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People Before Partisanship: How Young Millennials are Taking Charge on Climate Change

In Cape Town, South Africa, a group of young schoolboys, eyes strained, arms fatigued, but resolve unwavered, gathered under the glaring sun to advocate for a “Green Mama Africa.” In Kiev, Ukraine, a girl dressed in a polar bear costume stood firmly in line with other protesters and held up a sign that read “PROTECT OUR HOME.” In Washington, D.C., 16-year-old Isra Hirsi, daughter of U.S. Representative Ilhan Omar, led a 100-person protest in front of the U.S. Capitol to champion the Green New Deal.

From Sydney to Seoul, Delhi to Dublin, London to Lisbon, an estimated 1.4 million students from 123 countries skipped school on March 15, 2019 to rally for stronger climate change policies. According to CNN, it was possibly the largest organized environmental protest in history. The school strikes were largely galvanized by the release of a landmark report on climate change: In October 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) announced that there could be a 1.5°C rise in global temperatures in as few as 12 yearsenough to cause irreparable damages and render society unsustainable by 2030. Scientists predict that scorching heat waves, frequent extreme storms, and hundreds of thousands of climate change related deaths could occur as a result.

Millennials across the nation have been tackling the issue from all different angles, including rallying for environmentally conscious policies, devising sustainable energy solutions, and directly suing the United States government. A survey conducted by The Conference Board in 2017 showed that millennials tend to be the most supportive of combating climate change, with support gradually waning as age progresses. Since older Americans are more likely to vote and three times more likely to make political donations, they likewise hold more political clout over younger generations. These setbacks, however, have only driven determined millenials to leverage their power in ways beyond the voting booth.

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Alex Loznak, a senior at Columbia University, is among a group of 21 youth plaintiffs who are taking the matter directly to the courts. The lawsuit, Juliana v. U.S., was originally filed in 2015 at the Oregon District Court and has since then taken off to the Supreme Court. Ranging from ages 11 to 23, the plaintiffs accuse the government of pursuing environmentally damaging energy policies that jeopardize future generations, which in turn infringe on their rights to life, liberty, and property.

The case is the first-ever lawsuit in the country in which a federal judge had supported the constitutional right to a clean environment. In 2016, Judge Ann Aiken of the U.S. District Court of Oregon wrote, “Exercising my reasoned judgment, I have no doubt that the right to a climate system capable of sustaining human life is fundamental to a free and ordered society.”

According to Loznak, government scientists already had a fairly good understanding of the mechanisms of climate change as early as 1955. Many of the scientists’ predictions from over half a century ago, such as the melting of Arctic sea ice and the rise of sea levels by 10 to 15 feet, have already started to happen.

“Part of the argument is showing that government policy over the past 60 years has actively perpetuated and continued the reliance on fossil fuel energy sources…[such as by] subsidizing fossil fuels and leasing out federal lands for fossil fuel production,” Loznak told The Politic.

The core of the lawsuit lies in the plaintiffs’ young ages. With decades of their lives remaining, the evermore pressing impacts of climate change could detriment their wellbeing in ways that older Americans would not live to experience.

“I can’t deal with the idea that what my parents experienced and what I have experienced will not exist for my children,” co-plaintiff Nathan Baring, age 19 from Fairbanks, Alaska, told National Geographic. “I am a winter person. I won’t sit idly by and watch winter vanish.”

The plaintiffs, however, are fighting an uphill battle. Maneuvering around legal and political obstacles is a nightmare. Government lawyers have persistently tried to get the case dismissed by appealing to the Supreme Court and the 9th circuit multiple times, as well as long-stalling a trial originally scheduled for October 2018.

Currently, the case is at a standstill with no new trial date, but the plaintiffs have far from condeded. They have found support from both the government and the public, with eight Congress members and over 30,000 youths signing amicus briefs in support of advancing the case to trial. Government lawyers have thus far lost on every appeal to the ruling.

“The fact that federal judges have actually ruled in our favor and deny the motion to dismiss is huge,” co-plaintiff Xiuhtezcatl Martinez said in an interview with Bifrost, a climate change intervention organization. “This just shows the power of our own voices, the power of this lawsuit, of legal action. If we can defeat the fossil fuel industry and the U.S. government when they tried to deny us the right to our voice, I have no doubt that we will win in Court when we have our trial.”

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While the lawsuit is currently on hold, students across the nation have used various other strategies to fight for environmental protection. The Sunrise Movement, a national movement led by youth, has already become one of the most prominent environmental groups of the nation, staging sit-ins outside of legislative offices and aggressively lobbying politicians to support the Green New Deal.

In November 2018, Nora Heaphy ‘21, a student environmental activist and organizer of Sunrise New Haven, campaigned a sidewalk protest and sit-in at the office of U.S. Representative Rosa DeLauro, pressuring the Congresswoman to sign a resolution that would create a House Select Committee on the Green New Deal. The committee’s goals would include making a 100 percent transition to renewable energy, drastically cutting down carbon emissions, and creating millions of new clean energy jobs.

“Leaders of both political parties have really failed to come up with a plan to seriously address climate change, but we, the young people of this country, have a plan,” Heaphy told The Politic.

Although the Sunrise team was launched fairly recently in 2017, the burgeoning grassroots movement’s bold and visionary narrative has already attracted the attention of mass media, garnered support from big name politicians such as Senator Elizabeth Warren, and gained fundraising from major donors such as The Rockefeller Fund and the Wallace Foundation. The group’s publicity soared on November 13, 2018, when U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez personally joined a Sunrise sit-in at the office of Nancy Pelosi, demanding that the Democrats take effective action on climate change.

