cameron russell asks, 'why are we so unmoved by climate justice?'

Our generation gave us #BlackLivesMatter, #FreeTheNipple and #JeSuisCharlie, so why haven’t we called action against the imminent issue of climate change yet? Cameron Russell has gathered some friends to help spread the word…

by Felicity Kinsella
12 November 2015, 5:25pm

Last month, model and activist Cameron Russell called upon her fellow supermodels to march across Brooklyn Bridge with her in an effort to raise awareness surrounding climate change. That was immediately after Hurricane Patricia (the most intense tropical cyclone ever recorded) hit Mexico, and oil giant ExxonMobil was outed on misleading the public with edited research on global warming to cover its own back. Russell decided to use her public reach -- and the reach of her Insta-star pals -- to spread the word. The supermodels came out in their droves, many of them taking part in a public protest for the first time. Lily Donaldson, Bella Hadid, Stella Maxwell, Grace Bol, Barbara Palvin, Toni Garrn and more broadcast the climate march to a combined 6 million people on their social media accounts. 

Lately, Russell's been running around New York speaking to people about climate change with her Inconvenient Handbag project. Ahead of her live-streamed conversation with Pharrell Williams and other climate activists on Friday, November 13, we asked her some questions about fashion, protest, and whether we have the right to speak up when the industry we work in is one of the culprits. She'll answer your questions if you submit them here!

What sparked your interest in climate change?
I've always been an activist, even as a kid. But when it came to climate change, I'm embarrassed to say I was kind of stumped. I felt like a lot of the science went over my head, and a lot of the diplomatic political jargon just felt too detached. For a while I really didn't see a place for myself in this movement. My friends and I would have this conversation -- we'd ask, "Why are we so engaged with other types of injustice, but so unmoved by climate justice? Our generation produced the Dreamers, the Black Lives Matter movement, Occupy Wall Street, a resurgence of feminism… why haven't we seen a massive climate movement?"

The more I learned about climate change the more I realized that we have been fighting the right fights all along. The reason climate change is still happening -- the reason our governments haven't taken sufficient action -- is that they put short term economic gain before the lives of women and children, people who are black and brown, and people who are living in poverty. That's the injustice our generation has been fighting. And, we have so many examples of how to take action, because it's activist work that has been going on for generations. That gave me a lot of hope actually, the feeling that the leadership we have emerging from our generation in the States is actually exactly what we need.

And we need a lot of hope because what we don't hear enough is that climate change is happening right now. The one degree the world has already warmed is forcing millions to migrate, millions to go hungry, violence, war, mass evacuations, the list goes on. We don't hear about how countries like the United States and the UK have pushed for a 2 degree Celsius cap on warming that would ultimately make all coastal cities uninhabitable. If it had been white Americans, not black Americans, stranded for days in New Orleans, or if it was Australia not Bangladesh that was on the brink of disappearing, you can be sure we'd be taking strong, swift action on climate change.

Photography Mei Tao


Many young people feel they are not educated enough on the subject to speak up about climate change. How did you educate yourself on it?
Everyone has a right to speak up, and nobody isn't educated enough to stand up for their future and for the lives and livelihoods of people everywhere. If you are against unnecessary suffering, then I think you know enough to show up to a rally, to vote for a climate conscious candidate, to tweet and share your support, to eat less meat, drive less, and use less. The Peoples Climate March had a great slogan, "To change everything, we need everybody."

Of course in the long run, education is power. The more each of us knows, the more powerful we are to build the world we want. If you're looking for a place to start I've been tweeting great articles I come across using the hashtag #ClimateReadingList, and if you find good articles please add them! Also there are tons of great books out including This Changes Everything by Naomi Klein and Eaarth (available for free here) by Bill Mckibben.

How has Yeb Sano inspired you?
Yeb Sano was the chief negotiator to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) from the Philippines, a country on the frontline of climate change, when he gave a powerful, tearful speech as super typhoon Haiyan ravaged his home. Many following the climate negotiations have observed the countries most vulnerable to climate change are the moral leadership, and watching him, you understand why. The strength and bravery it takes to speak from the heart, to be vulnerable in this cool diplomatic space, is so important to making the process move forward, to constantly reminding delegates and citizens from the Global North that climate is a five alarm fire already.

His activism is the kind that is physical, intimate, simple and sustained. From the hunger strike he began after his speech, to the 1500km pilgrimage he's on now to Paris, his actions demand we see his humanity and his strength, and make it easy for us to recognize that within ourselves.

Which other voices in the campaign for climate change have inspired you?
My mom! Growing up she always had us shop second hand, re-use sandwich bags for lunch, use rags instead of paper towels, bikes instead of cars. When I was 12 she co-founded a company called Zipcar, the first car-sharing company in the US. Since then she and my dad have founded a string of start-ups, and she's written a book called Peers Inc all about the sharing economy in which we use much less, but live much more abundantly.

