While the landscape of climate activism is always changing, recent years have seen a major influx of new voices into the climate movement – and they are much younger than what mainstream environmentalism is used to. Youth climate activism has encouraged major shifts in the climate policy discussion towards a more diverse, intersectional, and holistic approach to fighting climate change. Understanding the concerns identified by youth activists, as well as their proposed solutions and pathways, is essential for all climate policy stakeholders hoping to shape truly innovative and inclusive policies.
Climate XChange invited three youth activists to speak on our March webinar to share their perspectives on how policy stakeholders can meaningfully include youth voices. Lyla Choi, Policy Analyst at Zero Hour, Aaditi Lele, Student Fellow at Change the Chamber, and Shiv Soin, Executive Director at TREEage joined us to discuss lessons, challenges, and opportunities for climate policy from the perspective of youth activists.
Lyla Choi, Zero Hour
Lyla Choi, Policy Analyst at Zero Hour, was the first of our three presentations, highlighting the work that Zero Hour does at the state level and the role of youth voices in state decision-making spaces. Zero Hour is a youth climate organization founded in 2017 to promote the role of youth voices in climate conversations.
Zero Hour’s current work is centered around fossil fuel infrastructure. Their 2022 priorities include stopping fossil fuel leases, shutting down fossil fuel infrastructure, eliminating fossil fuel subsidies, securing congressional cosponsors of Green New Deal bills, and stopping factory farms and false agricultural solutions. Most of their work on these issues, especially relating to fossil fuel infrastructure, comes in the form of collaboration with coalitions like Stop the Money Pipeline and Build Back Fossil Free, and consists of adult and youth organizations working to end fossil fuel subsidies and protest fossil fuel leases. The Zero Hour Policy Team is also in the midst of endorsements for the upcoming 2022 midterm elections, which includes endorsing candidates that share their goals surrounding fossil fuel infrastructure. These endorsements are for members of Congress as well as gubernatorial and state legislature candidates.
Zero Hour also has over 20 chapters across the United States whose work focuses on local climate issues. For example, their New York state chapter is involved in the state climate coalition New York Renews; this coalition helped pass the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act in 2019, the most aggressive climate law in the country, and just recently on March 8th, gathered over 500 people in the state capital to demand $15 billion for climate justice in the New York State budget.
Lyla went on to stress that the role of youth in state climate decisions is a vital one. The state sphere offers a unique opportunity for closer interactions between representatives and constituents, especially younger constituents. Therefore, we can push states to adopt legislation that would be almost impossible to enact on the federal level due to fierce party disagreements or, often, just one stubborn Senator. Overall, the presence of youth at the state level benefits everyone involved. These future legislators are getting a head start on learning about the ins and outs of state government so they can already have expertise when they later assume office.
Additionally, state legislative bodies can hear directly from a group of constituents who are most affected by state climate decisions and who may be able to highlight simple solutions to climate issues. Youth climate organizations like Zero Hour also provide a broad social media platform to disseminate climate knowledge and educate thousands of young people around the world about the newest occurrences in climate policy.
When bringing youth voices to the table during these state-level discussions, some best practices include maintaining ongoing relationships with youth organizations to constantly get their feedback and perspectives on new climate initiatives and ensuring that meetings with youth organizations are not just a one-time publicity tactic. It is also important to note that while youth climate organizations such as Zero Hour provide a lot of social media and educational support relating to climate policy from a variety of angles, youth climate activists still need to have a larger role in policy-influencing decisions.
While over the past several years involvement of youth voices in policymaking has improved, young people also need to be put in decision-making positions instead of being tokenized. So often, they enter meetings with adults in the climate space who are not interested in listening to any demands and instead are simply meeting with youth to improve their own image. This does not only apply to policymakers, as there are many steps those in nonprofits, think tanks, and the private sector can take to incorporate youth voices when working on climate activism. Examples include consulting youth on new climate policy research reports or asking for feedback on new climate initiatives.
In general, there is a reluctance to put young people in any sort of decision-making position out of fear that they do not fully understand the legal processes or that they will make rash judgments. In reality, young people – coming to terms with climate depression and growing up surrounded by record-breaking hurricanes and wildfires every year – are the people who understand the consequences of our legislative and corporate decisions the most. They read the IPCC reports, monitor the introduction of new climate legislation, and follow the federal and state legislative processes closely. Every policy on the federal and state level that they advocate for is well-informed.
Much of Zero Hour’s climate policy platform is progressive, because they have internalized the urgency of climate reports in research, and the legislation that they choose to support, as progressive as it may be, provides the only solutions that they see can help us reach a safe climate threshold. What they need at both the federal and state level is for legislators and other state-level actors to not be wary of making big leaps and climate decisions, whether that be policy demands at the state level or sustainability demands in the private sector. They also need federal and state-level actors to continue to build and maintain relationships with youth organizations.
