In a conference room at the United Nations in Manhattan, Saad Amer flitted about rows of coffee-colored seats. The 25-year-old climate activist was moments from addressing the room on a recent September morning, and he appeared at ease.
A Harvard University graduate with a perennial ultra-white smile, Amer describes his life and work with an air of whimsy. Everything he says sparkles somehow.
Yet, the Medford native, the middle of three children, has lived a life not-quite charmed. “Pat-Med isn’t the place that sends kids to Harvard, right?” Amer said of his experience at Patchogue-Medford High School.
His essay to the Harvard admissions board was typed on his brother's laptop, which was missing several keys. School field trip attendance was not always a given because of the required fees. Harvard, he said, was made possible by hard work and scholarships.
When he found out he had been accepted, he told his parents, then the teacher he credits with fostering his passion for the environment and organizing efforts to make change. “I immediately called Mr. Murray,” Amer said of the now-retired biology teacher Patrick Murray. “And he told the whole damn school.”
Once word got out, Amer walked into his classes at Patchogue-Medford High School to standing ovations from the other students, he said. “It was just really meaningful to see that people were sort of cheering me on and supportive,” Amer said. “That was really important and a defining thing for high school for me.”
At Harvard, he studied environmental science and public policy, with a minor in organismic and evolutionary biology. He identifies himself today as an environmentalist and activist and recently founded Plus1Vote, an on-the-ground and social media campaign that encourages voters to increase turnout and representation by bringing a “plus-one” to the polls.
Amer’s concern about climate change reflects a trend among the millennial set — defined by the Pew Research Center as those born between 1981 and 1996. According to a 2018 Gallup analysis, there is a “global warming age gap,” with 70% of adults age 18 to 34 saying they worry about global warming and just 56% of those 55 and older saying the same.
And for Amer, acting on climate and increasing voter turnout are one in the same. “Voting is a climate action,” he says.
Recently, Amer has been working with the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change’s Youth Constituency and is on the National Parks Conservation Association’s Next Generation Advisory Council. He was an expert reviewer on a forthcoming 2021-22 report by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. He has worked on environmental issues in India, China and the United States, co-created Harvard’s inaugural Sustainability Plan, and discovered a hybrid fern species in French Polynesia.
The son of Pakistani immigrants, Amer visited Pakistan for the first time while in college. He described being struck by the sight of an informal dump near a waterway. Cows and donkeys were eating the waste; two children led a donkey-drawn cart to the area to drop off more garbage.
Thinking about this scene and others like it, Amer said he realized that America had similar issues with waste management and its environmental impact.
"We just do a better job of hiding it," he said. According to Amer, the "problem" is global and extends beyond waste into CO2 emissions, water use and economic development.
This month, Amer was among those who presented policy to combat climate change at the first UN Youth Climate Summit.
And yet, he seems to eschew the stereotypes attached to the realms of politics and the Ivy League. “I’m not a competitive person,” he said. “I’m not here to be better than you. … I want us all to move forward together, as much as we can and as fast as we can.”
Despite his travels, Amer’s environmental efforts began on Long Island, where as a high schooler he helped organize a program that educated hundreds of students at the Fish Thicket Land Preserve in Patchogue and he worked with Brookhaven National Laboratory. Eventually those roots would pull him back.
What called him home
After graduating from college in 2016, Amer moved to India to work as a researcher and photographer for the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment. In the Himalayan mountains of Darjeeling, he worked with 30 remote villages to conserve forest resources, establish programs to fight poverty and to minimize the effects of climate change. The goal was to learn from the land and locals.
He and others installed beehives, and implemented more sustainable forms of agriculture and composting; they also helped install a version of the chulha, or clay stove, that required less fuel wood.
After six months in India, though, Amer felt called back to the United States.
"I was going to stay for a full year, continue doing research on all of this,” he said. “But then I saw the political situation at home.”
