Zanagee Artis: Promoting climate justice through environmental policy reform

The Brown junior and co-founder of Zero Hour, one of the world’s first youth-led climate justice organizations, is working to preserve humankind’s future by promoting environmental policy change.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — When viewing the website for Zero Hour, a global climate justice organization led by high school and college students from around the world, the first thing visitors will notice is a ticking clock.

The clock is counting down the years, to the second, until the moment when the Earth is projected to warm by 1.5 degrees Celsius — a jump expected to exacerbate the worst effects of climate change, unless humans drastically reduce the impacts that their industries and individual choices are having on the environment by 2030. 

For humankind, stopping that clock is a matter of survival, said Zanagee Artis, a junior at Brown and Zero Hour’s co-founder and policy director.

“The climate justice movement is really a movement to preserve our futures,” he said. “It’s about making sure that there is something left for young people in the future by addressing different systems that have caused the problem of climate change — by changing not just the industries that are polluting and changing our climate, but also the entire way that we interact with the world.”

Artis was a high school student living in Clinton, Connecticut, when he co-founded Zero Hour in 2017 alongside a handful of student activists from around the country who were determined not to wait until they were old enough to vote to begin reshaping climate policy.

“We really started Zero Hour because we knew that we were running out of time to address climate change — that it was a problem that we had to address right now,” he said.

“The climate justice movement is really a movement to preserve our futures. It’s about making sure that there is something left for young people in the future by addressing different systems that have caused the problem of climate change — by changing not just the industries that are polluting and changing our climate, but also the entire way that we interact with the world.”

Zanagee Artis Class of 2023, Co-founder of Zero Hour
 
Zanagee Artis, Class of 2022

One of the first youth-led climate justice groups in the world, Zero Hour first gained national attention in July 2018, when it organized a three-day event in Washington during which more than 100 members lobbied elected leaders in Congress to divest from fossil fuel money, and more than 1,000 young people from around the U.S. mobilized for a Youth Climate March to advocate for climate justice policies.  

Since then, Zero Hour has expanded its platform, cultivating 50 local chapters at high schools and colleges throughout the nation and across six continents that support the organization’s efforts to promote policies that slow climate change.

The organization’s policy team, led by Artis, also launched “The People’s Platform,” which outlines actions that individuals can take to reduce the impact of climate change on the planet and its inhabitants.

“While government policy is important, there are so many different things that people can do in their own lives that don’t require policy changes,” Artis said. “You can’t transition the electric grid from natural gas on your own, but you can buy solar panels for your home. You can take mass transit and ride your bike more. We wanted to make these individual actions accessible to people, too.”

Artis said that Zero Hour launching local chapters worldwide inspired his own involvement with local policy change as an organizer with the Brown hub of Sunrise, another youth movement combating climate change.

“With Sunrise, we made phone calls, we led climate strikes in Providence, we addressed elected officials including Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island,” he said. “It really showed me the power of organizing locally. It was so powerful to see on the ground what youth climate organizing can be in a community.”

Zanagee Artis at Sunrise rally at RI State House

At Brown, the Open Curriculum has enabled Artis to pursue a course of study that has deepened his understanding of the relationship between public policy and environmentalism. As a double-concentrator in political science and environmental studies, Artis has found a mutually enriching relationship between his role as Zero Hour’s policy director and his coursework.

“It has been really fun because I get to learn about this work in the classroom and then apply it in my own life,” he said. “And I also bring back things that I learn in my policy work with Zero Hour to my classes and to peers who are curious about what’s happening in the movement.”

Courses like Humans, Nature and the Environment have provided Artis with critical background on the social systems at the root of climate change. Others — like Introduction to Environmental GIS, in which he studied satellite imagery of the Greenland Ice Sheet and the Arctic Circle — have given him a new perspective on the climate justice work to which he has long been committed.

“I had never really taken a course like that — one that allowed me to see the impact of climate change through satellite imagery,” he said. “It really put into focus how the entire world is changing because the climate is.”

At Brown, Artis has also had the opportunity to study the U.S. legal system in courses like Indigenous Laws, Environmental Racism, and #LandBack, which explores the ways that the court’s impact on Indigenous land rights has, in turn, harmed the environment and Indigenous livelihoods. This coursework has influenced his decision to begin preparations to apply to law school, where he intends to study environmental law.

“I want to address the fossil fuel industry with different tools that I’ve never had access to before,” he said. “It’s one thing being an activist and calling on your government and corporations to make a change through protests and lobbying and rallies, but another thing entirely to take them to court and fight for that win in a really lasting way.”

It’s a career path paved by a commitment to climate justice that has shaped Artis’ past four years, both inside and outside of the classroom. “By studying law, I’ll get to carry this cause into the rest of my life,” he said.