. We must continue to show up and beat every one of our opponents at the ballot box.

That’s why Sunrise is organizing to make these tactics and strategies tangible options. We will force the government to end the reign of fossil fuel elites, invest in Black, brown and working-class communities, and create millions of good union jobs. We’re running campaigns, locally and nationally, to build the massive amount of people and political power we need. From demanding a Green New Deal for Schools in every district, to making sure cities across the country are taking the climate crisis seriously and passing policies that improve people’s everyday lives, to hitting pavements and knocking doors, we’re building a movement of young people across race and class to stop the climate crisis and win a Green New Deal.

By approving the Willow project, Biden is making a grave political mistake, proving he is beholden not to the people, but to the fossil fuel industry. Our generation is growing in numbers and strength — with 8 million young people newly eligible to vote in just the past year. We’re on our way to being an unstoppable political force. We’ve proven from 2018 to 2022 that we are a vital voting bloc, essential for any chance at Democratic victories. We staved off the red wave in the 2022 midterms, with voters over 45 leaning Republican. And our issues are popular across the board. Ahead of the 2022 election, 79% of voters said climate change is at least very important in how they vote. 

Approving the Willow Project isn’t just a climate catastrophe — it’s a severe political misstep for Biden and Democrats.

Dejah Powell (she/​her), an organizer from Chicago, is currently the deputy organizing director for the national organization of Sunrise Movement, a youth-led movement to stop the climate crisis and create millions of good jobs.

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