Climate Change

For Gen Z, Climate Change is a Clear and Present Danger to our Planet

October 13, 2020  • Kiera O’Brien & Naina Agrawal-Hardin

This article originally appeared in USA Today.

In America, climate change is often portrayed as a ticking time bomb of far-off devastation through videos of dying polar bears, melting ice caps and rising flood waters. Rarely do we confront the cost that climate change is already having on lives across the globe, especially in marginalized communities.

Yet, after events in our families’ own backyards in the waterways of Ketchikan, Alaska, and the mountains of Tennessee, we each realized at a young age what our schools didn’t tell us: Climate change is an immediate threat.

The solutions to climate change that we learn about as young people have been inadequate or nonexistent.

Despite growing up more than 3,000 miles from each other, we have witnessed some of the same consequences of climate change, and we know that its urgency is not up for debate.

In Ketchikan, record-breaking temperatures and rainfall threaten the ecosystem Alaskans rely on for subsistence. In Tennessee, the risk of floods and even uncontrollable wildfires worsens every year.

In the world around us, climate change has altered the color of oceans, decimated homes and, recently in the west, set hundreds of thousands of acres on fire. The devastation of the climate crisis is clear. Yet the solutions to climate change that we learn about as young people have been inadequate or nonexistent.

Much of what we know about climate change we have learned by seeking out the information ourselves. We’ve relied on the media, external organizations and conversations with our peers to find hope in the face of the existential threat we face.

We could tell you that the average global sea level has already risen 4 to 8 inches or that fires this year have burned more than 600,000 acres in 14 states in the West. But you don’t need us to reiterate the severity of the climate crisis.  It’s here, and it’s intensifying.

Instead, we’d like to share what we’re doing about it and how you can help.

As members of Gen Z, we value connecting with our peers to help identify and implement solutions. We cannot do this alone. We seek to learn from the gains that other social movements have made in the past. Engaging in intergenerational collaboration will enable us to find solutions to meet the scale of the crisis.

That’s why we are working with the Aspen Institute to launch K12 Climate Action: a collaboration among key education and environment leaders to equip young people with the tools they need to combat climate change. By leveraging the education sector, we can ensure that the next generation of activists is empowered to face the climate challenge head on.

As commissioners of K12 Climate Action, we plan to spend the next year learning from experts; hearing from students, parents, educators and school leaders; and bringing our experience to the table.

We will demand climate action in our schools to mitigate their environmental impact and build their resilience. We will also advocate for curricular and teaching innovation to give young people a comprehensive understanding of the changing climate and how they can contribute to solutions. Unlocking the power of our educational systems as a force for climate action is a vitally important part of the sweeping societal mobilization needed to build a sustainable future.

While we may have roots on opposite ends of the country, we’ve seen first-hand how our communities have struggled to cope with the climate crisis. Our actions as a generation are rooted in our shared experiences with climate devastation. It does not matter if you live in Alaska or Tennessee, in the bayou of Louisiana or the forests of California: Young people know that our planet has reached a critical tipping point.

We are calling on our fellow young people to work with us on institutionalizing climate justice throughout our education sector.

We are in a learning and listening mode over the next year, and we want your input.  As students, what do you wish you learned about climate change in school? What is your school doing that works well? Do you wish your district would use electric buses? Do you want solar powered lights in your classrooms? Sustainably sourced food in your cafeterias? Curriculum on the social impacts of climate change, in addition to the science behind it? We welcome your ideas on the most important solutions to explore.

Gen Z has grown up experiencing the impact climate change is having on our planet, but the two of us didn’t learn about possible solutions; we had to discover them on our own. We are here to help other young people grow up with the sense of hope that we have worked so hard to find.

Working with people from all walks of life, we have the ability to turn the education sector into a force for both practical and visionary climate action.

Join us in creating a more sustainable, resilient and equitable world for everyone.

Kiera O’Brien is a Public Voices fellow of the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication and the OpEd Project and is the founder and president of Young Conservatives for Carbon Dividends. Naina Agrawal-Hardin is a senior in high school, local organizer in Ann Arbor, Mich., and the founder of the Sunrise Movement’s National Middle and High School Support Team.