As previously mentioned, much of Zero Hour’s current work is focused on fossil fuel infrastructure. As such, some of their state-level demands include calling on governors and state legislators to block new pipeline projects in their states and invest in large-scale renewable energy projects. Additionally, Zero Hour demands that governors across the country declare climate emergencies for their states and create statewide emissions standards, which has already been done in Hawaii and California. While many of these demands seem ambitious, they are necessary in order to meet the climate thresholds given by the IPCC and other global climate reports, or even to meet the United States’ climate goals. Their demands are similar to the demands of many other adult climate organizations, and by looking at the progress of New York, Hawaii, and California, it is clear that these state-level goals are possible.
Zero Hour is working with, and would love to build new relationships with, any other organization or legislator who shares their values to achieve these state-level demands. Please reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org to be connected to Lyla if you are involved in similar work or would like to learn more about what they do.
Aaditi Lele, Change the Chamber
Aaditi Lele, Student Fellow at Change the Chamber, joined to discuss what Change the Chamber does as a youth climate organization, how to bring youth voices to the table, and takeaways for climate policy stakeholders. Change the Chamber is a bipartisan group of students who are trying to take on the largest dark money, pro-fossil fuel group in the United States, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. They work on social media, in congressional meetings, and across international coalitions to demand the Chamber and its corporate donors put the planet before their profits.
Change the Chamber supports the implementation of already proven renewable energies and energy efficiency technologies to reduce greenhouse gasses, help stabilize the climate, and prevent the worst impacts of climate change. They want updated governmental policies that will support meeting science-based targets for climate change and will encourage affordable and clean energy for all. They do this all within the framework of combatting the effects that the Chamber has on those policies right now.
Change the Chamber is organized by young leaders in the climate movement, and they work by identifying systems and sources of power that are meddling with their future as young people. Right now, one of those systems is trade organizations such as the Chamber of Commerce. Whether that is the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, their counterparts at the state level, or even universities, Change the Chamber is interested in tackling the climate crisis systemically. Bringing youth voices to the table is really key to any environmental justice movement. The young voices on Change the Chamber’s team provide fresh perspectives, passion, and a willingness to learn.
One of the ways they work to highlight the climate obstruction of the Chamber of Commerce is through reports. Some of the highlights from their most recent report on the first three quarters of 2021 include the fact that the Chamber has successfully lobbied the House and Senate to vote down multiple bills that would have been important to the future of the climate, including three moratoriums on offshore drilling and the No Oil Producing and Exporting Cartels (NOPEC) Act. The Chamber also successfully lobbied the EPA to change the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) so that it would no longer measure how new fossil fuel infrastructure will contribute to global warming. Change the Chamber is interested in identifying the hypocrisy of actions that the Chamber of Commerce and its member companies are taking, and how that’s obstructing young people’s futures.
Another way they highlight these actions is by doing in-depth research into the campaign donations that the Chamber of Commerce is making into each election. Using data from the Federal Election Commission (FEC) to track the Chamber’s campaign contributions for each election cycle, they found that the majority of these funds are going to climate denying candidates. Accounting for these public donations alone, the Chamber has spent millions of dollars each year on electing climate deniers to Congress, and those elections stall state-level improvements.
Another piece of their work is highlighting some of the member companies within the Chamber of Commerce and showing how some of them claim progressive climate stances that are in conflict with their membership with the Chamber. They’ve found that dozens of high-profile companies are members of the Chamber of Commerce, making them complicit in the lobbying they fund. At Change the Chamber, they work to target and work with these companies to highlight that their complacency in the Chamber’s climate denial is itself an outright denial of their own public-facing climate policies. They’ve had a lot of success meeting with these companies themselves and working with them to change the Chamber, whether from the inside or externally.
Another major part of their work is direct action. With members in every state and across many campuses, Change the Chamber has had a lot of success working as a remote group to bring these students together across the country for direct action. Helping young people to get the resources they need to make efficient and successful action on their campuses is a great way to support them and help their voices be heard on a state level.
Change the Chamber brings youth voices to the table in various ways, such as creating opportunities for members to be involved in congressional meetings by using their expansive network of students and leveraging their constituent connections. They’ve been successful in this endeavor, meeting with over 40 different congressional offices in the Senate and the House and lobbying for strong climate justice and clean energy provisions in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and the Build Back Better Act. Students have also been involved in industry meetings with solar and wind interests, allowing students to hear the needs of these industries and bring their perspectives to their congressional meetings. Students requested, built, and organized these meetings entirely on their own.