I've also long been inspired by Favianna Rodriguez and her work as an artist-activist around climate, gender, race, and immigration justice, as well as the work being done by the organization she runs, CultureStrike. Bill McKibben, May Boeve, Jamie Henn and all the folks at inspire me. They aren't afraid of picking a big fight and have gained incredible ground through their participation in the divestment movement, stopping the keystone pipeline, and organizing people worldwide.

What prompted you to organize the march across Brooklyn Bridge?
I wasn't the main organizer behind the event, that honor goes to Sean Watkins of Our Voices. He was also supported by GreenFaith, The Bhumi Project, Buddhist Climate Action Network, and Sky Lake Shambhala Center. I had been looking for a simple local action to invite some New York-based models to and this was the perfect opportunity.

Who else took part?
There were 16 other models who showed up. They were: Bella Hadid, Barbara Palvin, Stella Maxwell, Lily Donaldson, Arlenis Sosa, Grace Bol, Juana Burga, Luma Grothe, Kate Grigorieva, Aya Jones, Irina Liss, Angel Rutledge, Sabrina Behl, Philipa Hemphrey, Cam Kerekes, Austria Ulloa. And I have to give a special shout out to Toni Garrn who raised her voice on social media, shot a video inviting folks, and did her best to get the word out.

Not only that, but so many other folks from fashion came out, that list includes: Mei Tao, Dashiel Harris, Nicole Chan, Natane Boudereau, Christiana Tran, James Breese, Roman Larichev, Trent Donald Axelson, Nicole Whelan, and Yuliana Gomez.

Last, but not least, my partner Damani Baker who is always walking beside me. He makes sure I close my laptop at night and he inspires me every day with his own tireless activism.

Photography Mei Tao


How do you go about organizing a protest march?
There are so many ways to get involved with organizing. But the first rule is don't do it alone! Find allies, find like-minded folk, find experienced organizers. Even if they aren't physically in the same place as you, there are so many wonderful mentors and organizations you can connect with online.

What specific issues about climate change did you want to address with your march?
I think when all the models posted and tweeted about the march, it helped send the message that climate justice activism is the norm. That it's a mainstream issue. Ultimately models are young women, many of them are still teenagers, and they have a whole life ahead of them that they want to spend on a healthy planet -- one that isn't chaotic, isn't violent, and isn't suffering.

Also, I wanted the kids running their high school sustainability clubs to open Instagram and find out that the supermodel they follow is taking action too, and yeah they're walking down the VS runway and shooting the cover of Vogue tomorrow, but today, they are making time to march, and hold signs, and show our leaders we are watching, because that is what's really important.

How much impact do you think it's had?
Just from an analytics perspective, we gave a good boost to the Peoples Pilgrimage and COP21 hashtags. But this is just one tiny action of many. Really, it was just as important for the models to be there participating -- for many this was their first march -- as it was for the hashtags and pictures to get posted on social media. Because if these models are inspired, and if they inspire their friends to engage with climate action, that can have a profound effect on the conversation. Right now, perhaps more than ever, supermodels are incredibly powerful. Social media means they don't have to wait for a magazine to pick up their story. They have immediate direct access to an audience of millions. Millions. That rivals any traditional media outlet.

What does the fashion industry need to change about its practices to be more climate-friendly?
It turns out we work in a really dirty industry. On the bright side, that means we have a lot of potential to remedy the situation. We're also an enormous industry, I've heard that fashion employs one in every six people on the planet, so we can't just start over. We have to change our practices, our margins, the durability of our garments, the chemicals we use, we need to clean up our supply chains, we need to celebrate second hand and vintage items, and we need to start doing all of that today. The risk is too great, short-term profits are not worth -- and really should not be compared to -- the loss of human life.

Photography Mei Tao


Amongst the many positive reactions, some have said it's hypocritical for models to talk about climate change when they are frequent flyers and model fur. What would you say to them?
It's true that fashion is a dirty industry, but I don't think the solution is being silent on the issue. What we can do is accept responsibility. We need to change the way our industry operates.

Climate change is unfairly hitting those least responsible first. And because of that, the most responsible countries aren't stepping up to the plate. In fact, in 2009 countries from the Global North, including the US and UK, pushed for a cap of 2 degrees warming, which is a death sentence for small island nations and a full blown humanitarian crisis for Africa whose agricultural land will become desert. The decision was met with resistance from 100 countries, who shouted: "We Will Not Die Quietly" and "2 Degrees is Suicide."

What can we do to help?
If you're reading this you most likely fall into a very privileged segment of the global population. Think about how much you can reduce versus how little the people effected can reduce, since they emit almost nothing. Think about how your vote and your voice can be part of changing the policies and practices in your country. Think about the specific areas you have influence. This may mean convincing your grandparents to vote for your future, or getting your school or church to divest. You have access to something nobody else does, figure out what that is and use it. Most people do not think models are well poised to be climate activists (in fact, you just ask me why I thought I could be!) but I am figuring out what I can do and each day I'm getting better at it.


This Friday at 4pm EST Cameron Russell will join Pharrell Williams and other leaders in a live-streamed conversation about climate activism. You can watch at or through the #go90 app. They'll air and answer questions during Friday's conversation, so if you're inspired, ask your question on video here.

climate change
cameron russell