This story was originally published in GristIt appears here as part the Climate Desk collaboration.
A little over 10,000 people live in Pella, Iowa, a city in the heart of the U.S.’s second-largest state producer of all things agricultural. Central College is home to one-tenth of the city’s population. This school is well-known for its affiliation with a reform Protestant church.
Leighia VanDam (21 years old) is a senior there. Born and raised in Indianola, another of Iowa’s smaller cities, VanDam grew up amid a culture rooted in religion and agriculture.
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She was just a teenager when she went on two mission trips to El Salvador. She began to see how droughts, storms, as well as other effects of climate change human-induced, can devastate rural areas. Subsistence farmersThese are those who grow enough crops to provide for their families. “These farmers are usually contributing the least to climate change and experiencing the harshest consequences,” she says. “Seeing that made me want to be directly involved in mobilizing change.”
In Iowa, one in five Iowans lives in poverty. WorksIn the agriculture industry. The economic and social consequences of climate change will only get worse. 34 per cent of the state’s population making less than a livable wage. “Farming is very important here. Drive anywhere and you’re driving through a field,” VanDam says. She is concerned about the increase in ways to get around. Flooding, Drought, water contaminationThe most adverse effects are felt by the communities closest to her. “Climate change will affect Iowa farmers in the same way that it’s affecting farmers abroad.”
VanDam is president of Central College’s sustainability organization and one of only two Protect Our FutureIowa campus ambassadors. The non-profit engages young people in environmental justice, clean power, and climate solutions. At least once a year, she meets with representatives from six of Iowa’s legislative offices. While she is passionate about changing policies, her ultimate goal is to get those in power to take action on the climate crisis.
VanDam recently visited U.S. Senator Joni Ernst and Rep. Cindy Axne in order to gauge their support for the project. Infrastructure billThe law has been made effective immediately. If they were surprised to find themselves being lobbied by a student, they shouldn’t have been. “I definitely think that the power and inspiration that comes from our generation — our passion — can encourage older folks to take part in [environmental] action,” VanDam says.
What are people reading?
Hers is just one example of the many young voices who are pivotal in helping to chart the course of climate change. Some lobby policymakers for climate-friendly legislation. Other members of their communities organize and use social media to increase awareness and encourage people to take action. These young activists and emerging leaders demand that their peers join them. In a role reverse, they also show their elders how to get things done. They are all united by the common cause of cultivating climate activists across all ages, no matter where they live.
Throughout the country, the young adults of Gen Z — most commonly designated as those born after 1996 — are overwhelmingly concerned about climate change. Pew Research 2021 SurveyIt was found that 76% of respondents consider it to be one of their top societal priorities. More than a third also consider it their most pressing concern. One in three respondents has contacted an elected official, participated at a rally, donated to, or volunteered for a climate-change organization in the past year. Millennials have similar views, but these figures surpass those of boomers and Gen X. Only 23% of Gen X reported participating in at minimum one activity to address climate changes, while 29% and 29% respectively consider climate change a top issue.
When it comes to fighting for the planet, the young have the loudest voice — and they’re making sure those in power hear it. #GenZ #ClimateAction
“You can see across the generations that climate change is a priority, but how we address it differs. And how we personalize this differs. It’s so personal to Gen Z,” says Christina Limpert, a social scientist at SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry. Limpert is a qualitative researcher who has spent over two decades studying the role of culture in shaping environmental attitudes.
While researching her book, Climate: Words for ChangeLimpert studied the intergenerational relationship between climate activism and social media. She found one key thing that makes many young adults such effective teachers: their unprecedented willingness to address policymakers and politicians directly — and forcefully.
“Gen Zers are not afraid to speak truth to power, and they combine facts about climate change with their fear and anger to communicate this particular generational urgency,” Limpert says.
This urgency leads to results. According to PewAbout four out of 10 Americans believe that seeing young adults calling for climate action increases their interest in the issue.
The policy agenda is set by the players
After more than a decade in education, University of Hartford professor and environmental researcher Katharine Owens draws inspiration from passionate activists like VanDam — young leaders who are getting their peers and elders to pay attention to the vexing issues their generation will inherit.
“Instead of throwing in the towel, or giving up, they are rolling up their sleeves and trying to fix the problems — and they’re not waiting for someone who is older or who has more degrees to tell them to do this or that,” Owens says. “They’re just getting right to work.”
Owens is studying the leadership of Sahara Williams, a younger leader. The 21-year-old heads up the UHart student government’s efforts to promote diversity and sustainability on campus. She’s also one of a handful of students on a sustainability council, where she and Owens have been advocating side-by-side to get the university to hire a full-time sustainability manager.
“She’s got more experience in a lot of ways than I do,” says Owens, citing Williams’s interest in finding solutions for local and global issues, such as launching a campus food pantry to fight food waste and spreading awareness on the ways unchecked carbon emissions are causing famines in developing countries. “If I had to summarize it, she’s really living the classic ‘think globally, act locally’ idea,” Owens says.
Williams recognizes that climate change is a rising priority for younger generations. However, Williams still finds it difficult to convince her peers and older adults to take action on the causes she believes in. She’s troubled by Climate apathy — particularly among older Americans detached from on-the-ground environmental issues.
