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Teens Mobilize to ‘Save the Planet’

Thu, 08/15/2019 - 15:04
Gordian Raacke, Michael Mann, Jerome Foster, Alexandria Villaseñor, and Jessy Tolkan discussed the youth climate movement at Guild Hall.
Christopher Walsh

Generational solidarity is essential to addressing the climate emergency civilization faces, according to the teenage and adult panelists at the first Hamptons Institute panel discussion of 2019, “The Youth Climate Movement Could Save the Planet,” on Aug. 5 at Guild Hall in East Hampton.

The panelists Alexandria Villaseñor, a 14-year-old New Yorker who as of Aug. 5 had held a “climate strike” outside the United Nations headquarters in Manhattan for 34 consecutive weeks, and Jerome Foster, a 17-year-old activist from Washington, D.C., who is founder and editor in chief of The Climate Reporter, told the panel’s moderator, Jessy Tolkan of Purpose Labs, that despite little meaningful movement to address a growing emergency, they have hope. Their generation, they said, is mobilizing to preserve a livable world.

Joining them on the John Drew Theater stage at Guild Hall were Gordian Raacke, an East Hampton resident and the executive director of Renewable Energy Long Island, and Michael Mann, professor of atmospheric science and director of the Earth System Science Center at Penn State University.

Ms. Villaseñor, who is a co-founder of the activist group Earth Uprising, told the gathering that her disappointment in world leaders at last December’s 24th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, also known as COP24, spurred her activism. She is striking, she said, in solidarity with Greta Thun­berg, a 16-year-old from Sweden who launched a strike outside the Swedish parliament one year ago.

Ms. Thunberg “really empowered me to go out and strike on the last day of COP24,” she said. “It’s my way of putting pressure on world leaders and people in power to come to an agreement to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions by 50 percent by 2030 and make any other laws and policies to keep us below 1.5 degrees Celsius” above the preindustrial global average temperature, which climate scientists say is important to avoid catastrophic effects of warming. “This is my message, making them take bold action to save our future.”

“People have to understand,” Mr. Foster said, “that my generation was born into this.” The urgency is too great to seek incremental change, he said; rather, “we as young people want to make sure that our adulthood, and when we get to be older . . . we want to be able to have a livable future: clean air, clean water, and no pollution. That requires urgent action.”

He gained an appreciation of nature, and came to understand the interdependence of people and nature, from his parents, he said. “As I got older, I learned about the climate crisis, and was wondering why people were just not talking about it.”

Mr. Mann said that his young co-panelists make him optimistic, “the fact that you’re finally taking matters into your own hands, because our generation hasn’t gotten its act together.” On the other hand, “we don’t have to use our imagination anymore when it comes to the impacts of climate change. We’re seeing them play out in real time in the form of unprecedented extreme weather events, superstorms, wildfires, floods, heat waves, the fact that there are now rivers of water gushing away from the Greenland ice sheet.”

The latter phenomenon, and “once we start to see large parts of the Antarctic ice sheet going, that means that we’ve already baked in quite a bit of sea level rise. I don’t have to tell folks here on Long Island, in the Hamptons, that we’re already seeing the impacts of sea level rise: increased erosion, inundation, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.”

Mr. Raacke recalled his own activism as a student in the late 1960s, “and I’m so glad that’s happening again, because now it’s more important than ever.” He listed East Hampton’s initiatives, including the 2014 resolution to set a goal of deriving all of its electricity from renewable sources by 2020 and the Energize East Hampton programs, through which residents can reduce their electricity use. “This town has done what we’ve really got to do all over the world,” he said.

Mr. Foster, too, referred to the environmental activism of the 1960s and ’70s, which “laid the groundwork for us as young people today. What gives us hope is seeing the resurgence of that movement.” But our political and economic systems should focus more on development than growth, he said, while the world should act with single-minded purpose on the climate crisis. “We have to see it as our responsibility to be a collective human species and live outside of our isolated nations,” he said.

To a question about obstacles to addressing the climate crisis, Ms. Villasenor took aim at the fossil fuel industry, which she said has to make sweeping changes. To force that, “the students are going to continue taking civil disobedience, just like Greta Thunberg said, because right now we can’t focus on individual actions to reduce the 70 percent of global emissions contributed by 100 companies all over the world. Right now students are going to have to protest at more levels than we’ve ever seen, ongoing for days and days, at this level of direct action to . . . make the fossil fuel industry change, because right now we need governmental action.”

Mr. Foster referred to Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma, a leading climate change denialist in Congress, as an impediment to action on climate, before adding that “one the obstacles is getting young people to understand the connection between striking and voting.” The chant “Today we strike, tomorrow we vote” is to make youth understand that “we can continue to strike, but we have to go to the polls and make sure that we’re making our voices heard.”

“What I still find quite an obstacle is that we all assume that what needs to be done is going to be done by somebody else,” Mr. Raacke said. “We need all hands on deck. You just heard that we have an emergency and that everything needs to change, and that means everybody needs to help make that happen. That obstacle we’re still facing, but I’m encouraged by what I’m seeing here tonight.”

Individual action to decrease one’s carbon footprint is important, Mr. Mann said. “But the fact is, individual action alone isn’t going to get us these monumental reductions we need to see. We need collective action, and our collective action . . . is individuals banding together, campaigning, lobbying, getting out in the streets, making sure that there is awareness among the public and among policymakers. Individual action is an important part of collective action . . . but ultimately we need to force the hands of our politicians.”

Students around the world will start a climate strike on Sept. 20, just as world leaders prepare to gather at the United Nations headquarters for the Climate Action Summit 2019, Ms. Villaseñor said. “It’s a youth-led climate strike, but we’re telling adults to come out and support us and be our adult allies. We have to send a message to them that they take bold action to save our futures. I hope to see you all there.”

Ms. Villaseñor and Mr. Foster are “the reason I’m optimistic that we’re finally going to win this battle,” Mr. Mann said, “but they can’t do it alone. They need our help in every possible way that we can help them. And part of that is having their backs.”

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