Amer returned to the United States and went to work in Boston as a producer for the PBS show “NOVA.” He told stories about such issues as the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, as he wondered whether storytelling was the way he would make an impact. But it became clear, he said, that he wanted to do more than raise awareness; he wanted to have a hand in large-level policy change.
Organizing around elections felt to him like the biggest climate action he could take, he said. Amer left PBS to start Plus1Vote, which has offices in New York and Florida and launched its digital campaign in 2018 with eight volunteers.
“While we do need researchers, and while we do need effective policy proposals that can fundamentally shift us toward a greener, cleaner, more renewable world, whatever policy proposals we have won’t come through if we don’t have people out there voting,” Amer said. “I went into the civic engagement space, I went into the voter space, by way of being an environmentalist. Because I found that was something so fundamental and critical to success in fighting climate change, but that was just absolutely missing from the conversation for so long.”
Plus1Vote encourages people who are already engaged in politics — registered voters — to bring others to the polls and become “micro-activists” in their own lives, Amer explained. Much of Plus 1’s messaging is issue-based. A 2018 campaign, for example, was centered around women’s rights issues, including the "#metoo" movement. Plus1 has been tweeted about by such celebrities as Jimmy Kimmel and actress Alyssa Milano.
For the 2020 election, Amer is working to persuade voters to turn out on the issue of climate change.
“On an issue like climate, it’s so much about the people, and the impact that climate change is already having on people around the world; in terms of poverty, in terms of drought, starvation, flooding — just like, true global catastrophe” he said.
Afflicted, he said, with a “resting smile face,” Amer appears perpetually jovial. When it comes time to speak, though, he takes on a tone appropriate for the situation. And those around him notice.
"You see the world differently when your whole life is ahead of you,” Elliott Harris, the UN assistant secretary-general for economic development and chief economist, said about Amer. “He has that capacity of articulating that in a way that forces you to confront that difference in perception, without making you feel bad about yourself.”
Harris and Amer met in March at the UN meeting “Climate and Sustainable Development for All.” Amer was at a table with a minister, four ambassadors and senior UN staff, Harris said.
The two have since become friends who meet up for a meal every couple of weeks to talk candidly about ideas, issues and frustrations.
“I feel sort of very pleased that he’s willing to spend time with me,” said Harris, who at 58 is decades Amer’s senior. “I think I get more out of it than he does.”
The exchange of ideas is productive and has been “an education,” Harris said, because he and Amer have such different perspectives. “On the generational difference in perspective — well, the social media issue is the clear winner. … Saad tries to explain [social media], but I don't really experience it. I called him the other day and said I just wanted to use the cellphone for its intended purpose. I had to explain to him what I meant!”
Harris said he’s been impressed by Amer’s passion: “Saad's idea of mobilizing people to execute their right to vote I find inspiring … it builds on our responsibilities as free citizens for our own fates.”
Amer is in a unique position, Harris added. “Because of the independence, he can be honest and clear and forceful,” he said. “But the independence comes at a cost.”
Harris said he worries about the financial realities of youth activism, which is largely volunteer work. “For him like for many of the other young people who do this work, they’re doing it on their own time and on their own penny,” Harris said.
Said Amer, a self-described “hustler”: “I don’t do what I do for the money."
Into the Thicket
Amer’s efforts to organize and mobilize started when he was a 14-year-old freshman in high school. Inspired by a class trip to the Fish Thicket Land Preserve in Patchogue, Amer worked with his biology teacher, Patrick Murray, and other faculty to make the preserve more accessible to students.
"The way he was able to energize other students is probably the thing I remember most," said Murray, 70, of Bohemia. "We would form clubs and, when things weren't going the way he thought they should, he would all of a sudden mobilize other people and just personally go out and talk to people — until he created a core group that made things happen."
Wistfully, Amer calls the Fish Thicket his "first love." He worked with Murray and other teachers to create a curriculum centered around the preserve. Student tour guides from the high school were trained to teach visitors in grades kindergarten through 12 about stewardship of the land, vegetation and animal life, and climate change.
