Climate action conversation with four changemakers

 The One Where We Discussed Climate Action with Youth Changemakers"

The University of Waterloo’s Sustainability Office held its eighth annual Eco Summit with the theme: “Youth Leading the Way for Climate Action”.

This virtual summit brought the campus community together to celebrate Waterloo’s progress in sustainability and spotlighted changemakers accelerating climate action with the goal of inspiring other young people to do the same. The Eco Summit took place from November 24th to 25th. The main event on the 24th included the launch of the 2021 Sustainability Report, campus initiative highlights, and presentation of Green Office and Green Labs Certificates. The side events on the 25th involved a panel discussion and a networking session to offer an opportunity to hear and engage with youth voices in the sustainability realm.

If you missed the panel discussion during the Eco Summit or submitted questions we didn’t get to ask, we got your back! We reached back out to the panel guests we invited to speak at our panel discussion to amplify their thoughts on youth’s impactful role in the climate movement. Let’s introduce:

  • Michelle Angkasa - Environment and Business student,
  • Jordan Lin - Co-founder of ReImagine17,
  • Beth Eden - Interim CEO, QS World Merit, and
  • Ilona Dougherty - Managing Director of Youth & Innovation Project.

Please note: Some responses were edited and condensed for clarity.

1. What do you think are the most common misconceptions about young people and getting involved with climate action?

Michelle Angkasa: Often, the only knowledge that's considered valuable in our society is typically from someone of a certain age and class, with post-secondary education and decades of work experience. Knowledge from other kinds of folks (e.g. those who are young or from marginalized populations) is often discounted because it's personal, "subjective,” or from lived experience. This is a significant misconception since this is used as a tool to keep youth out of the climate conversation, where their presence is so needed.

Jordan Lin: Youth are seen as inexperienced or unknowledgeable on the issues they are fighting for or involved in due to the common belief that wisdom and knowledge come with age. From personal experiences, many youths, especially those heavily invested in climate action, do indeed understand the scope of the issue at hand.

Beth Eden: The very common misconception is that young people are uneducated and don't understand the complexity of climate change. But young people have a lot more at stake to learn, adapt and act on climate change. They can learn incredibly fast, and their adaptability is commendable. I think young people are often more engaged in the climate space than adults and therefore, are more educated about the climate crisis from a community level where it matters. We must provide spaces for them to be heard. What they are saying isn't always opinion but fact.

Ilona Dougherty: The most common misconception about young people from my experience is that while they are young, they are best suited for learning or ‘practicing being changemakers’ and won’t have a real impact until they are older. The truth is young people are often at the forefront of movements, and that they have unique abilities while they are young that we need if we hope to solve the social and environmental problems. Learn more about young people’s unique abilities from our Youth and Innovation project.

2. What advice do you have for people acting for the climate or supporting young people in taking action for the environment?

Michelle Angkasa: First, reject fatalism and apathy. Every incremental victory we make is valuable and important, even if it seems small in the grand scheme of things. Second, critique the status quo. Think deeply about how our culture of extractive, colonial, neoliberal capitalism, and goal of infinite growth on a finite planet has gotten us into this mess in the first place. Third, be wary of technical, institutional-led, top-down solutions. Any climate solution that uses tech or heavy-handed regulation instead of being intersectional and working with the people on the frontlines should be rethought. 

Jordan Lin: First, represent youth and have them represented by providing them seats at decision making and program development tables. Second, give funding to provide paid youth internships and honoraria for knowledge and time spent working on ad hoc programs/events. This is especially important when you consider that youth who are studying can really benefit from financial support. It also energizes and reinforces interest in the endeavors.  The third is integrating climate science and background information into elementary and high school curricula is an important aspect of setting the facts and best practices straight from an early stage. 

Beth Eden: From experience, I would say the best advice that I took was setting boundaries and valuing self-care. It is easy to get burnt out working in the climate space. But we can't be effective if we get ourselves sick. Keep people around you who help you to establish and keep you accountable to healthy boundaries. Also, keep in mind that you often don't see the direct result of your work or impact. As climate issues are systemic, your work may create a ripple effect, but it may take time. You may not see the results straight away or in the way you have hoped. But celebrate the small victories!

