By Marlene Cimons
Lorenzo de Simone, 13, isn’t old enough to vote, but he’s old enough to lobby Massachusetts state lawmakers, seeking their support for a carbon pricing bill that would impose fees on fossil fuel companies. The Boston 8th grader plans to show up at the state capital in Boston on Tuesday.
“My house could be underwater in 50 years, and I would like to avoid that,” de Simone said. “Stuff needs to be done about climate change, and it’s not happening. It’s like having a school group project when you’re the only who’s done anything, and you end up having to do it for everyone else.”
De Simone is one of hundreds of young people in multiple states — including Massachusetts, New York, Florida, Nebraska, Iowa, Oregon, and Illinois— planning to congregate in statehouses Tuesday, Youth Lobby Climate Day, to try to persuade lawmakers to address climate change. Young people in Washington State will be gathering on Thursday.
The vast majority of measures proposed in these states are carbon pricing bills that also include provisions to reinvest the revenue collected back into communities to support, among other things, renewable energy projects.
“We had our first lobby day in Oregon in 2013, and we really heard from legislators then about how powerful it was to have young people in their offices speaking knowledgeably about policy, rather than making vague demands,” said Cassidy Jones, 24, deputy director of Our Climate, an organization that trains young people to become advocates for science-based policies.
This state-level pressure comes as youth around the world have escalated their climate change activism, looking for new ways to draw attention to adults’ failure to act. These include teenagers and children marching in the streets, swarming congressional offices, and walking out of school. Even the Girl Scouts have become involved, encouraging local troops to work on climate change-related activities. Abroad, thousands of students in Europe and Australia — inspired by Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg’s solitary protest outside parliament — have walked out of school, demanding their governments deem climate change an emergency.
“I think teens are facing the prospect of an entire adult lifetime dealing with the impacts of climate change, and this realization is increasing the saliency of the subject,” said Christopher Borick, director of Muhlenberg College’s Institute of Public Opinion, which regularly conducts polls on Americans’ attitudes toward climate change.
Borick said that while previous generations saw climate change as a distant threat, young people today are increasingly grappling with the real-world effects of warming temperatures.
Political analyst Norman Ornstein agreed. “I think all the recent news — the hurricanes, wildfires, extreme weather, polar melting — have combined with a larger, resonant message: what this set of generations has caused will be a burden borne by the younger generation,” said Ornstein, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. “That triggers the kind of response we are seeing. It resonates more than health care, deficits — which are more abstract — or even the danger of autocracy.”
Along with de Simone, 15-year-old Isabelle Goodrich will be lobbying in Boston for passage of the carbon pricing bill.
“Climate change is a scientific, social and political issue, and the actions of individual people will no longer change the tide,” she said. “The restriction of polluting corporations and increased legislation is what will. We have no choice, a luxury that older generations had — a privilege they abused. It’s left to us to clean up the mess.”
In Florida, Emma Jacobs, 19, a sophomore at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg, will be lobbying in Tallahassee for passage of the Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act.
“We are the ones who will be affected,” said Jacobs, who worries that sea level rise could someday flood her campus, located on the Tampa Bay waterfront. “We need to take a stand… especially when much of the older population doesn’t seem very concerned about the environment. They don’t seem to take it seriously, and climate change is not an easy fix.”
Youth concern about climate change transcends party lines. Ava Harrington, 17, a Massachusetts high school senior, said she is a political conservative who cares deeply about the problem.
“This is the greatest issue of my generation,” she said. “It affects all of us… It’s not a partisan issue. Either we act or we suffer.” In fact, in a recent letter to the editor of the North Reading Transcript, her hometown newspaper, she wrote, “Storms, cold surges, and heat waves have no party.”
Taking to the streets isn’t the only way young people are expressing their concerns about climate change. Others have used their skills to create powerful writing — poetry and plays — to communicate their climate anxiety.
“I think there is a beautiful way to convey an issue through art,” said Aysha Zackria, 17, a high school senior at NSU University School in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, and one of four national One Earth award winners from the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards for her dramatic radio script about climate change.
“There is a message I want to leave people with, and when they care about my characters they are intrinsically learning the values I put into my writing.”
Zackria decided to build her play, Hell and High Water, around the disastrous effects of climate change after being inspired by a story a friend shared about a piece of music, “A Song of Our Warming Planet.” The composer took temperature averages over the years and transformed them into musical notes, she said. “The further into the piece, the higher the notes,” she said. “Given that I am passionate about music and climate change, I started finding ways to make that into a plot.”
Her play, which will be broadcast later this month on the DTC Radio app, focuses on the plight of Franklin Wells, a white, Catholic, conservative, climate-denying violin maker in his late 50s who lives in Texas. His livelihood is destroyed five years hence when high heat and moisture cause the wood to warp and the strings to go off-key in his lovingly constructed violins.
“Everyone has a Franklin in their life,” she said. “They recognize his loyalty to the way things have always been. Franklin doesn’t believe in climate change. He doesn’t think it will affect him — but in the end, it does. I liked having climate change as a ‘character.’ It was provocative, in that it causes a denier to recognize the consequences of climate inaction. You wouldn’t think a violin maker would be affected by climate change. But climate change is universal. It’s in the fabric of everything. We, all of us, live in our environment — not outside of it.”
Marlene Cimons writes for Nexus Media, a syndicated newswire covering climate, energy, policy, art, and culture.