Elise Joshi didn't expect it to go viral when she posted a TikTok clip about Willow, Alaska's oil drilling project.
Joshi, 20 years old, posts frequently on TikTok about climate issues for both her personal account and the account GenZ for Change. According to CNN, she is well aware that climate doesn't tend to trend very often. Joshi's video on Willow was quite different. It only took a few days for the video to reach more than 100,000 views and eventually reached 300,000.
Joshi stated to CNN that it was his most-viewed video in many months. "This is the whole internet advocating against Willow; [President Joe Biden’s] voter base that trusted him to address climate change.
Biden's administration will likely finalize its decision next week on whether or not to approve ConocoPhillips Willow Project. The decades-old oil drilling project on Alaska's North Slope would create thousands of new jobs and provide a 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, by the federal government's estimate, about the same as adding 2 million cars to the roads.
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 galvanized around halting the project, with a staggering number of people watching and posting on the topic.
Videos with anti-Willow hashtags like #StopWillow have amassed close to 50 million views in the last 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 has come in the last week alone.
The online activism has resulted in more than 900,000 letters being written to the White House protesting the project, as well as a Change.org petition with 2.3 million signatures and counting.
'If that doesn't emphasize the fact that it's everyday Americans 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's much larger than that. It's the American public that can vote.'
StopWillow's rapid growth
CNN spoke with TikTok creators, as well as climate groups CNN spoke to. They said that the sudden rise in activism surrounding Willow was largely organic and larger than any other climate issue on their app.
While some climate and anti-fossilfuel groups have worked with Willow's TikTok creators, no one group has led the online movement for the project. Although similar TikTok campaigns have been launched in recent years to ban oil drilling in Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and stop the Line 3 pipeline from Minnesota, few have garnered as much attention as Willow.
Alaina Wood (26), a scientist, activist on climate change and creator of TikTok, said, "I've been doing it for a while and it's very rare to have a climate issue go viral."
Wood told CNN she thinks the profile of climate has grown on apps frequented by younger generations, especially given Biden's climate law passed last year. But there is also a lot of anxiety and fear about the climate crisis on TikTok – sentiments the Willow Project has captured and amplified.
Wood stated that if a project like this becomes viral, climate doom will also go viral. She added that she has made videos to counter climate doom among young people. Many young people believe that climate change can be reversed if Willow is passed. Although we still have to fight Willow, your life won't end if it is.
StopWillowTikTok's growth has delighted and puzzled legacy climate groups. Some were even wondering why it took Willow so long to be noticed. Biden has made a significant contribution to climate change by working with Congress to pass the most ambitious climate legislation in decades. However, activists who fought Keystone XL during the Obama administration said that one thing is constant: large-scale fossil fuel projects tends to get people excited.
Jamie Henn, director of Fossil Free Media, a former cofounder of 350.org, said that'specific fights galvanize the public attention way more than does policy'. These are the issues that grab the public's attention. This is a very foolish thing to do.
The White House has shown it cares about reaching TikTok's vast, young audience. White House officials have invited TikTok creators to the White House multiple times, including for a meeting with Biden himself about the Inflation Reduction Act in October.
Lena Moffitt chief of staff at climate group Evergreen Action, stated that Democrats and the Biden Administration would be well advised to look into these trends. "Young people are increasingly demanding climate action from their elected officials, and they will demand it."
Can a digital, grassroots campaign work?
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 frigid drizzle to demonstrate against the project.
TikTok creators were thin on the ground. Those who had braved the chilly March weather included Alaska Natives and elders who had flown over 10 hours from Anchorage and villages on the North Slope to DC. Robert Thompson is one elder who made the grueling journey from his home village of Kaktovik.
Thompson told CNN he had wanted to speak about the effects of climate change on the region's animals and spoke of over 200 caribou found dead near his home.
Thompson cried, saying, "We could see them at our house, it was sad." Thompson said, "I saw many things in Vietnam that were sad. But I didn't think I would see it at home." It's hard to accept.
Willow's supporters – including a coalition of Alaska Natives on the North Slope – say Willow could be a much-needed new source of revenue for the region and help fund schools, health care and other basic services.
'Willow presents 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 money and revenue stream, we're reliant on the state and the feds.'
Others, such as city officials and tribal members from Nuiqsut's Native village, are worried about the potential health and environmental effects of major oil developments.
'We are saying that you are not allowed to make decisions that are going to make our world unlivable,' Siqiniq Maupin, executive director of the Indigenous activist group Sovereign Iñupiat for a Living Arctic, told CNN. 'We are concerned about climate change, but we're 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. Environmental legal group Earthjustice has also been preparing a lawsuit against the project if it is approved.
Maupin stated that ConocoPhillips will not be able to build in Nuiqsut during winter. "We will continue to fight this through legal means, direct action.
As for whether the surge of online activism will work to halt or delay the project, TikTok creators themselves aren't sure. If the project is approved, several told CNN they will continue to post about the project – detailing ways their followers can support Indigenous groups in Alaska and keep speaking out about Willow.
'We're coordinated enough to do whatever makes the most sense,' Haraus told CNN. 'If that's in-person protesting, then we will happily do that. This is an issue that we will be voting on and will remember at the ballot box.
'Millions of people are waiting for the White House's move.'