“For my generation, climate change is a personal issue. But it’s not so much seen as a societal problem,” says Williams. “But we all need to work on it, you know? It’s something that all of us need to participate in.”
Williams decided to visit Madagascar after graduating next spring, after learning more about how the warming world affects agriculture in emerging nations. Williams plans to tackle food insecurity in a country where more than a million people are facing droughts. starvation.
The senior has been encouraging her peers, as well as her peers, to help her make positive changes. She promotes everything from reducing campus water use to mitigating food waste. Her elders, like Owens, find themselves reinvigorated by Williams’s optimism and the work of other young activists who stay committed in the face of slow progress.
“You don’t just show up one day and give a presentation, and then everybody changes the policy. It can be discouraging,” Owens says. “Students have a very different kind of power … they bring a sort of disruption that I think makes a huge impression on politicians.”
TikTok creators also tap into this unique influence. Alex Silva, a 19-year old climate activist from Portland, Ore., is the founder of TikTok. EcoTokThe collective of 20 influencers that promote environmental action to their 115,000 fans, largely composed of Gen Zers, is called. He’s another influence for Owens.
“Many of us will never ever have that many people read or engage with something that we say or write,” says Owens, who uses TikTok to engage younger audiences with plastic-pollution awareness. She views Silva as an example of how young adults can mobilize other young adults to make a difference in politics. “His message is, ‘What are we going to do about this?’ and ‘This is who you need to talk to.’”
Platforms such as TikTok or Twitter are so powerful that A 2017 studyThey found that policymakers use them often for climate change research. That’s what Silva is counting on with EcoTok, which has surpassed two million likes on the platform and has been dubbed “The Hype House of the Environment.”
“Our goal includes being catalysts for change,” Silva says. The goal is to inspire people to implement climate solutions in their communities. “I think it sends a great message to older generations saying, ‘We’re doing the work,’” he says.
Silva is part of a growing group of young voices rewriting the climate agenda. Greta Thunberg, Vanessa NakateLauren MacDonald (a Scottish youth activist), who made HeadlinesIn October, she publicly criticized Shell CEO Ben Van Beurden’s role in millions of climate-related deaths. When governments, policymakers, and corporations contribute to the bigger problem, young activists of all backgrounds and experiences are there to remind everyone what’s at stake. “We’re just making it clear that this is the kind of future we want, these are the leaders we want,” Silva says. “We’re quite literally fighting to survive,” he says.
Eban Goodstein understands. He’s been working in climate education for 22 years, most recently as director of several environmental programs at Bard College in New York — including the WorldWide Teach In for Climate and Justicea virtual event that will take place in March 2022 and aims to bring together 1,000 schools and faith-based communities around the globe. Now more than ever, he’s counting on climate-concerned youth to mobilize awareness and support for solutions-oriented movements.
“Student activists are folks who are working really hard to save the planet,” Goodstein says. “This is an extraordinary moment in which we’re living, where people all across the world have tremendous agency to influence the course of the planet, the future of humanity, and millions of species on the earth.”
Young activists are expertly redefining climate policy by being innovative. CommunicatingThe urgency of climate-friendly legislation at all levels, local, national, and federal, is evident. Plus, they are able to largely ignore the politicization of climate change — something that creates sharp partisan Divides among older Americans. “We all have the background sort of despair about the slow pace of progress and the challenges ahead,” says Goodstein.
He’s encouraged by younger generations pointedly innovating ways to make a difference. “I work with young people who have decided that this is the life they want to lead. And there’s no place I’d rather be,” he says.
There’s no place Richard Gallon would rather be, either. The 31-year-old lives and works in Phoenix. His role as a Protect Our Future training manager means he’s teaching the non-profit’s young members everything from effectively lobbying legislators to understanding how climate change intersects with social and environmental injustice.
Gallon believes the difference between the younger and older generations stems from the simple truth that Gen Z faces a life changed by climate change. They will need to deal with the consequences of these decisions now. “The average age of someone in Congress is between 65 and 70. They’re most likely not going to live to see the true devastation that this [climate crisis] is going to create,” he says.
VanDam, who lives more than 2,500 miles away from her family, is acutely aware of this disconnect. And like others of her generation, she’s taking matters into her own hands; as a Defend Our Future ambassador, VanDam is hard at work urging legislators to listen to her and her peers as they advocate for things like renewable energy, cleaner water, and disaster-recovery programs for frontline communities in the rural Midwest.
“Iowa is a relatively red state, and that’s reflected in our senators and representatives,” she says. “So I try to find things that people are interested in and show them how climate change relates to that. I show them what they can do to defend that specific thing.”
That’s not all she’s doing, either. To organize secondhand fashion shows that educate the public about the polluting fast-fashion industryFrom wellness events that promote reusable menstrual products to hosting workshops on environmental editorial, college seniors are raising awareness for scores of interconnected climate issues at a local, national and global level.
For youth activists like VanDam, it’s not enough to just spread the word about the problems but to lead the way for her peers and elders by implementing the solutions at hand. As far as she’s concerned, young voices aren’t just lighting a fuse for change in the climate movement — they’re stoking the blaze.
This story is part of Fix’s Mentorship IssueExplore the unique ways that climate leaders found their calling and how new approaches in mentorship are changing old power structures. You can read the entire issue here Here.