Sijo Smith, A Climate Activist from Eagle River

This article is part of a series in which those who call Alaska home are speaking their minds about climate change.

You can make your voice heard on these issues!  Alaska’s own Senator Murkowski is the Chair of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.  Tell her to act on climate change by signing our petitionsending a letter we’ve written, or contacting her yourself.  Her office can be reached at 202-224-6665, by mail at 709 Hart Senate Building, Washington, D.C. 20510, or through this contact form.

Sijo and fellow Fossil Free organizers lead a song at a Stanford rally.

My name is Sijo Smith and I'm in my sophomore year at Stanford University. I've lived in Alaska my whole life, and ever since I can remember I've loved everything outdoors. I've been hiking since before I can remember- my dad tells me he used to bribe me up mountains with gummy bears, and my dad took me skiing as a baby on his back. I love listening to coyotes and owls outside my house, and seeing moose and bears wander through my yard.

I didn't really know much about environmentalism, or even fossil fuels, all I knew was that everybody got really excited about the PFD every year, which had something to do with oil. As I learned more about Alaska's economy, I learned how much of it was based on oil and the pipeline. In school I was always taught about the benefits of oil for our economy, but I always wondered about the dangers for nature. Money wasn't something I cared about when I was little, so the nature argument had a lot more value for me. Throughout middle school and high school, I guess I'd say I was somewhat of a "closet environmentalist." It was really hard to be outspoken about my beliefs, given how little they were shared. (Once in my Spanish class, my teacher asked how many people believed in global warming- the only people to raise their hands were her, me, and the German foreign exchange student.) The "Taking Environmental Action" club was just a glorified name for recycling club- the administration didn't really allow anything more. When I was in 11th grade I wrote an essay based on a very nature-themed excerpt of The Way to Rainy Mountain and E.B. White's "Once More to the Lake." My teacher loved the essay, but when I expressed that I actually do believe the pro-nature stance I took in the essay, I got a lot of hippie and tree-hugger jokes. That sort of thing was fairly common. Additionally, two of my best friends have parents that work for either BP or ConocoPhillips, and I never wanted to make them feel unsafe by saying antagonistic things towards the fossil fuel industry. 


No longer is fighting climate change a "do it for the children" issue, it is my generation's issue. If we don't act, it will become everybody's issue within my lifetime. I fight for not only children, but the people in coastal cities in danger of flooding, those suffering from the spread of diseases, people who don't have the resources to relocate, or survive heatwaves.

However, protecting the environment was always there in my mind. Even if I've never seen the caribou migration, the idea of people disturbing that to drill in ANWR is horrifying to me. I've been to Prudhoe Bay, and it is just not pretty. The idea that hundreds of thousands of acres of land are drilled and destroyed in the name of oil is something I find immensely disturbing. Thinking about the aftermath of the Exxon Valdez oil spill makes me want to cry. And I've seen first hand evidence of climate change- rising tree lines, the first snow fall coming a little later each year, warmer winters and summers, etc. I've worked with my neighbor, the only veterinary anatomic pathology service in Alaska, for the past few years, and in our study of wild animals we've seen the effects of rising temperatures.  I always knew that environmentalism was something I cared about a lot.

Even though I knew climate change was a really, really big issue and that we needed to do a lot to mitigate its effects, I didn't know how to do that. The fossil fuel industry was too big and I was only one person- how could I possibly make a difference? A lot of the time I just felt helpless and overwhelmed by all the obstacles. When I researched Stanford last May, trying to decide where to go to school, divestment from coal came up. I'd vaguely heard the term divestment before- mostly in terms of South Africa- but I didn't really know anything about it. I came to Stanford and learned about the divestment movement and I was surprised and started to get really excited.

To me, divestment is a way I can actually make a difference. I came to Stanford because of all the resources it has and all the opportunities it would give me, and I see divestment as a way to leverage these resources. The movement makes me feel like I can make a difference in Stanford, and I know that Stanford can make a difference in the world. Here, finally, was something tangible that I really can do, and that will make a difference. Sharing the experience with wonderful people who have become some of my favorite at Stanford just makes me that much more invested in the movement.

It's still hard sometimes, because it's hard for me to imagine Alaska without fossil fuels, and I know people who really rely on the industry to survive, and fighting directly against something is difficult for my usually non-confrontational self. However, I really believe it needs to be done. No longer is fighting climate change a "do it for the children" issue, it is my generation's issue. If we don't act, it will become everybody's issue within my lifetime.

I fight for not only children, but the people in coastal cities in danger of flooding, those suffering from the spread of diseases, people who don't have the resources to relocate, or survive heatwaves. I fight for myself, because I want to be able to live my life- but I can't if I don't have a safe world. Fossil fuel companies are actively invested in climate change, which destroys not only the lives of millions, but the future of everyone living in this world.

And not only does Fossil Free fight for divestment from fossil fuel companies, it brings an incredible mindset of environmental awareness. Through Fossil Free, we're able to expose future leaders to the importance of a sustainable future, and help people understand that they do care about the environment. That they must care about climate change, because of its ties to immigration, conflict, health... Any time I'm able to make someone understand how big of an issue this really is, that's a huge victory to me. Because ultimately, that's what this movement is about. Sharing with the world our belief that climate change is an issue, that it's something we need to fight, and that we care enough to really make a stance. I fight for divestment because it reflects my values and moral beliefs, and fighting for mother earth is the right thing to do. Right now, she needs all the help she can get. 


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