Ilona Dougherty:  Our research shows that focusing on influencing decision-makers, working to leverage systems and institutions that have power, and thinking like a movement are all key to young people amplifying their impact. More tips on how young people can amplify their impact are on Youth and Innovation Project.

3. What skills would you say are crucial for youth leading the climate change movement?

Michelle Angkasa: I recommend learning how to be a great communicator that calls in a diverse range of people to the climate change movement. We need everyone on board: leveraging unique perspectives, identities, lived experiences, and knowledge to create an equitable and sustainable future. 

Jordan Lin: I find that a combination of both technical and soft skills is crucial. Technical can take form in your academic program or professional endeavours such as co-ops. This builds the foundation of your contribution to the climate change movement in terms of groundwork you can add to. Soft skills like interpersonal and teamwork skills are also vital to organize and communicate the movement.

Beth Eden: I think every person can offer different skills to this movement and they are all equally valued. We can't all be public speakers or community developers; we need GIS technicians, statisticians, accountants, etc. The skills that I have utilized the most have been fundraising, communication and networking. I never imagined my accounting classes at the University of Waterloo would come into climate work, but they do. Campaigns are run by local donations, and you need to be financially savvy to make the most of what you've got. I believe it's also important to learn how to translate your wants and needs to potential investors and supporters.

Ilona Dougherty: From my experience, the most important thing for young people who hope to lead in the climate change movement is to realize that this work will be a marathon, not a sprint, and as such, taking care of yourself and each other as well as prioritizing wellbeing is essential. For more information about where to start and the importance of wellbeing as we work towards social and environmental change, check out The Wellbeing Project.

4. How would you recommend youth get involved with climate change action?

Michelle Angkasa: Take a look at your local context and see where you can bring value to existing work! Explore how you can push the communities you're a part of (e.g. your program, faith community, found family) to take bold climate action. 

Jordan Lin: Explore on-campus programs, such as St. Paul’s Greenhouse Incubator, Youth and Innovation Project, and Sustainability Action Fund. Consider joining clubs which you can browse through the Sustainability Office. Look into the President’s Advisory Committee Environmental Sustainability (PACES) and the Waterloo Undergraduate Student Association (WUSA) Sustainability Project. Join a company that focuses on sustainable development.

Beth Eden: I recommend getting political as most decisions on climate happen at the top. The Government of Canada still subsidizes the fossil fuel industry with millions of taxpayers' dollars. I applied to the City of Waterloo Sustainability Advisory Council, and it was an incredible experience to be a part of municipal climate action and enact climate energy. Seek opportunities to sit on local governmental boards or get political by joining an Electoral District Association (EDAs) for a party you believe aligns with your climate values. EDAs support your local candidate for governmental elections. I believe campaigning, community development and policy are something everyone should have experience with. Campaigning for an election is also a great experience to learn how to speak clearly about policy and community development.

Ilona Dougherty: Getting involved in politics by running for office, joining the youth wing of a political party, or supporting a political candidate are great ways to get involved and move forward with action on climate change. For more information about getting civically engaged, check out Apathy is Boring.

5. How do I get over the feeling that I’m a bad climate activist? Is there anything like a good climate activist?

Michelle Angkasa: This is a valid fear and a natural reaction! However, it’s important to keep things in perspective. As the oft-cited statistic goes, just 100 companies create 71% of global carbon emissions. The actions that make the largest impact are so bigger than us. This realization can be both liberating and terrifying. It can be liberating because you’ll emerge with a much clearer idea of the struggles that matter. It can be terrifying because you realize how small you are as a single person in the grand scheme of things. I advise you to sit with that tension but not to let it discourage you. While there is no “right” way to be a climate activist, as long as you keep your focus on what’s truly important and try your best to bring others along with you, you’re doing fine.

Jordan Lin: I resonate with this question because I have also had this conversation with friends before about “is what I am doing enough?” One metric I landed on to give me a goal and understand my impact is using the Earth Overshoot Day / Ecological Footprint Calculator. By inputting your habits and answers to lifestyle questions, the calculator will tell you how many planets it takes to support your lifestyle.

