As It Happens

After the Trump administration ignored him, this 18-year-old is set to advise U.S. climate policy

Jerome Foster is not going to miss standing outside the White House, calling for climate justice, now that he's been invited to the other side of the fence. Last month, the White House announced that the 18-year-old activist will be part of a team advising U.S. president Joe Biden.

Jerome Foster joins team advising U.S. President Joe Biden on issues related to environmental injustice

Jerome Foster is an environmental justice advisory council member at the White House. (Joshua Lindquist)

Story Transcript

Jerome Foster is not going to miss standing outside the White House, calling for climate justice, now that he's been invited to the other side of the fence.

Last month, the White House announced that the 18-year-old activist will be part of a team advising U.S. President Joe Biden on issues related to environmental injustice.

"There's no envy in being outside and just yelling, hoping someone hears you," Foster told As It Happens host Carol Off.

In 2019, he was a high school student when he protested every Friday for 58 weeks in a row, with a placard that read "School strike for climate."

Now he says his appointment represents young people included in the leadership responding to climate change.

Here is part of their conversation.

Can you describe what you've been up to for some years now, as a young person [standing] 58 weeks in a row ... in front of the White House with your protests?

I started climate striking in February 2019.

At Harvard, I studied international environmental governance policy and social justice to talk about how human rights [are] inextricably linked to the climate crisis. And it's directly proportional to how we care about our air and our water that people have security to human rights accesses. 

Through that work, I've continued to advocate for the Climate Change Education Act. I helped to organize the Climate Lobby Day where over 100 young people came down to Capitol Hill [and] met with over 30 elected officials to talk about: How do we pass these different bills? How do we build climate action? And how do we make sure that the political will is there?

The technology is here. The solutions are here. It's just whether politicians are going to be bold enough to actually enact these actions and make sure that our generation has a livable future.

Jerome Foster protesting in front of the White House in 2019. (Rene Foster)

So what inspired you to do that? Why did you go out — rain and shine — and stand in front of the White House for all those months?

I was trying to figure out a way to show the scale of the climate emergency, because before then, a lot of people thought that climate change was a fringe issue. Really, it was a generational issue that was impacting every single young person in the world, as we've seen. 

I thought it was necessary to show that young people are part of this fight.… We want to show that to our elected representatives. They can't just ignore the issue and think that they don't need to do anything about it.

But they did, didn't they? I mean, you were doing this at a time when the person in the Oval Office [former U.S. president Donald Trump] was denying that even climate change existed…. How frustrating has it been for you?

I don't think it's been an issue of frustration, because before I started climate striking, one of the first things that got me into activism was the Clean Energy D.C. Act, which is the most aggressive decarbonization bill in the United States, to basically make sure that we're going away from fossil fuels. [I saw] that success of having every council member say, "Hey, it was great that young people came here. You need to show up more often. You need to show that the young people are part of this." And I was the only young person in the room at that time.

So I knew that when I started climate striking, the president or anyone in that administration [would] understand that, bitterly, this isn't something that we can continue to ignore. But they did. They ignored us…. They had talking points that they could hit that continue to kick the can down the road and not actually do anything about it. And that just gave me more urgency to say that I'm not going to go away. I'm still going to be here. 

The previous administration said that climate change was not happening at all. And now we're actually being included at the table and given money to actually make the changes happen.- Jerome Foster, climate advisor to U.S. president Biden

But now you are on the inside, right? You're in the White House, so to speak. What are you actually going to be able to do? 

I'm hopeful that we will have a large impact through our work to enact a Justice 40 Initiative, which means that 40 per cent of all investments on the federal level will be allocated to environmental justice efforts. So through that we'll be determining where those funds go and identifying frontline communities that are being hit hard by the climate crisis right now.

And I think that is an incredible step forward because originally, the previous administration said that climate change was not happening at all. And now we're actually being included at the table and given money to actually make the changes happen. I see this as a pivotal shift in how activism is seen ... now [that] we're going to be able to institute the changes that we want to see.

What makes you so sure? Do you not have any concerns that you're there as a symbol? Are you afraid [or have] any concerns that you'll be co-opted?

I think young people are smart enough to not be co-opted.

When we are there, we aren't wasting time talking about the issue. [In] our first meeting, none of us had the conversation of if it's real…. The conversation was, "How do I identify communities?" and "Let's get the work done." 

All the officials that were in the EPA and in the USDA were talking about "What actions do we need to take?" and "What's the timeline?" And our timeline is within the next 10 days, we're going to give our first set of recommendations. Then by May of this year, we're going to be setting up another set of recommendations to the president.

So it is a consistent and very fast pace that even I myself was very eager to see. This isn't something that's going to take until 2022 to be implemented…. In the coming months we'll see tangible changes that will come from this council and from the members of it.


Written by Mehek Mazhar. Interview produced by Niza Lyapa Nondo. Q&A edited for length and clarity.

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