Don’t bother with the default excuses.
Olya Wright, 13, has heard them all before: No time. No money. No technology.
When it comes to confronting climate change, she isn’t buying them.
“Some adults get stuck on certain things that are roadblocks,” said Wright, who lives in Grand Marais. “ ‘No’ is not acceptable. We need to act.”
Across Minnesota, students like Wright are springing into action to combat climate change — and pushing their local governments to do the same. Youthful advocates are leading rallies, gathering petitions and taking daring climate resolutions to city halls and County Board rooms, prodding local officials to get serious about cutting greenhouse gas emissions.
Many are working with a youth-driven organization called iMatter, a national nonprofit based in the Twin Cities that’s focused on climate change and the role young leaders play in the fight for solutions (imatteryouth.org).
The organization got its start in 2007, founded by a 13-year-old and his mother in California. Their work spurred global marches, federal lawsuits, awareness projects and far-flung speaking engagements. In more recent years, iMatter has shifted its focus to the city level, helping students bring forward climate resolutions and advance aggressive climate policies in their own communities.
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The nonprofit works with more than 100 youth leaders in about 60 cities across the United States and Canada, including 14 communities in the North Star state.
“Minnesota has been a leader,” said Larry Kraft, iMatter’s executive director, who lives in St. Louis Park.
Students in iMatter say they’ve done their homework. They’ve seen the charts, the science, the documentaries.
But they’ve also studied their own backyards — from the urban core to the suburbs and small towns. And what they’ve found, they said, are adults lacking the urgency that students feel.
“We actually have to live in the future that politicians create for us right now,” said Katie Christiansen, 17, an iMatter leader in St. Louis Park. “We need to be the ones fighting for it.”
For many years, the climate movement was too fixated on science and data, lacking personal connections, Kraft said. So iMatter studied the energy behind other movements, including the fight for civil rights and same-sex marriage.
The latter movement was successful, Kraft said, when it shifted from talking about the right to marry and started talking about love and personal stories.
“Emotions make movements,” he said. “Young people can personalize this, can reach people at an emotional level.”
With students taking the lead, the organization’s current strategy centers on pushing for local action on climate change, knowing it can ripple.
“This is a systemic issue, but cities can make a big difference,” Kraft said. “You get enough grassroots action happening … it can force the state and federal governments to move.”
iMatter often works with students through earth clubs and environmental groups at local schools. Such was the case in St. Louis Park, where iMatter has partnered with the high school’s Roots & Shoots environmental club.
In March 2016, students stepped into City Hall with a petition and a report card that graded the city on its efforts to tackle climate change. They got a B-. That gave city officials pause in a suburb that prides itself on vanguard work in environmental issues.
“They speak with a strong moral voice for policymakers,” said St. Louis Park Mayor Jake Spano.
City leaders then worked with students to craft one of the most ambitious local-level plans in the country to combat climate change. The City Council adopted it unanimously in February.
The goal? Net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2040. Oh, and 100 percent renewable electricity by 2030.
“We got this really aggressive climate policy passed, and now we’re inspiring cities all over the rest of the state,” said Christiansen, a high school senior who leads the Roots & Shoots group.
Adapting the message
Young people are also making waves in more conservative corners of Minnesota. Take Pine County, where students say the topic of climate change can be divisive.
“It’s a very individualistic place,” said Craig Feist, 17, of Finlayson, about 100 miles north of the Twin Cities. “People have their land, and they consider that their domain and do kind of whatever they want to do on it.”
It’s why students adapted their message before taking their resolution before the Pine County board in October.
Aware that even the word “climate” can freeze conversation, they tweaked the resolution’s title, changing it from “climate inheritance resolution” to “environmental inheritance resolution.”
They also tailored their presentation to include the economic benefits of going green in Pine County, population 29,000.
They talked about how greener communities are attractive to young people. How the effort could motivate them to stick around in an area where many may move on once they reach adulthood. How developing renewable energy could bring high-skill, high-paying jobs.
It paid off.
“We were more well-received than we expected to be,” said Feist, who in 2017 started his school’s environmental club, which has partnered with iMatter.
On a sunny October afternoon, more than 100 young people from climate and environmental groups like iMatter stood in the shadow of the federal courthouse in St. Paul.
They marched to the State Capitol, their shoes crunching on leaves and their chants of “Hey hey, ho ho, fossil fuels have got to go!” carrying down the quiet streets.
Charismatic young speakers like Lia Harel voiced their frustration that national and state leaders are not doing enough to address the climate crisis.
“It’s not a Republican future or a Democratic future,” said Harel, 18, a Hopkins High School senior and iMatter leader. “It’s just our future.”
Wright traveled from Grand Marais to be there. At one point, she stepped up to the microphone, pushed a long braid over her shoulder and told her story.
She spoke of living on 60 acres of woods, tending a menagerie of pets and a robust vegetable garden. She can see maple trees that her family taps for syrup out her kitchen window.
Four years ago, her love for the outdoors spurred her to form the Nordic Nature Group, where youthful naturalists share a mission to care for the earth. It led her to partner with iMatter and help grade her city’s work around climate change. It got a D+.
Now Grand Marais is working on its own climate action plan, helped in no small part by young people like Wright. The city has even hired a climate change coordinator, a position funded by a McKnight Foundation grant.
“We need to be there to keep the path moving along,” Wright said. “We have to take a part in it.”