#StopWillow is taking TikTok by storm. Can it really work?


When Elise Joshi posted a TikTok video about the Alaska oil drilling project known as Willow in early February, she didn’t have high hopes it would go viral.

Joshi, 20, frequently posts about climate issues on TikTok for the Gen-Z for Change account, as well as her personal account. He is well aware that “the climate doesn’t change very often,” as he told CNN. But Joshi’s video for Willow was very different. It took just a few days for it to garner more than 100,000 views, eventually surpassing 300,000.

“It’s my most viewed video in months,” Joshi told CNN. “This is the entire internet supporting Willow. [President Joe Biden’s] voter base, who trusted him to act on the climate.”

The Biden administration is expected to finalize its decision on whether to approve the ConocoPhillips Willow Project next week. If completed, the long-running oil venture on Alaska’s North Slope will create thousands of jobs and create a new source of revenue for the region.

But it would also produce enough oil to release 9.2 million metric tons of planet-warming carbon dioxide, the federal government estimates, about the same as adding 2 million cars to the road.

While the project has supporters and detractors at home, it has become a lightning rod on social media. Last week, TikTok users in particular pushed to stop the project, with a surprising number of people following and posting about the issue.

Videos with anti-willow hashtags like #StopWillow have garnered nearly 50 million views in the past week, and on Friday, Willow was on the site’s top 10 trending list, behind celebrities Selena Gomez and Hailey Bieber. Much of the increase in interest has occurred in the last week alone.

Online activism has resulted in more than a million letters being written to the White House protesting the project, as well as a Change.org petition with 2.8 million signatures and counting.

“If that doesn’t highlight the fact that every day Americans are pushed back, I don’t know what does,” said Alex Haraus, 25, a TikTok creator whose Willow videos have garnered millions of views. “This is not an environmental movement, it’s much bigger than that. It’s the American public that can vote.”

TikTok creators and climate groups with CNN spoke to CNN saying the sudden surge in online activism around Willow was largely organic and far greater than any other climate issue on the app before.

Some climate and anti-fossil fuel groups are working with specific creators and TikTok accounts around Willow, but no group has spearheaded the online movement around the project. Similar TikTok campaigns have started in recent years around banning oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and stopping the Line 3 pipeline in Minnesota, but few have garnered as much attention as Willow.

“I’ve been doing this for a long time, and it’s very rare to see a climate issue go viral,” said Alaina Wood, 26, a scientist, climate activist and TikTok creator.

Wood told CNN she believes the profile of climate has risen on apps frequented by younger generations, especially given Biden’s climate law passed last year. But there’s also a lot of anxiety and fear about the climate crisis on TikTok – feelings that the Willow Project has captured and amplified.

“Any time a project like this goes viral, climate destruction goes viral,” Wood said, adding that she has made videos to try to address the climate destruction that is proliferating among some young people. “Many young people are under the impression that if Willow goes through, climate change will be irreversible. We still have to fight Willow, but your life isn’t over if she passes.”

The growth of the #StopWillow TikTok has baffled and excited legacy climate groups, some of whom have wondered why it took so long for Willow to catch on. Although Biden has already cemented part of his climate legacy by working with Congress to pass the most ambitious climate bill in generations, activists who fought Keystone XL and the Dakota Access pipeline during the Obama administration they say one thing remains constant: huge fossil fuel projects tend to set people on fire.

“Special races drive public attention much more than politics,” said Jamie Henn, director of the nonprofit Fossil Free Media and former co-founder of the environmental group 350.org. “These are the subjects that capture the public’s imagination. It’s really stupid to ignore that.”

The White House has shown interest in reaching out to TikTok’s huge, young audience. White House officials have invited TikTok creators to the White House several times, including for a meeting with Biden himself about the Inflation Reduction Act in October.

“I think Democrats and the Biden administration would do well to pay attention to these trends,” said Lena Moffitt, chief of staff at the climate group Evergreen Action. “Young people increasingly want climate action from their elected officials, and they will demand it.”

Nutaaq Simmonds of Utqiagvik, Alaska, speaks at a protest against the Willow Project in front of the White House on Friday.

The protests against Willow aren’t just happening on TikTok. On Friday, a group of about 100 people gathered in front of the White House in a freezing drizzle to protest the project.

The creators of TikTok were thin on the ground. Those braving the chilly March weather included Alaska Natives and seniors who had flown more than 10 hours from Anchorage and North Slope villages to DC. Robert Thompson is an elder who made the grueling journey from his village of Kaktovik.

Thompson told CNN he wanted to talk about the effects of climate change on the animals in the area and talked about the more than 200 caribou found dead near his home.

“We could see them from our house, it’s sad,” Thompson said, tearing up. “I was in Vietnam and I saw a lot of things that were sad, but I never thought I would see them at home. I don’t know how you can accept that.”

This 2019 photo shows an exploratory drilling camp at the proposed Willow project site on Alaska's North Slope.

Willow supporters — including a coalition of Alaska Natives on the North Slope — say Willow could be a much-needed new source of revenue for the region and help fund schools, health care and other essential services.

“Willow presents an opportunity to continue that investment in communities,” Nagruk Harcharek, president of the advocacy group Voice of the Arctic Iñupiat, told CNN. “Without that flow of money and revenue, we’re reliant on state and federal authorities.”

But others who live closer to the planned project, including city officials and tribal members in the indigenous village of Nuiqsut, worry about the health and environmental impacts of a major oil development.

“We’re saying you’re not allowed to make decisions that will make our world unsustainable,” Siqiniq Maupin, executive director of the indigenous activist group Sovereign Iñupiat for a Living Arctic, told CNN. “We are concerned about climate change, but we are also concerned about indigenous rights and human rights.”

Maupin and Thompson said they will continue to fight Willow through the courts if the Biden administration approves the project. Environmental legal group Earthjustice is also preparing a lawsuit against the project if it is approved.

“We intend to do everything in our power to prevent ConocoPhillips from building at Nuiqsut this winter,” Maupin said. “We will continue to fight this with legal means, with direct action.”

As for whether the rise in online activism will work to stop or delay the project, TikTok’s creators themselves aren’t sure. If the project is approved, several told CNN they will continue to post about the project — detailing ways their followers can support Alaska Native groups and continue to speak out about Willow.

“We are coordinated enough to do what makes the most sense,” Haraus told CNN. “If this is protested in person, then we will gladly do so. This is an issue we will vote on and remember at the ballot box.

“Millions Await White House Move.”

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