2018 and 2019 were big years for the community where I live. First, a group of middle-school girls inspired all four towns in the area to ban plastic bags and styrofoam containers. The students, under the guidance of their outstanding teacher, prepared a powerful presentation and took it to four local municipalities. The presentation, covering the impacts of single-use plastic on the environment and particularly the negative impacts of plastic bags, motivated each town to pass the ban. Within a few short weeks, both plastic bags and styrofoam containers were a thing of the past.
Then, in late 2019, a group of students from the local high school joined together with students from the local college to urge the largest local town to declare a climate emergency and form a task force to develop and implement solutions. The students prepared a presentation on the climate crisis and the possibility of declaring a climate emergency, complete with information on the 1,468 jurisdictions and local governments around the world who have also done so and a set of demands.
These demands included a town-wide mobilization effort to reverse global warming and the ecological crisis by becoming energy independent by the end of 2030, establishing a Climate Emergency Task Force that includes youth representatives to research opportunities for radical greenhouse gas emissions reduction and committing one percent of the annual budget to the work. While the town did not commit to all of the students’ demands, an emergency was declared and a task force is being formed as I write. Hopefully, additional local towns will shortly follow suit.
Young people are visionaries, and not just when it comes to the climate crisis. As Alison Gopnik details in her work, young brains are well suited to innovation. Furthermore, young people are intimately tied to the future that they will one day inhabit. Thanks to this combination, they are able to appreciate the long-range implications of many of the challenges faced today, including climate change, and are able to conceive of creative solutions that older brains, trained through years of experience to consider the details of implementation, might not see.
Young voices consequently play a critical role in addressing the climate crisis at every level, and perhaps all the more so at the community level. Those in positions of decision-making power at the local level are more likely to have personal connections to the young people involved. For example, the town officers where I live have known many of the youth presenting on plastic bag bans and asking for a declaration of climate emergency since they were very young. This level of familiarity helps drive home the ties between decisions made today and the future impact on the young people involved. It’s a lot harder to make a decision that negatively impacts the future of a young person when you see that young person at the grocery store, at the library, at town events, riding their bike, hiking with friends.
Young people can therefore elevate the consciousness of a community. As caregivers looking to support youth in facing a world with climate change, we can play two essential roles in this positive process. First, we can encourage the young people we know to speak up when they perceive injustice or opportunity for positive change. We can provide the support needed for lasting work towards positive change, cultivating an appreciation that the rewards are not always instantaneous, sharing stories about others who have made a difference, and more.
Secondly, we can step aside and listen. Whatever our position in our community, we can work to make room for the voices of youth and we can encourage others to do so as well. Young people should have a seat at any table where decisions are being made about their future. And we can actually listen and allow our minds and hearts to be changed and our consciousness to shift, motivated by these clear, powerful voices tied to the future we are deciding today.