When Elise Joshi posted a TikTok video about the Alaskan oil drilling project known as Willow in early February, she had little hope it would go viral.
Joshi, 20, often posts about climate issues on TikTok for the Gen-Z for Change account, as well as his personal account. She’s well aware that “the weather doesn’t trend very often,” as she told CNN. But Joshi’s Willow video was very different. It only took a few days to rack up over 100,000 views, eventually surpassing 300,000.
“This is my most watched video in months,” Joshi told CNN. “It’s the whole internet arguing against Willow; [President Joe Biden’s] electoral base, who trusted him to act on the climate.
The Biden administration is expected to finalize its decision on whether to approve the ConocoPhillips Willow project next week. If it comes to fruition, the decades-long oil drilling business on Alaska’s North Slope would create thousands of jobs and establish a new source of revenue for the region.
But it would also generate enough oil to release 9.2 million metric tons of planet-warming carbon pollution per year, according to the federal government’s estimate, about the same as adding 2 million cars to roads.
While the project has both supporters and opponents in its home country, it has become a lightning rod on social media. Over the past week, TikTok users in particular have galvanized the project’s shutdown, with an overwhelming number of people watching and posting about the topic.
Videos with anti-Willow hashtags like #StopWillow amassed nearly 50 million views 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 past week alone.
Online activism has resulted in more than 900,000 letters being sent 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 underline the fact that it’s everyday Americans who are pushing back, I don’t know what’s going on,” said Alex Haraus, 25, a TikTok creator whose Willow videos have garnered millions. of views. “It’s not an environmental movement, it’s much bigger than that. It is the American public who can vote.
TikTok creators and climate groups CNN spoke to said the sudden surge in online activism around Willow was largely organic and much bigger than any other climate issue on the app before.
Some climate and anti-fossil fuel groups have worked with specific creators and TikTok accounts around Willow, but no group has led the online movement around the project. Similar TikTok campaigns have sprung up in recent years to ban oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and shut down the Line 3 pipeline in Minnesota, but few have garnered as much attention as Willow.
“I’ve been doing this for a long time and it’s very rare to see a climate issue go viral,” said Alaina Wood, 26, a scientist, climate activist and creator of TikTok.
Wood told CNN she thinks the climate profile has grown on apps frequented by younger generations, especially given Biden’s climate law passed last year. But there’s also a lot of anxiety and fear about the climate crisis on TikTok — feelings that Project Willow has captured and amplified.
“Every time a project like this goes viral, climate doom also goes viral,” Wood said, adding that she has made videos in an attempt to counter the climate doomerism that is proliferating among some young people. “A lot of young people feel that if Willow is rejected, climate change will be irreversible. We still have to fight Willow, but your life isn’t over if it’s gone.
The growth of #StopWillow TikTok has both baffled and delighted legacy climate groups, some of whom wondered why it took Willow so long to get noticed. Even though Biden has already cemented some of his climate legacy by working with Congress to pass the most ambitious climate bill in generations, activists who fought Keystone XL and the Dakota Access Pipeline under the Obama administration say one thing remains constant: massive fossil fuel projects tend to inflame people.
“Specific fights galvanize public attention far more than politics,” said Jamie Henn, director of the nonprofit Fossil Free Media and former co-founder of the environmental organization 350.org. “These are the questions that capture the public’s imagination. It’s really foolhardy to ignore that.
The White House has shown it cares about reaching TikTok’s vast and young audience. White House officials have invited TikTok creators to the White House on several occasions, including for a meeting with Biden himself about the Cut Inflation Act in October.
“I think Democrats and the Biden administration would do well to pay attention to these trends,” said Lena Moffitt, chief of staff at climate group Evergreen Action. “Young people increasingly want climate action from their elected officials and they are going to demand it.”
The protests against Willow aren’t just happening on TikTok. On Friday, a group of about 100 people gathered outside the White House in a freezing drizzle to demonstrate against the plan.
TikTok creators were thin on the ground. Those who braved the cold March weather included Alaska Natives and elders who flew more than 10 hours from Anchorage and North Slope villages to DC. Robert Thompson is an elder who made the grueling journey from his home village of Kaktovik.
Thompson told CNN he wanted to talk about the effects of climate change on animals in the area and spoke of more than 200 caribou found dead near his home.
“We could see them from our house, it’s sad,” Thompson said in tears. “I was in Vietnam and saw a lot of sad things, but I never thought I would see this back home. I don’t know how you can accept it.
Willow supporters — including a coalition of Alaska Natives on the North Slope — say Willow could be a much-needed new source of income for the area and help fund schools, health care and other basic services.
“Willow presents an opportunity to continue this investment in communities,” Nagruk Harcharek, president of advocacy group Voice of the Arctic Iñupiat, told CNN. “Without that money and that source of revenue, we’re dependent on the state and the federal government.”
But other people living closer to the planned project, including municipal officials and tribal members of the indigenous village of Nuiqsut, are worried about the health and environmental impacts of a major oil development.
“We say you are not allowed to make decisions that will 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 are also concerned about Indigenous rights and human rights.
Maupin and Thompson have said they will continue to fight Willow in court if the Biden administration approves the project. Environmental legal group Earthjustice is also preparing legal action against the project if it is approved.
“We plan to do everything in our power to prevent ConocoPhillips from doing any construction in Nuiqsut this winter,” Maupin said. “We will continue to fight this through legal means, through direct action.”
As to whether the rise of online activism will help stop or delay the project, the creators of TikTok themselves aren’t sure. If the project is approved, several told CNN they would continue to post about the project — detailing ways their followers can support native groups in Alaska and keep talking about Willow.
“We’re coordinated enough to do what makes the most sense,” Haraus told CNN. “If it’s an in-person event, then we’ll be happy to do that. This is an issue we will vote on and remember at the ballot box.
“Millions of people are waiting for the White House to move.”