For Youth, Global Climate Change is About Action, Not Debate: Children Vulnerable to Climate Effects

Kim Krisberg

Nations Health. 2008;38(2) 

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First in a series of stories on climate change and health in conjunction with APHA's 2008 National Public Health Week observance, which takes place April 7-13 and has a theme of "Climate Change: Our Health in the Balance."

In 2004, a hurricane named Ivan slammed into the small island nation of Grenada in the southeastern Caribbean Sea, leaving devastation and ruin in its wake. For Abe Fergusson, who lives just south of Grenada in Trinidad and Tobago, the hurricane was a defining moment, propelling the now 15-year-old to become one of the many international youth voices of climate change.

Fergusson's aunt lives in Grenada and survived the destruction of Ivan, becoming the subject of an essay he entered into a 2005 global competition looking for young Web site developers. His essay took one of the top prizes and landed Fergusson a spot at a week-long workshop in Jamaica where young people from around the world learned to use the technology of the Internet to educate others. Fergusson's idea was to create a Web site where young people can talk about their experiences with natural disasters as well as where people could learn how to better prepare themselves.

Today, Fergusson is a Natural Disaster Youth Summit ambassador and is getting ready for the summit's 2008 international conference in April in Trinidad and Tobago. The summit, which is looking for donors to provide funding, has a theme of "Global Warming and Disaster Reduction." In a video message to youth attending the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change meeting in Bali in December, Fergusson said: "We know that climate change is happening now, so we are taking action. Most important is our mission to develop a sense of responsibility toward our communities. But we need your help. It's time for the voices of youth to be heard and supported." In an interview with The Nation's Health, Fergusson pointed to language in the international Kyoto Protocol that calls on youth to have a voice and place beside adults in the climate change discussion — "we care about the environment, we are the future and we cannot do it alone," he said.

"Climate change is the hot topic throughout the world as we are all now beginning to see and feel the effects of our lack of caring for the environment: severe cold or hot weather, frequently experiencing earthquakes, hurricanes, flooding, landslides," he said. "(This) calls on the youth of the world to be mindful that we are the future inheritors of the Earth. Let's care for it."

Fortunately, Fergusson is not alone. The movement to address climate change is brimming with young people, many for whom climate change isn't a debate at all, but a call to action. For Meredith Epstein, a 21-year-old environmental studies major at St. Mary's College in Maryland and former president of the campus Student Environmental Action Coalition, addressing climate change is "absolutely vital." On Jan. 31, Epstein and her fellow student advocates took part in Focus the Nation, a national teach-in day to bring attention to climate change. As part of their activities, about 100 students, staff and faculty — including a participant dressed as a polar bear — took part in the second annual Polar Bear Splash by taking a dip in the nearby 39-degree St. Mary's River.

"We wanted to make a statement saying that we want our school to become carbon neutral and want others to cut carbon in their lives, and we're willing to do something really crazy to show our support," Epstein said.

Just last year, St. Mary's College students voted to increase student fees to help the university pay for renewable energy credits, making the university "technically 100 percent wind powered," Epstein said, though more needs to be done to help the campus truly offset its carbon footprint. Many young advocates see the issue as not purely an environmental one, but one that is integral to their future quality of life, their future jobs, their health and to promoting justice, said Jessy Tolkan, co-director of Energy Action Coalition, a coalition of more than 40 youth organizations across the United States and Canada working for clean energy alternatives. The coalition runs the national Campus Climate Challenge, which helps students organize and succeed at creating models for cleaner energy on college campuses. So far, the coalition has helped in achieving more than 450 success stories across the nation at high schools as well as colleges, Tolkan told The Nation's Health, and more than 400 college presidents have signed a commitment to achieve climate neutrality, or in other words, to leave no carbon footprint.

"Students across the country are saying 'we're not going to sit and debate whether this is a problem...even if the federal government isn't going to act, we're going to,'" she said. "This is the generation that has the most at stake when it comes to the impact of global warming. This generation never went through the doubts about global warming...we see it as an opportunity as a generation to take proactive steps to what we see as the definitive challenge of our time."

For example, Tennessee college students in 2006 passed a 12-campus referendum to institute a student "green fee" to help their universities purchase wind energy, Tolkan said, and now a dozen colleges across the state are purchasing as much as 20 percent of their energy from wind power. College students in Kalamazoo, Mich., created a biodiesel lab on campus, collected waste vegetable oil from across the city and retrofitted campus vehicles to run on the fuel created in the lab. In West Virginia, a coalition of college and high school students have banded together on behalf of Marsh Fork Elementary School, joining the many community voices in asking that policy-makers move the school away from a nearby coal processing plant.

Tolkan said she thinks young people face and fight climate change in a fundamentally different way than their older counterparts because many view the issue as intrinsic to their futures. To spread that sense of urgency, coalition organizers and student leaders often talk about the current and future health impacts climate change is having on communities, Tolkan said. Talking about health puts the emphasis on "people's lives — it's a human face," she said.

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