Youth are Leading Us Towards a Safer Climate Future. Will We Follow?
August 24, 2023
By Dr. Liz Chamberlin Director of Innovation at Point Blue; and Dr. Sheldon Gen (Point Blue Board of Directors)
In the wake of a major court case out of Montana on climate change, Petaluma-based Point Blue Conservation Science is cheering on the youth who are standing up for our future.
In 2020, the nonprofit public interest law firm Our Children’s Trust filed a lawsuit on behalf of sixteen Montana youth (aged 5 to 22), arguing that the state’s support for the fossil fuel industry exacerbates climate change and denies them their constitutional right to a healthy environment.
The recent ruling by U.S. District Court Judge Kathy Seeley in favor of the plaintiffs is important, firstly, because it sets the stage for similar legal proceedings in other states, potentially igniting a movement and new course for conservation action. This action can help protect communities from the accelerating impacts of climate change, such as the horrific wildfires last week that destroyed Lahaina.
But we believe the ruling is important for another reason. This win is not only community led, but led by youth whose futures will be most severely impacted by the actions of those who had power before they were born.
Point Blue has long been a leader in climate smart conservation science, and we are increasingly taking action in public policy, as well, since it’s clear that science needs advocates, as the Montana youth have shown. Our own experience has also taught us this lesson. Our Students and Teachers Restoring A Watershed program (STRAW) just celebrated 30 years of bringing K-12 students into the field to perform professional-grade, climate smart habitat restorations on working farms and ranches, parks, and open spaces. This visionary program started with a single fourth-grade teacher who was willing to listen and act when her students advocated to do something to protect endangered species. STRAW has now brought over 60,000 students into nature, putting 83,982 plants in the ground on the way to restoring over 42 miles of stream and wetland habitat.
Today’s youth are effective climate leaders because they are the ones who will be living through an increasingly harsh climate. They will face hotter, longer, and deadlier heat waves; more frequent and intense wildfires; more devastating flooding; and longer and scarier droughts.
The Montana case demonstrates once again that youth have the ability to effect real change around the climate crisis. They are stepping further into the realm of shaping public policy, because policies are our fundamental agreements on how we live with each other, care for our community and environment, and create the best future that we can.
Here are three things we can do to help support youth fighting for their future:
- Help ensure all youth have equitable access to environmental education and inspiring experiences in nature. Environmental literacy is a critical foundation for a positively impactful life.
- Empower youth to make change, and take their actions seriously. Youth need adults to be allies in the very real battles they’re waging to promote a healthy environment.
- Find our own ways to support. There are roles for every individual, every community group, every company (small and large), every school and university. Whether it’s organizing visits to elected officials, raising money for critical work non-profits are doing, or supporting public policies that will reduce emissions and prepare us for a climate-changed future, there are countless ways for us to complement the work the youth are already doing.
It’s clear that young people truly believe in their power to shape the future and bring about real change. And we do too. Now it’s time to show that support any way we can.
Dr. Liz Chamberlin is Director of Innovation at Point Blue Conservation Science, a Petaluma-basd NGO that uses conservation science, education, and community-based, youth-centered restoration to conserve biodiversity in the face of a changing climate. Dr. Sheldon Gen is Vice Chair of Point Blue’s Board of Directors, a member of the Board of Education for Petaluma City Schools, and a professor of Public Administration at San Francisco State University.