“It’s definitely really encouraging to see groups like the Sunrise Movement, which really sprung up out of the blue, become as prominent and powerful as they have so quickly,” Loznak told The Politic.

Besides the Sunrise Movement, Heaphy is also heavily involved in Fossil Free Yale, a student group fighting to pressure Yale into divesting its multi-billionaire dollar endowments from fossil fuel companies. The group has created divestment proposals and conducted several rallies and protests, including a 300-person sit-in at the Yale investment office in December 2018, where 48 students were arrested.

Fossil Free Yale is part of a global Fossil Free campaign of 350.org to exclude all investments in the fossil fuel industry. Since its launch in 2011, the cumulative value of committed divestments has already totalled $8.73 trillion from over 1000 organizations, including over 100 educational institutions.

“We have the technology and the policy blueprints to achieve a renewable energy society, but it’s the lack of political willpower that is obstructing progress—and that is because of politicians that are funded by fossil fuel industries,” Jamie Chan ‘22, member of Fossil Free Yale, told The Politic.

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Around the nation, students are hoping to incite greater political action on climate change by introducing bipartisan solutions that would appeal to both liberals and conservatives. Students for Carbon Dividends (S4CD), a nationwide student coalition of mainly College Republicans, strives to bring forth a cogent proposal that can win support from right-wing parties.

“One of our key ideas is that there really is a generational divide within the Republican Party on climate change,” Alexander Posner ’19, president of S4CD at Yale, told The Politic. “Young conservatives are much more likely to care about the issue and much more likely to have studied climate science in school. With many decades of their lives ahead, they have the most to gain or lose from addressing the issue.”

Instead of being forced to choose between ignoring climate change and imposing a big government regulatory scheme, the student group believes a middle solution can be offered with the Baker-Schultz Carbon Dividends plan, a bipartisan proposal to put a heavy tax on carbon pollution while also cutting down on environmental regulation.

“It has the feature of being genuinely good for the environment, and it also is market-friendly,” said Posner. The plan would create a tax of $40 per ton of carbon dioxide emitted, which has been estimated to be able to prevent 16.8 billion metric tons of carbon pollution. It also calls for limiting the power of the Environmental Protection Agency and slashing current regulations that would be redundant should the tax be implemented.

By reaching out to leading economists and recruiting interest in the media, the group has already racked up endorsement from a slew of influential experts, including Nobel laureates and former Federal Reserve chairs. College Republican groups from over a dozen schools have supported the cause—the first time any College Republican group has backed a national climate change solution—and it has attracted support from College Democrats and environmental advocacy groups as well.

Although the Baker-Shultz plan has amassed support from young conservatives and conservative academics, the proposal has so far been largely dismissed by Republican congressmen and senators. The topic of combating climate change is currently low on the party’s legislative agenda, and President Trump has made clear that he has little interest in rectifying the issue.

“The more natural divide is not between left and right, but between young and old,” said Posner. “Millenials should really be leading the charge on solving this.”

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Younger generations, regardless of where they fall on the political spectrum, tend to be less divided on the issue of climate change. Loznak believes that future voter bases will be more solidly supportive of climate change action as younger voters gradually age. However, with each decade that passes, the challenges and implications of climate change also rise in number and severity.

Daniel Schrag, Sturgis Hooper Professor of Geology and Professor of Environmental Science and Engineering at Harvard University, believes there needs to be more than just political action. Too often, he says, the economic and industrial challenges that come with climate change go unacknowledged.

“Even with extraordinary political will, the timescale of turning over the energy systems is limited partly based on how fast we can build stuff, and that takes a while,” he said. “There are technological challenges that we haven’t solved yet. How do you make jet fuel without using petroleum? And if you do it with biomass, how do you keep the biomass demand from cutting down all the forests of the world?”

In fact, student groups all over the country are working diligently to devise and execute technological solutions to climate change. At Yale University, Project Bright works to develop ideas for incorporating more solar energy with hands-on installations. At Cornell, Engineers for a Sustainable World looks to implement technology that can secure a sustainable planet. Some of their projects include “a Savonius wind turbine for on-campus charging, a local fats-oils-and-greases collection station for biodiesel conversion, a solar kiosk for paperless advertising, and a composting latrine in rural Nicaragua.” Engineers Without Borders, an organization that brings environmentally friendly projects to disadvantaged communities, has established over 300 chapters in the U.S., including dozens of university chapters.

All throughout the nation, student groups have empowered young adults to take charge of the future of energy by developing more renewable energy systems for upcoming generations.

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While the youth have certainly taken tremendous leads to mitigate and prevent the ramifications of human-influenced climate change, successfully combating climate change would require not just a mass movement of the youth, but a mass movement of the entire population. Older people currently in power must take drastic and rapid action in order to meet the demands of science. According to the Climate Action Tracker, a continuation of current policies is more than 97 percent likely to exceed 2°C warming, and even meeting the proposed pledges would still carry a likelihood of 90 percent.

“Adults keep saying, ‘We owe it to the young people to give them hope,’” Greta Thunberg, a 16-year-old activist who inspired the wave of international school strikes, told the World Economic Forum earlier this year. “But I don’t want your hope. I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then I want you to act. I want you to act as you would in a crisis. I want you to act as if our house is on fire. Because it is.”