For the last several months, I’ve been giving talks on climate change through Al Gore’s Climate Reality Corps. After the talks, the most poignant questions come from children, especially those in middle and high school, who seem to understand that their lives are going to be the most impacted by the climate crisis. They yearn to have an impact but feel powerless since they can’t vote yet and are frequently not taken seriously by adults (maybe Greta is changing that). But there’s a lot that children can do even without being able to vote. Here’s what I say:
#1 – Learn everything you can about the climate crisis. Read everything you can and watch YouTube videos of Greta’s speeches until you have an opinion on the issues and can express it. Note that this is a different kind of learning from school-nobody is going to grade you on this. This is learning in the real world – it’s what you had to do to learn Minecraft, or drawing or music or anything else you learned because it was a passion. Learn what a ton of carbon dioxide looks like, how much carbon dioxide an average American releases, who the biggest emitters are, what the effects of carbon dioxide are going to be, and how we can mitigate them, just to name a few.
#2 – Start to measure and reduce your own carbon footprint. Start asking your parents “Will this leave a better planet for me?” and then start making choices accordingly. This is one area where children have tremendous power because every parent wants a better life for their kids. So just point out where your own family’s decision might be at odds with the “better planet” idea. In most communities, it’s not okay to litter. It’s clear that it would damage the environment and anybody who litters is an outcast. Litterers don’t have a “social license” (permission from the rest of us) to litter. Right now, we all have a social license to pollute. As kids, you can help take that away. Finally, note what’s easy and what’s hard about making these changes. Our own consumption decisions are not going to solve the climate crisis by themselves – we have to change the systems that enable the social license to pollute. But what’s valuable is how your personal changes highlight systems that need to change to get to a zero-carbon economy.
#3 – Start talking. Extinction Rebellion in England has the explicit goal of activating 3.5% of the population. They believe that cultural change occurs once 3.5% believe and start to get involved. You can’t vote as a child, but you sure can convince other people. Talk to everyone you know. Put together a little presentation about what you believe and why. Start with your family and talk to aunts, uncles, and grandparents especially if they live in a swing state and they vote. Make sure they get it. Then start talking in your community. Write articles in your school newspaper, your local paper, or give a speech to a Rotary club. You don’t have to address the United Nations like Greta, but you could find a way to be Greta in your local community.
#4 – Finally, get involved. Find an issue that you care about, find a group that’s working on it, and start volunteering. If you look at the big things that we’ve accomplished in this country (WWII, putting a man on the moon, the Women’s Suffrage movement, Civil Rights, Gay Marriage, just to name a few), we didn’t accomplish those by working separately – we accomplished them because we worked together. You can volunteer as a child. There is no age limit – all you have to do is show you can get things done.
My own 13-year-old daughter has been volunteering with a group called Youth vs Apocalypse on the campaign with the goal of getting CalSTRS (the 11th largest pension fund in the country) to divest oil and gas stocks. Three months ago, she didn’t know what divestment was. After demonstrations, die-ins, and pressure from beneficiaries of the pension fund, last week her group met with the CEO of CalSTRS to present their demands. They aren’t done, but the efforts of a group of teens have clearly had an impact. Yours can too.