In a cavernous room at a retirement center in North Carolina, I stepped behind the podium to speak with 50 senior citizens about my research on faith communities confronting climate change. Yet when it came time for questions, the audience members wanted to hear about the college students I teach and the uncertain future they face.
“How do you talk to youth about the climate,” asked one gentleman, “and give them any hope for tomorrow?”
I paused, searching for a meaningful answer.
“I’m learning from my students,” I finally said, “that despair is not a long-term strategy.”
I teach environmental education and live with my two daughters at a small college surrounded by the Appalachian Mountains. While I fear for my children’s fate on this planet, I’m inspired by my graduates’ strategic climate action at the federal, state, and local level. They hear the call from the United Nations scientific panel on climate change for the world to transition to a fossil-fuel free economy before 2040. And these youth persist in the face of a government intent on jeopardizing their right to a healthy life. Despite catastrophic wildfires and hurricanes this year, the Trump administration has proposed rolling back regulations — from fuel efficiency standards on vehicles to carbon dioxide emissions from coal plants.
But the young people I know aren’t backing down.
On the federal level, former student Kelsey Juliana is taking the government to court in the most critical climate case of our times. With Julia Olson, executive director of the nonprofit Our Children’s Trust and co-counsel, the 21 youth plaintiffs allege the U.S. government created an energy system that perpetuates climate change and denies their constitutional rights to life, liberty, and property. The lawsuit also maintains the government should protect natural systems for the future and calls for a science-based National Climate Recovery Plan. On July 20, the U.S. Supreme Court declared Juliana v. U.S. could move forward, denying the administration’s efforts to block the case. The Department of Justice appealed again last week to try and stop the trial scheduled for Oct. 29. This time, the court placed an administrative stay on the case, pending review of the plaintiffs’ response to the government’s petition.
Juliana was in high school when she first joined Our Children’s Trust to sue the governor of Oregon for a stable climate. During my environmental education classes, I’ve discussed the litigation to illustrate the importance of a long-term view even for an urgent planetary crisis. When my undergraduates prepare conservation workshops for local schools, they know that Juliana once sat in their places. She hopes to advocate for them in the U.S. District Courthouse in Eugene, Ore., in what may be the lawsuit of their lifetimes. And regardless of this Supreme Court’s decision, youth will gather on the courthouse steps to call for their right to a stable climate.
As the state-level carbon pricing coordinator for Citizens Climate Lobby, graduate Jamie DeMarco has shown me the power of advocacy to put a price on carbon. He traveled to Washington state this summer to support the work of diverse grassroots organizations collecting signatures to place the Protect Washington Act (also called Initiative 1631) on the ballot. If it passes in November, Washington will become the first state government to place a fee on pollution, holding corporations accountable for emissions of carbon dioxide. The revenue would invest in clean energy, prepare vulnerable communities for climate change, and conserve natural resources. DeMarco is working in other states such as Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Vermont on similar carbon pricing campaigns. He has returned to my classroom to tell his story, which includes the fact that he didn’t ride in a car for two years during college and biked to our field trips. These days he wears a suit and tie and lobbies legislators. There are different tools for the work, he said, depending on the audience.
Global warming will have a disproportionate effect on communities with fewer resources to respond. Alum Lev Ben-Ezra, director of Youth and Workforce Development at Community Action Pioneer Valley, works in Western Massachusetts to support just and thriving communities. Many families access help with their heating bills through Community Action’s fuel assistance program, at which time they are offered energy assessment and support to increase their homes’ efficiency and decrease utility bills. Another program allows young adults to explore careers in green energy through paid internships. When Ben-Ezra visited my class, she spoke about the importance of meeting both immediate and long-term needs when building resiliency in communities.
My former students show me the benefits of climate action — whether it’s a federal lawsuit or a fuel-efficient furnace — outweigh the costs of despair. As Juliana said, “Youth are standing up for our fundamental right to inherit a stable and survivable planet. We have everything to gain from taking action and everything to lose from not.” And when I’m even older, I want my daughters to know I didn’t give up despite my own legitimate worry about what lies ahead. Like my students, my children have every right to a safe and healthy future.