I don’t remember the first time I heard the term climate change. I don’t remember learning about it at school, discussing it around the dinner table with my family, searching for it on the world wide web using my family’s IBM PC 330, or having it be a focus of my childhood. I was born in 1990, the same year the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) First Assessment IPCC Report (FAR) was released, underscoring the importance of climate change as a global challenge and demanding international cooperation. I do remember watching Beauty and the Beast at least 200 times because Belle knew how to read AND she had dark brown hair like me. When I was five, The Second Assessment Report (SAR) was released, which was critical to the adoption of the Kyoto Protocol in 1997. I had an incredible birthday that year – I was completely obsessed with the ocean so my mom made me a shark Piñata, which was an absolute hit at the party. In 2001, the Third Assessment Report (TAR) was released, which focused on the consequences of climate change and the limitation of mitigation options. That was the same year of the September 11 Attacks. I remember I was in the 6th grade in Social Studies class and I had to be called down to the staff cafeteria because both my parents worked in New York City. Their train was late to the city that day. The rest of my childhood was dictated by the events that took place on September 11, 2001.
It wasn’t until I was 16 that the same awe I had for my shark Piñata began to inspire me once again. I learned how to scuba dive. I became a vegetarian. I read every single National Geographic magazine that was sent to our house. I started calling myself an environmentalist and I went to the University of Miami to study Marine Affairs and Visual Journalism. Climate change wound up becoming a major focus in my life. Not the science of it, but how to convey the impacts of it in a way that would garner empathy, concern, and hopefully action.
I’ve recently begun to wonder what it’s like to be a young person who is growing up in a time where climate change is more front and center than ever. It’s the new normal. However, climate change is not a new concept, in fact human beings have hypothesized that our actions could impact the climate for hundreds of years. Climate activism is not new either, but there has been a massive resurgence as awareness of the increasingly apparent consequences of climate change is growing and being felt around the world. And now more than ever, young people are on the front lines of climate change demanding action from political leaders around the world. At the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, youth climate activists from around the world gathered to demand further action from the global elite. Activists such as water protector Autumn Peltier of Canada, Salvador Gómez-Colón of Puerto Rico, Vanessa Nakate of Uganda and Time’s 2019 Person of the Year Greta Thunberg have all been demanding climate action by amplifying the voices of youth around the world. In Seattle, Jamie Margolin, 18, has co-founded an international nonprofit called Zero Hour in order to raise the voices of diverse youth in climate change and environmental justice conversations.
So what is it like to be a young person in Seattle in the midst of climate change and this global youth movement?
In order to learn how climate change is impacting the youth in Seattle I sat down with Zeke Harmon, a 16-year-old at Roosevelt High school and Catherine Chapman, an 8-year-old who aspires to be a basketball player and a teacher.
Catherine remembers first learning about climate change in the first grade. She doesn’t quite understand what’s causing it yet, but is hopeful that she will expand her knowledge soon. As for the impacts, she’s recently learned about glaciers. “There used to be a bunch of glaciers, but now they’re all melted and they’ve made more and more water,” she tells me. I asked her if she talks about climate change with her family or friends. “My mommy? Yes. My brother? No. My cat? No. My dad, uh, a little. My friends? No.” When she forgets what climate change is, her mom is always there to remind her.
Zeke, who like me when I was a young adult, loves marine biology and storytelling. He’s thinking about pursuing an acting career, but sometimes he thinks about becoming a Navy Seal so he can learn more about leadership. He’s inspired by Mark Ruffalo, a fellow actor, who dedicates a lot of his free time to climate change activism. Zeke doesn’t remember when he first heard the term, but he certainly remembers a lot more than I do. He recalls, “I remember it being called global warming and they changed the words to climate change cause apparently some places started getting colder too, but I remember hearing about global warming and I had no idea what that meant at all. I think it was in – it had to be in sixth grade science class. We were learning about how certain zooplankton and how certain tiny animals in the ocean were dissolving.”
“What’s your reaction to it? Who is responsible?” I asked him.
“People always blamed it on the older generations…it was always about that it wasn’t your fault it was always someone else’s fault…I take it personally though and I’m just like, blaming it on other people isn’t going to solve anything…so I’m like this is my fault and I’m going to fix it.”
Zeke is involved in a Boys & Girls Group Keystone Club, which is a community service learning program for teens. They volunteer at food banks, local neighborhood gardens, and learn about activism in general. He says the group gives him a broader view of everything that’s going on, but he wishes they would focus more on climate change. Like me when I was 16, he doesn’t talk about climate change with his friends, but he thinks about it all the time and has made individual choices in his life to make a difference. He takes the bus everywhere he goes even though he has access to a car. At school he always makes sure people turn their lights off and if he hears a faucet still running in a science classroom he will run over and turn it off. “I’m like oh my god! People don’t realize that it’s the small things – if you just did this much!” he exclaims as he brings his fingers close together – almost pinching them.
Catherine doesn’t know if she feels the impacts of climate change, but she has no problem making adjustments to reduce her impact on the planet. She carpools to school, she doesn’t use plastic bottles, and she reuses her lunch containers. She hates when people litter. Just the sight of it fills her with sadness. “They’re polluting and polluting is bad for the environment,” she explains.
Zeke doesn’t feel like he is being directly impacted by climate change either, but he is moved by images of air pollution in Beijing and has a deep empathy for areas where pollution has been exacerbated by climate change. “I’m thankful I’d never have to be in a place where it’s like that, but I’d be more thankful if no one was living like that,” he says.
I couldn’t agree more. I have not felt the worst impacts of climate change, but I’ve lived a life of privilege that has definitely contributed to it. I’d like to think that my current individual life choices are doing some good, but are they? I walk or bus to school, I avoid plastic as much as possible, I grow my own herbs and produce, and plan to continue my career focused on environmentalism. But I also fly in planes to conferences, turn the heat on when I’m uncomfortably cold, drive around Washington to go hiking, take vacations abroad, and I work in film, which is an industry plagued with severe environmental issues. Are individual choices even enough when 71 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions are caused by a mere 100 companies? I often feel hopeless and overwhelmed with grief. Perhaps in this grief we can truly reflect on our actions and understand the immensity of their consequences, both on the planet and the people who are feeling the impacts more than others. Perhaps in this grief we can be inspired to move beyond individual action and take bold steps towards collective action.
Zeke understands that people feel hopeless, like I do sometimes – that their actions don’t influence others or they won’t make a difference, but he wants to learn how to change that. He believes hope is our answer and sees our broken system not as an excuse to give up, but as impetus for action. He tells me, “you know, when you have a cracked vase and you put a light in it, it shines through. Even though it’s broken it still goes through.”
While the climate activists continue to fight and demand collective action and an overhaul of the global economy, we can listen to Zeke and Catherine and simultaneously demand more action from our leaders, but also focus on individual action. While many of us may not know if we are feeling the impacts of climate change, there are people who are and they can’t afford for our continued inaction.
I asked Catherine for advice she could give me or other people to make small changes to make to help reduce impacts on the planet. “You should carpool. You should reuse stuff. Don’t waste paper – just use the back and the front,” she explains.
“Turn your lights off when you leave – you don’t have to be afraid of the dark,” Zeke recommends, “there’s no monster under your bed.”
But most importantly, he says, “don’t give up.”