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Climate Activists Alexandra Cousteau & Leah Thomas Talk Environmental Justice

On Monday, climate activists Alexandra Cousteau and Leah Thomas spoke at Penn State through the Student Programming Association (SPA) to highlight environmental justice ahead of Earth Day.

Cousteau and Thomas, while both coming from different backgrounds, were able to find a lot of common ground at Monday’s discussion in front of an intimate crowd.

Cousteau shared with the audience that her first exposure to the ocean and its exploration came before she was even a year old. Her grandfather was marine conservation pioneer Jacques Cousteau, and it was in her blood to be on a boat. Now, representing the third generation of her family’s explorers, Alexandra grieves the loss of ocean habitats and says exploration remains critically important.

“It’s not about places you find, but ideas and innovations you share that are new,” she said.

With so much technology at our fingertips, exploration is available to all. According to Cousteau, the main thing standing in the way is that [ep[;e need to articulate which direction the environmental movement needs to go in rather than just acknowledging that problems exist.

Thomas, a younger activist, responded by acknowledging the dangers of focusing solely on what will happen to the planet in the future instead of recognizing what is happening right now due to climate. She reminded the audience that a lot of minority groups live in areas with heavy air pollution or a lack of access to trees for air purification. As a result, they’re simply missing out on everything that the Earth has to offer.

Thomas said that these are human rights violations and need to be addressed first and foremost. This branch of activism, known as environmental justice, led to Thomas’ book “The Intersectional Environmentalist”, which explores how different aspects of our identity influence and interact with our relationship with the planet and sustainability.

When asked how to help or get involved, Thomas said the best thing to do is to learn about local environmental injustices. Often, these projects go unnoticed by the community and there is then nobody to advocate against them. As a result, a very small portion of funding goes toward environmental justice work.

Cousteau chimed in to say that her work with revitalizing the oceans also receives little funding. What money does come into the nonprofits goes to three main companies, all of which are heavily bureaucratic and notably run by elderly men who have no stake in the future of the planet.

Both women are fighting an uphill battle with the lack of support and funding they receive from the climate community, but neither seems at all discouraged. Thomas believes that we are moving into an era where people are feeling more empowered to join the environmental movement, especially young people.

Cousteau and Thomas briefly discussed historical shame regarding the environmental movement, especially because for some families, sustainability was learned out of necessity. Recently, these sustainability practices have been shared, celebrated, and encouraged among various cultures, leading to more participation worldwide.

To wrap up the lecture, both activists reiterated the importance of bringing underrepresented voices to the environmental conversation, as they often hold valuable information that is not represented in policy. Cousteau shared that in a recent exploration off the coast of Canada, she invited indigenous voices to peruse the new data and offer any of their own historical and cultural insight about the coasts.

“These conversations can happen in any space,” she said. “You just have to reach out and make them happen.”

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About the Author

Haylee Yocum

Haylee is a junior in the Schreyer Honors College studying immunology and infectious disease. She is from Mifflintown, PA, a tiny town south of State College. She is a coffee addict, loves Taylor Swift, and can't wait to go to a concert again. Any questions can be directed to @hayleeq8 on Twitter or emailed to

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