Student Returns to Smith After Lima Climate Conference

Mia Council '16 Features Editor 

By the summer of 2013, Alyssa Johnson-Kurts ’18J had finished her first year at Smith, but was conflicted about returning. Coming back without an interruption would mean she could continue working on her double major in economics and environmental science and policy and graduate with the class of 2016, but taking time off would let her work more directly in environmental activism.

Making the decision to leave and come back beginning this semester meant that Johnson-Kurts was able to spend time working for the climate justice organization 350.org. She served as Press Secretary for her aunt Zephyr Teachout’s campaign for governor of New York, and traveled to Lima, Peru as part of a U.S. youth delegation to the United Nations Climate Change Conference.

“I got involved in environmental activism at an organizing level here at Smith with Divest Smith College,” explained Johnson-Kurts, a Vermonter who plays on Smith’s Ultimate Frisbee team. “And through Divest Smith College, I was connected with a larger network of environmental activists and climate justice activists around the country, largely organized by 350.org, and was accepted into the 350.org Fossil Free Fellow program.” Johnson-Kurts returned to Vermont to work on the state divestment campaign in Burlington.

“I decided to take a year off when a position at 350 Vermont opened,” said Johnson-Kurts. “I decided to apply for that position and, at that point, had to take a year off not knowing if I was going to get it or not. Luckily, got the job, and started working full-time as an organizer.” Connections made through 350 encouraged Johnson-Kurts to apply to go to Lima with Sustain Us, the youth advocacy group which sent her delegation. Once in Lima, Johnson-Kurts ran a 10K, helped organize an action during Secretary John Kerry’s speech to the conference about the Keystone XL pipeline which made international news and was able to see and meet several key players in the world of climate action.

“It was largely a whirlwind,” Johnson-Kurts said of her time in Lima. Since the national representatives negotiating the accords are mainly separate from the non-governmental organizations and individuals that attend, conference side events, such as presentations of new technology and speeches on the different facets of preventing climate chaos, and activist actions are primarily “by climate people, for climate people, who are trying to have some sort of impact in that world.”

The Keystone XL action was a collaboration, only two days in the planning, between Johnson-Kurts’ delegation of 20 people and the Canadian youth delegation of seven women. “We came together around this issue that bridges our countries both symbolically and physically,” said Johnson-Kurts, who also said that the action defied U.N. regulations about conference activism. “At the conference, they try to depoliticize all actions. They allow actions to happen, but they try to depoliticize by preventing people from using names of specific people, preventing protesters from using the names of specific people … the names of specific projects. So we were trying to hold an event targeting John Kerry, targeting the Keystone XL pipeline and the United States and Canada.”

The amount of difficulty the organizers faced putting the protest on, including attempts by the Secretariat to split them into two different protests and prevent them from having a sign with the words “Keystone XL” on it, attracted attention from media outlets. “I was featured on Democracy Now, interviewed by Amy Goodman, because one of the actions that I helped to organize was at the same time that Secretary John Kerry was at the conference, giving a speech about the United States’ commitment to emissions reductions.  We were trying to call attention to the fact that the Keystone XL pipeline issue is still up for debate in the U.S. –  and are we really moving in the right direction, even if we’re saying all the right things internationally, if we are promoting projects on the home front that are increasing oil and gas infrastructure?”

Despite restrictions and facing censure after the fact, the two delegations held a well-attended demonstration.  Afterwards, Johnson-Kurts introduced herself to Amy Goodman, who had been filming the protest with her crew and decided to interview Johnson-Kurts about her impressions of the United Nations activism restrictions. “As a kid Amy Goodman was always on the radio,” said Johnson-Kurts, describing her experience on Democracy Now as “incredible.”

“They quell activism by allowing a little and thus preventing a lot,” she said of the United Nations. Still, Johnson-Kurts hopes to continue her work in environmental activism. “I’ve known from a young age that I wanted to make a difference. And known from a young age also that climate justice is one of the most critical issues of our time and one that will profoundly affect me and our generation.”