Hungry for a Livable Planet: Why I Went On Hunger Strike and Occupied Pelosi’s Office

I occupied Nancy Pelosi’s office and went on hunger strike for 13 days. Still she wouldn’t meet us. Instead she flew off to attend the UN Climate Conference in Spain. That’s not enough.

I went 13 days without food.  I lost 22.8 pounds, 10.6% of my weight.  I had to stand up slowly because otherwise I’d black out. I felt increasingly nauseous as the days wore on. I couldn’t focus, gripped by hunger pangs that consumed me. The faintest whiff of food made me salivate. I usually eat between three to six meals a day. Food is a favorite comfort of mine. On Thanksgiving, all I could think about was sitting down to eat with my family. But I held out.

I went on hunger strike with the movement Extinction Rebellion because our leaders are failing to confront the climate and ecological breakdown. I wanted to use my body as the alarm that wakes them up. More than 500 people from 28 countries took part in the hunger strike, which turned out to be the biggest climate hunger strike in history. In America, our demands were clear: a one-hour, on-camera meeting with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to discuss the planetary crisis – the gravest threat humankind has ever faced.  We also demanded that Congress declare a Climate Emergency and put an end to fossil fuel subsidies. To make sure Pelosi heard our demands, myself and eight fellow hunger strikers occupied her office in Washington DC.

I am willing to risk arrest and starve myself because we are out of time. The UN says we are rapidly approaching the moment in history when we will no longer be able to keep the world from warming by 1.5C. If we stay below this threshold, then we may just be able to prevent catastrophic climate change from destroying everything we hold most dear. And yet since our leaders set this target in Paris four years ago things have grown increasingly bleak. Greenhouse gas emissions are rising. We are on course for temperature changes that will trigger societal collapse. Millions, possibly billions, of people will die. Human extinction is now a very real possibility.

Young people are especially worried about the future. What kind of world will my baby nephew grow up in? For many the climate hell is already here. In the US, the crisis is already destroying lives, from the fires in Pelosi’s state of California, to record floods in my home state of MD.  Worse is happening away from the cameras, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Zimbabwe, Bangladesh – countries that are the least responsible for the emergency.

The UN’s chief, Antonio Guterres, told leaders this week at the UN climate conference that their response to the climate breakdown is “totally inadequate”. He is right. Our leaders are failing us. They have the solutions at their fingertips. The technology exists. And yet they fail to act.

This is especially true of those who should know better, leaders like Nancy Pelosi. One of the most powerful politicians in America, Pelosi cannot even bring herself to back the Green New Deal, a plan that would finally wean one of the world’s biggest emitters off its addiction to fossil fuels. Pelosi calls it “the Green Dream or whatever” and with one foul phrase nonchalantly tramples on the dreams of millions of young people who are so terrified of the future that many have begun to question whether they should even start a family at all.

Just as she is ignoring the climate crisis so Pelosi ignored the hunger strikers who camped out in her office for days. Instead we were arrested. Contrast this with the reaction of politicians in Europe. In the UK, Sweden and the Netherlands, political leaders met with hunger strikers on-camera. The European Parliament declared a Climate Emergency. So did Miami.

Pelosi, however, left us to starve as she jetted off to her California mansion to feast with her family for Thanksgiving. Days later, activists who went to her California office to support our demands were met by police.  The activists held die-ins outside her home to symbolise the mass extinction of species that her inaction is helping to fuel.

Under pressure from friends and family over health concerns, I ended my hunger strike after 13 days. I was dejected. What chance do we stand when leaders who should be on our side fail to reach out to people who are putting their bodies in harm’s way to avert global catastrophe. And then I heard that Pelosi had unexpectedly flown off to attend the UN climate summit in Madrid, the head of a delegation that was suddenly promising “ironclad” commitments to “transformational” action.  Her commitments are meaningless because she has refused to take action here in the United States.

Pelosi does not need the approval of world leaders to act at home. The climate committee she created in the House of Representatives has no subpoena power. She has actively undermined the Green New Deal while offering nothing as an alternative.  She cannot even bring herself to support a non-binding resolution calling on Congress to declare a Climate Emergency.

Our demands are less than the bare minimum we need to avert catastrophic climate change. This will not be the last time I or others go on hunger strike to sound the alarm. We will not stop fighting for a livable planet until leaders wake up to the crisis unfolding before them. We are organized and have the truth on our side.  And Pelosi must understand this: the anger that drove us to starve ourselves, the anger that drives seven million people into the streets to protest, that causes young people to miss school, will only grow as the flames of the crisis burn higher.

Stephen Leas got his masters in public policy at the University of Maryland and is active with Extinction Rebellion.