By Daniel Siegeltuch
180 high school students joined the World Affairs Council-Washington, DC on Tuesday, December 8 to participate in the WAC-DC Youth Forum on Climate Change. This conference, which took place at the historic Thurgood Marshall Center in DC’s Shaw neighborhood, featured an engaging and informative series of expert speakers, youth leaders, and a simulation activity that provided DC area students a unique opportunity to explore the realities of climate change and further understand how they can work to create a solution.
At 9:30 am, after the students had settled at their assigned tables for the afternoon’s simulation, WAC-DC President and CEO Tony Culley-Foster delivered the opening remarks. Climate change, Mr. Culley-Foster insisted, “is one of the great issues of our time.” He emphasized that the students in the room represented a generation of future leaders who, armed with enthusiasm and knowledge, will be prepared to solve global climate challenges. Enumerating the many consequences of a warming planet, from “air that is unfit to breathe” to severe droughts and wars fought over scarcity, Mr. Culley-Foster reminded the audience that knowledge of these problems is not enough; “it is knowledge, put in to action to produce results” that will equip students with the “practical ways to change the syndrome of destruction” that threatens our climate. To begin the conference, Mr. Culley-Foster challenged the participants to listen, engage and leave “energized and informed on the greatest issue of our time”, ready to put knowledge into action in order to save “a changing world increasingly at war with itself.”
After Mr. Culley-Foster’s remarks, the students enjoyed a thought-provoking series of presentations by experts on the critical issues concerning climate change. The first presenter, Blake Lynch, a Climate Leader at the Climate Policy Project, began by stressing that activism works, demonstrating how his organization’s efforts to protest the Keystone Pipeline helped to cancel the controversial project. Then, projecting a menacing picture of a flood on to the screen, Mr. Lynch warned that “the earth is doomed” unless immediate action is taken. Mr. Lynch proceeded to articulate the looming threats to the climate, elaborating how heat trapped in the atmosphere by greenhouse gasses can cause everything from intensified droughts and heat waves to destructive hurricanes, floods, and blizzards. Greenhouse gasses from half a century of industrial activity, he explained, have upset the equilibrium that the atmosphere has maintained for millennia, creating a “new normal” of extreme weather, political instability and medical emergencies all brought about by a drastically changing climate. The good news, he announced, is there is ample historical precedent for collaborating to overcome seemingly insurmountable challenges: global issues such as ozone depletion, toxic waste dumping, and atmospheric nuclear weapons testing were all remedied by a combination of citizen engagement and governmental action. Although we are quickly running out of time to reverse the effects of climate change, Mr. Lynch concluded, it is nonetheless a problem that the students themselves, by saying no to dirty energy, voting out climate change deniers and supporting green energy advocates, can work together to solve.
Next, Dr. Karl Hausker, a Senior Fellow in the World Resource Institute’s Global Climate Program, gave a presentation explaining the obstacles to confronting climate change, especially the invisible and gradual nature of the effects; issues such as sea level rise, ocean acidification, and rising temperatures, while in reality immediate threats, are not visible enough to inspire a sense of urgency; additionally, the attractiveness of cheap fossil fuels and lack of international leadership further delay action. Our two jobs, Dr. Hausker asserted, are to reduce emissions and increase resilience to changes already wrought by climate change by switching to an energy efficient system. Individuals play an important role in this process, he told the students, by reducing their carbon footprint, acting as engaged citizens and pursuing roles in the government, nonprofit, and business sectors to expand renewable initiatives. Following Dr. Hausker’s presentation, Brad Schallert, Senior Program Officer at the International Climate Policy for the World Wildlife Fund, discussed the climate change mitigation policies that can be implemented to solve the problem, such as making fossil fuels more expensive and green energy cheaper, and incentivizing a shift toward renewable energy through policies such as carbon pricing and cap and trade programs, stressing to the students the importance of citizen engagement in making sure these policies are enacted. The final expert, Dr. Astrid Caldas, Climate Scientist with the Climate & Energy program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, encouraged the students to “choose your future,” and guided the group through the process of adapting to the effects of climate change that their generation will inevitably contend with, by identifying vulnerable areas and adapting proactively through efforts such as building up costal mangrove forests in regions threatened by sea level rise and constructing raised houses in places that will become susceptible to floods.
Following lunch, the students listened to two inspiring young leaders as they told the group about programs they had spearheaded in their communities to combat climate change. The first leader, Emma Berg, Georgetown University student and intern at Georgetown’s Office of Sustainability, described her path towards becoming involved in the sustainable movement, and discussed her work implementing a food recovery network in her university’s cafeteria to deliver unused food to underserved communities in the DC area. This project, she emphasized, by both reducing food waste and assisting vulnerable populations, exemplifies the way in which sustainability and social justice are inextricably linked. The next leader, US Naval Academy student Megan Rosenberger, told the students how a flood that devastated her hometown and a high school field trip to watch rain barrels being made transformed her into an environmental activist. These experiences inspired her to found the nonprofit Barrels by the Bay, an organization that both educates students about sustainable rain water collection and teaches communities how to build and use them, work that she affirms shows that “anyone can do tangible things to help the environment.”
With the inspiring words of the young leaders fresh in the students’ minds, The Youth Forum, led by Emerging Global Leader Nicole Brzozowski, began the conference’s culminating activity, the Climate Change Simulation. This activity, modeled after the recent COP21 global climate conference in Paris, France, placed students in the role of diplomats as they worked together with their designated nation, based on real country profiles whose identities were hidden by the names of fictional planets from the Star Wars universe, to vote on several amendments to a an international climate change resolution. The students, presented with information detailing their countries’ interests and relationship to fossil fuels, were charged with presenting their proposed amendments to the audience, negotiating with like-minded nations to form alliances, and finally voting on the amendments in a way that considered their national interests as well as the fate of the climate. Through this interactive simulation, students gained significant insight into the political challenges that have hindered crucial international action to combat climate change. The students, having completed their diplomatic mission, returned to their schools, families and communities as informed and empowered advocates for our interconnected planet.