TikTok youths are really, really upset with President Joe Biden. And it’s not merely because he might ban their favorite platform altogether.
This is about something a little bigger: Last week, the Biden administration approved a ConocoPhillips oil-drilling deal on federal lands in Alaska, known as the Willow Project. Throughout the preceding weeks, environmental scientists, climate-conscious zoomers, and various political organizers had run a spirited opposition campaign to the project on TikTok. There were custom accounts dedicated to educating and organizing around Willow, pointed and popular hashtags like #CancelWillowProject and #WillowProjectAwareness, and expressions of solidarity from international users.
These efforts collectively garnered tens of millions of views, helped dispatch millions of letters as well as petition signatures to the White House, and gained mass attention outside social media. Ahead of the president’s ultimate decision, NPR asked: “Can TikTokkers sway Biden on oil drilling?”
The answer turned out to be no. The Bureau of Land Management gave the project a full go-ahead on March 13, albeit with some environmentally friendly concessions. The bureau approved 3 of ConocoPhillips’ 5 proposed drill sites within Willow, Alaska’s 23-million-acre National Petroleum Reserve. The decision also clawed back 68,000 acres of sensitive lands from ConocoPhillips ownership and roped off nearly 3 million acres of Arctic Ocean area from offshore drilling. When Biden finalized these preservation measures, it seems likely he had the grassroots pressure in mind.
These concessions were not enough for Willow opponents, who focused on the troubling stats regarding the lands that had gotten approved for oil drilling. After all, it’s still the biggest fossil fuel allowance granted by the Biden administration to date, a 30-year deal that could produce about 576 million total barrels of oil (and, in the process, about 260 million metric tons of greenhouse gases). Even though some environmentalists have taken heart in a federal lawsuit filed by advocacy groups to stop the project, the Willow decision has undeniably cast a pall over #ClimateTok, which has broadly shifted to expressing grief over the future—as well as ample rage against Biden. The Willow Project hashtags have been supplanted by general slogans like #SaveEarth.
Some examples: Here’s a video where a Willow-approval announcement is imposed over footage of cute penguins and other Arctic wildlife. One of the tags? #ih8biden.
Here’s a POV-style post in which Zoomers hoping to live long and fruitful lives are stymied by Joe Biden’s fossil fuel loyalty:
And another visual gallery of Arctic beauty, captioned “Fvck you Biden:”
The swirling Gen Z anger spans the righteous, the indignant, and the mournful. Some are taking Biden to task for backtracking on his campaign promise to halt federal land leases to fossil fuel companies. Others are sharing footage of the majestic landscapes and animals whose habitats will be affected by the ConocoPhillips operations that the government approved. Some are worried for their own future prospects, since climate change is already ruining lives, and Biden’s fossil fuel concessions will only escalate that fact.
From his 2020 candidacy through his eventful presidential term, Joe Biden has struggled to connect with the United States’ younger generations. If they already viewed him skeptically, the continued fossil fuel operations have only heightened this. The Willow TikToks are just the latest evidence—their comments display nothing less than simmering hatred for not only Biden but the government at large. A common format on the platform is to display the rejoinder “Mom, what’s a polar bear?” along with a description of the havoc Biden is wreaking. Some more representative comments, posted below videos: “I’ve signed petitions and continue to educate myself on these issues. but I feel so small.” “i don’t understand how they think they will get the youth vote in 2024 that got them elected in 2020.” “POV: The project of the president’s is to kill the earth.”
Whether Biden is fully to blame for furthering the destruction of the climate is, well, nuanced. ConocoPhillips had claims to the relevant acres for decades, a situation that couldn’t wholly be reversed through existing guidelines. Plus, the issue was a knotty one for Biden to navigate from the beginning: Alaska’s Legislature and bipartisan congressional delegation all supported the project, as did some Alaska Native tribes. Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski in particular made her tepid support of certain Biden administration initiatives contingent on an eventual greenlight for Willow, as Politico documented.
That might not matter much to TikTok’s primary demographic—which features many enthusiastic voters. Climate change is a consistent electoral priority for Gen Z; the fact that executive action is the strongest means by which the president can preserve wildlife habitats and ecosystems adds extra scrutiny to Biden’s environmental moves. And when the youths can see and discuss for themselves unimaginable disasters like Pakistan’s floods, Puerto Rico’s repeated hurricanes, the Colorado River’s water shortages, and New York’s rampant snowstorms, it’s more than understandable why they would expect much, much more—considering these terrors will only worsen if nothing is done.
The teens and twentysomethings readying themselves for an uncertain environmental future have also witnessed the fall of Roe v. Wade, a traumatic pandemic, an unending spate of mass shootings and racist police killings, the passage of discriminatory and anti-democratic laws in red states—and, most frustratingly, insufficient responses to these developments from a president they helped elect after the carnage of the Trump years. Not everyone is fully resigned to a polar bear–less future; one creator posted a video declaring her intent to “keep fighting.” But it’s little wonder that many of them may be losing hope.