"What I found was that you can really teach the young kids ‘big kid’ stuff, and I think we really underestimate what young people are capable of,” Amer said.
The school arranged to bring “literal busloads,” Amer said, to the thicket during the school day. Amer also helped organize cleanups and fundraisers. Today, he said, there remain benches, birdhouses and signs from his time organizing the program.
Amer credits Murray with helping to shape his life during high school, saying Murray mentored him and encouraged him to join the school's science research program.
“I firsthand have felt, personally, the impact of having an educator who really takes interest in you, and really devotes a lot of time and goes above and beyond to just, you know, help you,” Amer said.
Meanwhile, to Murray, Amer was "the icing on the cake" of his teaching career. "He's constantly searching for some answer," Murray said. "He really made my career."
Murray, who retired about six years ago, works for Cornell Cooperative Extension in Riverhead trying to find ways to reduce groundwater pollution.
He recalled an informational video Amer made for the Open Space Stewardship program at Brookhaven National Laboratory. Many environmental films, Murray said, skew negative — think “organisms are dying” — but Amer’s emphasized the positive instead. Amer aimed to convey the idea, “Isn’t this beautiful? Don’t you really want to save this?” Murray explained.
“He’s optimistic, and he’s realistic, too,” Murray said. “But he knows we’re not going to go anywhere with people being, you know, turned off.”
6 questions for Saad Amer
Environmental and political activist Saad Amer starts his day by brushing his teeth “for far too long.” Then, with a cup of tea, he reads the news and opens emails. From there, the agenda varies. "I feel like, days are 24 hours and you've got to make use of all of those hours,” he said. Some days include meetings or speaking engagements; other days he takes calls from reporters, produces videos or writes policy. Here, Amer explains how he got started and how others can, too.
1. How did you develop an interest in environmental activism? Climate change is systematic. It affects the environment, our food security, human health, social justice, human rights, energy production, the economy — everything. Once I realized how interconnected all these issues were, I developed a deep interest. Once I realized how backward our country was moving on all these issues, I knew I had to take action.
2. What can young people do to get involved? Learn about it. Talk about it. Educate your community. Strike on Fridays. Write to your representatives. Volunteer with organizations that you find meaningful. You might not be able to vote, but the adults in your life can be your plus-1’s. Register them to vote.
3. What patterns have you seen when it comes to youth fighting climate change? Climate denial is no longer acceptable. Youth are blazing the trail. The youth have facts, and politicians need to do better. The next step in this movement is to take this momentum and bring it to the polls. If politicians won't act, we’ll vote them out. Voting is climate action. Even if you’re registered, make sure you register a plus-1 to vote. We need action on climate now, and this is how we will get it.
4. Who has influenced you? From Jane Goodall, I saw boundless empathy and learned how to have compassion for all beings. From Michelle Obama, I saw a determined fighter, and learned that “becoming” is a lifelong process. From Lady Gaga, I saw unparalleled creativity, and learned that we need to be who we are with pride. From Rachel Carson, I saw pure brilliance and learned science can ignite change across a nation. And from my mother and father, I saw a lifetime of endurance and learned what it’s like to have a family that loves you.
5. Have you made any changes in your own consumer habits to support sustainability? I want to emphasize that while small lifestyle changes certainly make a difference, we need large-scale policy reform on the environment to address climate change. Avoiding plastic straws is only a small part of the conversation when compared to the immense contributions of the transportation sector and fossil fuels corporations to climate change. That being said, individuals make up our society, and our individual actions can make a difference when aggregated. Since I was a kid, I remember pushing can after can into the recycling machines at Stop & Shop. I still do this. I never really eat meat. I shop at thrift stores. I take public transportation whenever possible. ... I avoid plastic and use my recycled plastic Patagonia bag instead.
6. Who's your plus-1? My plus-1 is you!
— Arielle Dollinger
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the date and type of meeting where Saad Amer and Elliott Harris met.