Beth Eden: Of course, all the time, but most issues are systemic. Without changing the systems we use in our daily lives, we cannot be fully climate neutral. We need to hold onto the actions that we do have control of, such as our material and carbon footprints with transportation, consumption, and diets. 

Ilona Dougherty: It is important to remember that no one is perfect, and we all should do the best we can with the resources we have. If you are making thoughtful choices whenever you can and working towards systems change, you are a good climate activist in my books!

6. What makes today's youth different from other generations when tackling such monumental issues like climate change?

Michelle Angkasa: Every generation of youth has a bit of a rebellious, anti-establishment streak, but I think Gen Z is especially cynical. Since we have so much more access to information and can constantly be dialed into the global conversation, we have a much clearer picture of how the world works, and by extension, what’s wrong with it. Gen Z is a very jaded generation. We live in a time of unprecedented social upheaval, where the only constant seems to be uncertainty. I think because of that, we’re fighting for our futures, as well as the futures of coming generations. There is a distinctly existential threat motivating our movements. This can be a strategic opportunity since the voice of youth can rise above the fray and hold those in power to account.

Jordan Lin: We have the internet, we have social media, and we have an audience because of this. We also have a collective movement that we all feel committed to because these platforms have connected us. They allow us to meet like-minded individuals and groups, mobilize our connections, organize amongst ourselves, and create messaging to the broader public. However, there are also dangers of these platforms in the form of the spread of misinformation, falsified science by fossil fuel lobbyists, polarization, and toxic and unproductive discussion. It takes a balance to strike the right note on advocacy through the internet and social media.

Beth Eden: I think our generation has been permitted by youth activists, such as Greta, to be outspoken! We are a lot fierier, and we have global attention like no other time. I think we can thank social media for that!

Ilona Dougherty: Young people of each generation tend to be at the forefront of the important movements of the day, in part because they are wired that way. Learn more about this from the Youth and Innovation Project. For more information about what makes Generation Z unique, learn from the Canadian Encyclopedia.

7. Do you think COVID-19 has impacted youth and climate action momentum? If so, how? Why do you think that is? What can be done?

Michelle: I experienced this firsthand in the summer of 2020 when I served as one of the national representatives from Our Time on the Not Going Back campaign. Our coalition of youth-led climate justice groups capitalized on the Throne Speech to mobilize youth from around the country to push for a series of intersectional, equity and climate-focused demands. I learned a lot about decentralized, online organizing during that time. While it requires a lot more trust and flexibility, it can also be an opportunity to collaborate with people you might not otherwise have connected with. Online meetings can also be more accessible for immunocompromised, neurodivergent, and disabled folks. I’m really glad the climate action space has become more aware of the importance of respecting capacity (to prevent burnout) and proactively accommodating individual access needs (e.g. closed captioning or live transcription during meetings). We need to continue to be more creative and inclusive about ways we can call in and engage with people, whether online or in-person.

Jordan: Definitely. Both good and bad. The good is through a global pause through the initial lockdowns that have allowed youth to reflect on their position and purpose in society. This mobilized many movements, not just the climate change one—more time for learning and connecting created a worldwide community of climate advocacy practice. The bad is that despite a slowdown in global industries, only a fraction of emissions were reduced, and lots have returned to business as usual. This is likely due to the path of least resistance and the familiarity and reminiscence of going back to normal. Also, historical trends have shown that after recessions or global economic slow periods, an increase follows that brings emissions back up to where they were (which is mentioned in Bill Gates’ new book on “How to avoid a climate catastrophe”). What can be done is taking the pandemic as a lesson that swift action is required for climate and using the opening of a reset to change private sector, civil society, and government behavior to build a green recovery. 

Beth Eden: It has allowed us to have more digital discourse, which has also caused extreme polarization online. I think taking a humanistic, personal approach is the way forward. After all, we are emotional creatures and act out of what we feel. If we can make someone feel something about climate change, we are successful in moving forward the climate agenda. 

Special thanks to Maria Fraser Semenoff, Aleksandra Spasevski, and Mat Thijssen for reviewing this blog article.

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