Courtesy of Benjamin Finegan '19

Benjamin Finegan '19 was one of 50 individuals arrested for occupying the office of Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). He was inspired to protest for climate change after taking BIOEE 1540: Introduction to Oceanography.

November 28, 2018

The Road from Bailey Hall to Capitol Hill: How a Cornellian Became a Climate Activist After Taking an Oceanography Class

Print More

Two hundred climate activists assembled in the Capitol Building in Washington D.C. on Nov. 13 and entered the offices of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). Among the 50 arrested was Cornell student Benjamin Finegan ’19, who a year ago sat in an oceanography course and wondered where his professor’s call for political change could lead him.

The occupation in the office of Pelosi —  who will re-assume the position of Speaker of the House in January 2019 — was an effort to put ambitious climate change policy at the top of the Democratic political agenda.

Finegan, who was a Sun staff writer for the news department, is a Government major in the College of Arts and Sciences. This year, he is taking time off from Cornell to work as a climate activist.

Finegan and the other activists who participated in the protest are members of “The Sunrise Movement.”

“The Sunrise Movement is a national youth-led movement fighting to stop the Climate Crisis and achieve economic justice in the process,” Finegan said.

Finegan said that the group occupied Pelosi’s office to demand that, “Democrats reject money from the fossil fuel industry and take real action to address the Climate Crisis at the scale and scope we need.”

“To prevent ecological disaster and human suffering on a massive, sickening scale, we need to transition our economy to 100 percent renewable energy by 2030,” Finegan said.

According to Finegan, the activists trickled through the building’s security as “youth lobbyists.” They regrouped and crowded into Pelosi’s office, spilling into the lobby hallways.

“We delivered letters filled with the people and places we are fighting to protect,” Finegan said.

The protesters were advocating for the “Green New Deal”, a plan which addresses climate change. Representative-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y) who has been vocal regarding her support for the plan, visited the protestors and shared her support.

When Ocasio-Cortez joined the protesters, the event immediately drew significant media attention and was featured in national news sources.

“We already sent waves through Washington,” Finegan said. “In one morning we put the Green New Deal on the map, and gave Democrats a stark moral choice. Will you choose the side of the people and future generations? Or will you choose the side of fossil fuel corporations?”

Finegan said that within a day of the protest, five members of Congress signed on to Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Resolution for a Select Committee on the Green New Deal. Since then, a total of 14 have “shown moral clarity and political courage and backed the Green New Deal.”

Finegan said that the group “will not stop until we have a critical mass of support for the GND, or until those who lack moral clarity and political courage are removed from power.”

According to Ocasio-Cortez’s website, the Green New Deal makes environmental policy demands including using 100 percent renewable resources, upgrading to energy-efficient buildings, decarbonizing industries, funding the drawdown of greenhouse gases, and making the US a leader in “green” technology.

Following the protest, Nancy Pelosi tweeted that she was, “deeply inspired by the young activists and advocates leading the way on confronting climate change. The climate crisis threatens the futures of communities nationwide, and I strongly support reinstating the select committee to address the crisis.”

Last year, Finegan took BIOEE 1540: Introduction to Oceanography. The course is taught every fall in Bailey Hall by Prof. Bruce Monger to over 1,000 students across class years and colleges.

Finegan said that taking Monger’s course was “instrumental in changing [his] sense of agency and responsibility for this crisis.” The course was part of the reason Finegan became vegan and took the year off from Cornell to work full-time as an environmental activist with the Sunrise Movement in Philadelphia.

“Professor Monger’s Oceanography class helped me to see that the Climate Crisis is one of the defining human rights issues of our time,” Finegan said. “Learning the science of climate change and its ecological effects made it clear how urgent this problem is, and that the answer is not lifestyle changes or new technology. We have the necessary technology, resources and even popular support for bold action to address the Climate Crisis. Now we need the political will to see this action through, and pass a Green New Deal.”

When Monger received the email that his former student had been arrested in his efforts to combat the climate crisis, Monger said that his “reaction was one of great admiration for the former student and a deep sense of satisfaction for [himself] and the work [he does] in the oceanography class.”

“A central theme of the oceanography class asks that students not be passive with regard to environmental issues and to raise their voices, especially with regard to climate change,” Monger said. “This former student clearly heard that important message.”

The final assignment for students in Introduction to Oceanography is to write a letter to their government leaders, requesting that the government address issues of climate change and other environmental impacts. Students are required to write the letter, but actually sending out the letter is optional. According to Monger, the point of the assignment is to show students how “they can raise their voice for climate action using the scientific concepts presented in the class.”

Monger said that he became an oceanographer because he liked science, liked the ocean and wanted to travel the world, but that his current interest in teaching oceanography at Cornell is “driven by [his] evangelical fervor to inform and inspire all Cornell Students to act on climate change.”

He said that to reduce the effects of climate change, students should vote, be vocal and advocate for change to help spark a social movement, and take individual actions such as eating less meat, flying less, and taking less public transportation.

Finegan said that he left the oceonography class “feeling angry, but galvanized and hopeful.” He hopes others are also motivated to join the fight for an equitable future.

“If you care about human beings, if you care about racial justice or economic justice, if you believe that your dignity and future is tied to everyone’s dignity and future, than we need you in this fight,” he said.