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


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

Joshi, 20, posts frequently on climate issues on TikTok for the Gen-Z for Change account as well as her personal account. She’s well aware that “climate doesn’t trend very often,” as she told CNN. But Joshi’s video about Willow was very different. It only took a few days to rack up more than 100,000 views and eventually surpassed 300,000.

“It’s my most watched video in months,” Joshi told CNN. “This is the entire internet speaking out against Willow; [President Joe Biden’s] Constituent base who trusted him to stand up for the climate.”

Biden’s administration is expected to finalize its decision on approving the ConocoPhillips Willow project next week. If it goes through, the decades-long oil drilling project on Alaska’s north coast would create thousands of jobs and create a new revenue stream for the region.

But it would also produce enough oil to release 9.2 million tons of planet-warming CO2 emissions annually, according to federal estimates, about as much as putting 2 million cars on the road.

While the project has both supporters and opponents in its home state, it has become a lightning rod on social media. Over the past week, TikTok users in particular have halted the project, with a staggering number of people watching and posting on the issue.

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

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

“If that doesn’t underscore the fact that it’s everyday Americans who are pushing back, I don’t know what does,” said Alex Haraus, 25, a TikTok creator whose Willow videos have received millions of views. “This is not an environmental movement, it is much bigger. It is the American public that gets to choose.”

TikTok creators and climate groups that CNN spoke to said the sudden surge in online activism surrounding Willow was mostly organic and much bigger than any other climate issue on the app before it.

A few climate and anti-fossil fuel groups have collaborated with certain TikTok creators and accounts centered around Willow, but no group has led the online movement around the project. Similar TikTok campaigns have sprung up in recent years surrounding 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 for a climate issue to go viral,” said Alaina Wood, 26, a scientist, climate activist and TikTok creator.

Wood told CNN she believes climate’s profile has grown 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.

“Every time a project like this goes viral, so does climate doom,” Wood said, adding that she has been making videos to try to counteract the climate doom that is spreading among some young people. “A lot of young people are under the impression that if Willow pulls through, climate change will be irreversible. We still have to fight Willow, but your life isn’t over when it’s over.”

The growth of #StopWillow TikTok has both confused and delighted old climate groups, some of whom wondered why it took Willow so long to get noticed. While Biden has already solidified part of his climate legacy by working with Congress to pass the most ambitious climate bill in generations, activists who campaigned against Keystone XL and the Dakota Access Pipeline during the Obama administration say one thing remains constant: massive fossil fuel projects tend to spur people on.

“Specific struggles attract much more public attention than politics,” said Jamie Henn, director of nonprofit Fossil Free Media and former co-founder of environmental organization 350.org. “These are the issues that capture the public imagination. It’s really foolhardy to ignore that.”

The White House has shown that it cares about reaching TikTok’s large, young audience. White House officials have invited TikTok developers to the White House on a number of occasions, including a meeting with Biden himself over 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. “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 outside the White House on Friday.

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 freezing drizzle to demonstrate against the project.

The creators of TikTok were few and far between. Among those who braved the cool March weather were Alaska Natives and elders, who flew over 10 hours from Anchorage and North Slope villages to DC. Robert Thompson is one of the elders who made the arduous journey from his home village of Kaktovik.

Thompson told CNN he wanted to speak out about the impact of climate change on wildlife in the area, citing over 200 caribou dead near his home.

“We could see them from our house, it’s sad,” Thompson said, breaking down in tears. “I’ve been to Vietnam and seen a lot of sad things, but I never thought I’d see them at my home. I don’t know how you can accept that.”

This 2019 photo shows an exploration drill camp at the proposed location of the Willow Project on Alaska's North Slope.

Willow’s supporters — including a coalition of Alaska Natives on the North Slope — say Willow could provide a much-needed new revenue stream for the region, helping fund schools, health care and other basic services.

“Willow provides an opportunity to continue this investment in communities,” Nagruk Harcharek, president of the Voice of the Arctic Iñupiat advocacy group, told CNN. “Without that money and that revenue stream, we’re left to the state and federal agencies.”

But others living closer to the proposed project, including city officials and tribal members in the Indian village of Nuiqsut, are concerned about the health and environmental impacts of a major oil exploration.

“We say that you must not make decisions that make our world uninhabitable,” 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 would continue to fight Willow in court if the Biden administration approves the project. Environmental rights group Earthjustice has also prepared a lawsuit against the project if approved.

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

Whether the surge in online activism will halt or delay the project, the TikTok creators themselves are unsure. If the project is approved, several CNNs said they will continue to post about the project — detailing how their followers can support Alaskan indigenous 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 a personal protest, then we will be happy to do it. This is an issue that we will vote on and remember at the ballot box.

“Millions of people are waiting for the White House to move.”

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