Another important way Change the Chamber organizes youth is through partnerships and international coalitions. Involving youth in these experiences has been a great way to build skills and have their voices heard, because they have unique demands coming from their state-level knowledge. Being able to bring those to international coalitions is extremely important.
They also empower students through campus direct action, through building a coalition of hundreds of campus groups across the country. These groups create hubs for campus action such that Change the Chamber can provide training and resources that otherwise might not be available to them. These direct actions include running protests at their state legislature, lobbying for state bills and doing research into their own state-level Chambers of Commerce.
Skills building is a huge part of how they support youth organizers in their network. Change the Chamber is organized into different teams such as media, congressional outreach, research, and more, allowing students to develop their specific interests. The organization also provides toolkits and mentorship frameworks to hone students’ skills. Given these opportunities, young people are able to achieve major success.
In conclusion, Change the Chamber has a few main takeaways from working with youth activists:
- Young people view environmental justice problems systemically.
- Youth should be brought into conversations with policymakers.
- Youth perspectives should not be tokenized as activists, they should be centered.
- Youth are capable of more than expected, and they should be given responsibilities and opportunities to build skills.
- Youth should be supported in building their own movements without others taking over their work.
- Young people build local social networks effectively, and these should be used for state-level organizing.
If you’re interested in learning more about Change the Chamber’s work, please reach out to email@example.com to be connected to Aaditi.
Shiv Soin, TREEage
Shiv Soin, Executive Director at TREEage, joined to discuss his work with the organization in New York City and New York State. They have over 300 members across 40 schools in New York City, working primarily with the City Council and the state legislature. The organization got started in 2019 during the September climate strikes, where they mobilized a strike of over 315,000 people in the streets of lower Manhattan. Since then, they’ve learned how to build power across the state as young people in various ways.
The first way they’ve learned to build power is base building. Their membership is mostly based in the Bronx, although they are developing their membership consistently throughout Queens and the outer boroughs. They strive to have a strong membership base that represents the city, and the majority of their members are students of color. Having this strong membership base is extremely important in developing policy and fighting for change, so recruiting members and developing training on how to organize and canvas has been essential for building power.
The second important piece is getting involved in elections. New York City and the state have a Democratic control of all levels of government, with a supermajority in the state legislature and more than a supermajority in the City Council, but this does not translate into securing every legislative win they want. They endorsed six candidates for the 2021 City Council elections, five of whom won. This has been essential for their policy work.
Another important piece of the work they’re doing at the state level is as a member of the steering committee of New York Renews, leading strategy and mobilization for the coalition.
One example of their success is their work for incoming Councilmember Tiffany Cabán, who represents an area of western Queens particularly vulnerable to the climate crisis. The area has high rates of asthma and some of the dirtiest school buildings in the city, and it was hit particularly hard by Hurricane Ida in 2021. TREEage endorsed Cabán in October of 2020 for the June 2021 primary and worked on her Green New Deal platform. This is a perfect example of how young people can be involved in policymaking with a leading voice. They developed a list of experts and constituents to work with and identified top areas of impact, successfully creating an accommodating platform and an ideal framework for youth engagement.
Another example of TREEage’s success is with building out green schools. In New York City, buildings are responsible for 75 percent of emissions, and schools are at the top. They developed a comprehensive plan to create 100,000 jobs over three years with a coalition of environmental and labor groups. Bringing student voices into these conversations, from schools that were the most impacted, was essential to identifying what the real issues were. Treating young people as partners in this process was extremely important, otherwise this platform could not have been as strong as it was.
TREEage is also working at the state level on the budget. They are working with their allies in the Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic & Asian Legislative Caucus on the Caucus’ “People’s Budget”, an idea of what the budget should look like. TREEage advised them on their climate package and inserted their own language on climate and public schools.
It is essential to create a welcoming environment for youth to be a part of climate policy discussions. Young people are not afraid to learn about policy, but rather are often not given a suitable environment to learn and develop the skills to work alongside adult actors. Building out the infrastructure now to ensure that every generation of youth voices can and will be included in these conversations is extremely important.
If you’re interested in learning more about TREEage’s work, please reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org to be connected to Shiv.
Young people are not afraid of policy, nor are they inadequately prepared to be involved in policymaking. Given access to climate policy spaces and resources, they have shown, and will continue to show, success in developing innovative and successful climate solutions. It is essential for non-youth stakeholders to recognize this and meaningfully include their perspectives in all climate policy work. Only with this genuine collaboration can we craft truly equitable and effective climate policy.