When Elise Joshi posted a TikTok video about the Alaskan oil drilling project called Willow in early February, she didn’t expect it to go viral.
Joshi, 20, frequently posts about climate issues on TikTok for the Gen-Z for Change account, as well as her personal account. She is well aware that “climate often doesn’t have a trend,” as she told CNN. But Joshi’s video about Willow was very different. It only took a few days to accumulate more than 100,000 views, eventually surpassing 300,000.
“It’s the most viewed video in months,” Joshi told CNN. “This is the entire internet conspiring against Willow; [President Joe Biden’s] voter base, who trusted him to act for the climate.”
The Biden administration is expected to finalize its decision on whether to approve ConocoPhillips’ Willow Project next week. If it goes ahead, the decades-long oil drilling venture on Alaska’s North Slope would create thousands of jobs and establish a new source of income for the region.
But it would also generate enough oil to release 9.2 million metric tons of planet-warming carbon pollution a year, according to the federal government’s estimate, about the same as adding 2 million cars to the road.
While the project has both supporters and opponents in its home state, it has become a lightning rod on social media. In the past week, TikTok users in particular have taken to the project to stop, with huge numbers of people watching and posting on the topic.
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 spike in interest came in the past week alone.
The 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 everyday Americans are pushing 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 is much more than that. It is the American public who can vote.”
TikTok’s creators and CNN’s climate groups said CNN spoke to them that the sudden surge in online activity around Willow is largely organic, and much more so than any other climate issue on the app before.
Several climate and anti-fossil fuel groups are working with creators and separate TikTok accounts across Willow, but no one group has led the online movement around the project. Similar TikTok campaigns have emerged in recent years to ban oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and stop 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 that she thinks the profile of the climate has grown on apps that are frequented by younger generations, especially in light of Biden’s climate law passed last year. But there is also a lot of anxiety and fear about the climate crisis on TikTok – feelings that have been picked up and amplified by the Willow Project.
“Anytime a project like this goes viral, climate doom goes viral,” Wood said, adding that she has made videos to try to combat climate doomerism that is growing among some young people. . “Many young people are under the impression that climate change will not be irreversible if Willow passes. We still have to deal with Willow, but it’s not the end of your life if it ends.”
The rise of #StopWillow TikTok has both saddened and delighted heritage climate groups, with some wondering why it took so long for Willow to take notice. While Biden has already cemented some 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 say one thing remains constant : massive fossil fuel projects. tend to fire people up.
“Specific fights capture much more public attention than policy does,” said Jamie Henn, director of Fossil Free Media and former co-founder of the environmental organization 350.org. “These are the issues that capture the public’s imagination. It’s really foolish to ignore that.”
The White House has shown concern about reaching TikTok’s massive young audience. White House officials have invited TikTok creators to the White House on several occasions, including a meeting with Biden himself about the Inflation Reduction Act in October.
“I think the Democrats and the Biden administration would do well to pay attention to these trends,” said Lena Moffitt, chief of staff for the climate group Evergreen Action. “More young people want climate action from their elected officials and they will demand it.”
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 frigid drizzle to demonstrate against the project.
TikTok creators were thin on the ground. Among those who braved the cold March weather were Alaska Natives and elders who flew over 10 hours from Anchorage and villages on the North Slope to DC. Robert Thompson is one ancestor who made the harrowing journey from his hometown of Kaktovik.
Thompson told CNN he wanted to talk about the effects of climate change on the region’s animals and talked about the more than 200 caribou found dead near his home.
“We could see them from our house, it’s sad,” said Thompson, tearing up. “I was in Vietnam and I saw a lot of sad things, but I never thought I would see it in my home. I don’t know how you can accept it.”
Willow’s supporters — including a coalition of Alaska Natives on the North Slope — say Willow could be a much-needed source of new revenue for the region and help fund schools, health care and other basic services.
“Willow provides an opportunity to continue that investment in the communities,” Nagruk Harcharek, president of the advocacy group Voice of the Arctic Iñupiat, told CNN. “Without that flow of money and revenue, we’re dependent on the state and the feds.”
But others who live closer to the proposed project, including city officials and tribal members in the Native village of Nuiqsut, are concerned about the health and environmental impacts of major oil development.
“We’re saying you’re not allowed to make decisions that will make our world untenable,” Siqiniq Maupin, executive director of 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. The environmental law group Earthjustice is preparing a lawsuit against the project if it is approved.
“We plan to do everything we can to stop ConocoPhillips from building in Nuiqsut this winter,” Maupin said. “We’re going to continue to fight this through legal channels, through direct action.”
As for whether the surge of online activity will work to stop or slow down the project, TikTok’s creators themselves are unsure. If the project is approved, many told CNN they will continue to post about the project — detailing ways their fans can support Alaska Native groups and continue to speak out about Willow.
“We’re coordinated enough to do whatever makes the most sense,” Haraus told CNN. “If it’s a personal protest, we’ll happily do that. This is an issue we will be voting on and will remember at the ballot box.
“Millions of people are waiting for the White House to move.”