Youth Climate Leaders
Students from Kurt Hahn Expeditionary Learning School in East Flatbush, N.Y., attend climate action planning workshop on issues ranging from climate assemblies to community service projects. (Photo: Courtesy of Climate Initiatives, The Wild Center)

As a high school freshman in 2016, Andrew Fagerheim was so serious about climate action that he traveled from rural New York to Colorado to attend a prominent climate leadership conference. There, he learned about the science and about what adults were doing about it. But something was missing, or rather, a kind of someone.

“Out of 1,000 people, only about 20 were under the age of 18,” says Fagerheim. “It was interesting that there weren’t more young people there, because this is a problem that’s probably going to affect my generation more than others.”

He was not alone in thinking that youth should be more directly involved in climate leadership.

Jen Kretser is the director of Climate Initiatives at The Wild Center, a science museum in northern New York State. In 2008, she helped the center organize a climate conference, which, like many of its kind, featured mostly adults. Afterward, she recalls how an attendee emailed her to say “‘Hey, that was awesome, but everyone at that conference was really old, and we need something for young people.'”

“That was a pivotal point for me,” she says. “I thought, oh my gosh, yes, of course you don’t feel like you have a voice, if you don’t feel you have a place to talk about this. We need to make that happen. So I was like, ‘yes – but I’m going to need your help.'”

‘Everyone at the climate conference was “really old” … what about young people?’

Working proactively with youth volunteers, she set about organizing the first Adirondack Youth Climate Summit, which took place in 2009 and attracted some 250 high school students from across the state. At the conference, students from 30 school districts learned about climate science and climate impacts, then created their own local climate action plans to bring back to their schools and communities.

Since then, the student-driven program has expanded to comprise 85 Youth Climate Summits in 43 communities around the world. Today, a youth advisory board helps support the summits and other Wild Center climate programs. All are centered on core values of youth initiative, partnership between generations, and local, self-guided planning and action.

“The idea is to help youth develop agency,” she says, “to take what they’ve learned and come up with their own plan – then put it into practice.”

Actionable and self-built – not prescribed – solutions

The center’s focus on flexible, self-direction has led to some innovative ideas and impacts, according to Kretser. Through the years she’s seen projects focus on everything from community composting, school gardens, and no-mow zones to solar charging stations, political advocacy, and even a carbon-neutral prom, complete with dress exchanges to decrease the carbon footprint of garment transportation.

“It’s so interesting to see where the passions of the young people lead,” says Kretser. “For example, we invited the New York Climate Smart Communities office [to a summit], and some of the students were like, ‘Hey my community could do that!’

“Literally at the summit, they went outside and called their mayor,” she says. “It just took that idea – that this is something we can do – and we helped them find a pathway, with support and partnership.”

Andrew Fagerheim was part of that group. He’d attended the Youth Climate Summit in the Adirondacks, the year after the adult-oriented conference.

“It was everything that was missing at the Colorado summit,” says Fagerheim. “It was largely youth-organized and run; lots of speakers co-presented with youth who had already done the thing they were talking about.”

He also appreciated the action-oriented nature of the program, which typically focuses half time on the science, then devotes the other half to brainstorming and plotting out how teams can turn that knowledge into action.

“By the end, each environmental club walks away with an action plan they’ve created themselves,” says Fagerheim. During his first summit, his team came up with a solar charging plan for their school library. The next year, with a successful installation under their belts, they were ready to take on the whole town.

Planning meeting
A three-day leadership retreat for youths, focusing on public speaking skills, problem-solving, project management, climate justice and sustainability. (Photo: Courtesy of Climate Initiatives, The Wild Center)

Fagerheim’s team decided to help their town gain certification as a New York State Climate Smart Community. They started with a simple phone call to Homer, New York Mayor Hal McCabe.

After accepting their invitation to tour their school, Mayor McCabe authorized Fagerheim and his team to create a Climate Smart Task Force for the village. From there students took on a range of responsibilities: conducting a greenhouse gas inventory, writing grant proposals, drafting climate action plans, overseeing implementation of energy efficiency upgrades, selling compost bins at cost to residents, and working with the community to raise awareness.

The work paid off: In September 2020, the Village of Homer became one of only 55 bronze certified communities in New York state (out of a possible 1,607) – and the only one whose certification process was 100% youth-led.

Replicable and flexible by design

His experience with the anchor Summit held at The Wild Center in the Adirondacks was so positive that Fagerheim set out to help create one at his own school, using a toolkit designed by The Wild Center to make it easy to replicate the summits in other communities.

“We knew we really liked how they structured theirs, and we liked how youth had a big role in the planning and speaking, so the bigger thing was customizing to our community,” he says. For his own school’s summit, he and other organizers decided to shrink it to one day. That allowed them to avoid having people pay for overnight accommodations, and allowed use of local speakers and a focus on issues specifically relevant to central New York.

“The great thing about their model is we could keep a lot of the same ideas while making it applicable to where we are,” he says.

After all, climate impacts are becoming palpable in different ways, depending on one’s location. For Fagerheim, who had contracted (and fortunately recovered from) Lyme disease a couple of years earlier, the surge in tick populations and other invasive species is top of mind. Ketser is seeing an impact on winter tourism and the maple syrup industry. She also worries about more storms like Irene, which in 2011 revealed major vulnerabilities in local infrastructure.

Importantly, every community has its own unique ways of how best to communicate about climate change, let alone agreeing on how to act on it.

So Kretser doesn’t believe in prescribing specific actions and solutions for youth to try to enact. Depending on one’s community, interests, and skills, she says, any number of ways can help – whether it’s through science, policy, the arts, or communications. The summit toolkit and planning resources can be tailored to support various approaches, she says. “We want it to be this open iteration of the work and we can learn from together.”

Fagerheim has since graduated from high school and gone on to attend Columbia University, with plans to study earth and environmental engineering. He says his high school’s conference has run annually since its inception, with about 100-120 students attending each year. And it’s still going.

What’s next? Global challenges … local actions

The challenges are global, but local action – particularly when it helps set an example for others to follow – can add up to meaningful change, too.

“You hear a lot that the youth are going to be our future leaders,” says Fagerheim. “But my experience is very much that youth are leading today, and that’s really encouraging.”

With today’s youth inheriting the Earth, perhaps more adults should heed the advice of Homer Mayor Hal McCabe, who said, “This is their world we’re moving into. It’s not going to be ours for much longer, so they should be in the driver’s seat.”

That doesn’t mean just leave the kids to figure it all out themselves, Fagerheim says. His advice: Make climate action a partnership across the generational divide, with a healthy dose of support from and trust of youths, the elderly … and all in between.

Topics: Youth