It’s hard to overstate the effect that a changing climate is having around the world. And a group of young social activists in Oregon is calling attention to the disconnect between the extreme urgency of the climate issue and the lack of adequate policies to make a real difference. The effects of extreme heat waves, wildfires and drought are getting worse, not better. The young leaders of Our Children Oregon have a message: we need real action now. They say they want a voice in shaping the policies that affect them most of all, that they deserve a seat at the table.
Our guests are, Avery McRae, one of the 21 plaintiffs in the climate lawsuit Juliana v. U.S.; Adah Crandall, a climate change organizer with Sunrise PDX; and two members of the OCO youth leadership cohort, Jax Richards, and Caroline Gao, who is also Oregon’s Youth Governor. And Meredith Connolly, the Oregon director of Climate Solutions, a nonprofit focused on policy, joins us as well.
Note: The following transcript was computer generated and edited by a volunteer
Allison Frost: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Allison Frost. We’re spending this hour talking to young people who are demanding action on climate change. We recorded this show in October, in partnership with the youth leaders in Our Children Oregon, a nonpartisan organization that advocates for children and youth. In a statewide survey the nonprofit sent out this summer, climate change was ranked by youth as number one in importance among 18 different issues, tied only with mental health. One young respondent summed it up this way: ‘I think many elected officials put climate change on the back burner when it truly is a pressing issue that needs immediate attention. I also think elected officials underestimate the power of youth backing and voice.’
We’ll be introducing you to four young activists in just a few minutes, but we begin with an overview of the changes the state has made to move in the direction of a more sustainable climate. Meredith Connolly is the Oregon director of Climate Solutions, a nonprofit focused on policy. I began by asking her when Oregon’s carbon emissions started to come down, after rising even in recent years.
Meredith Connolly: It is actually a shocking part of our state history that many don’t realize. So quick time travel: back in 2007 state leaders passed greenhouse-gas targets for Oregon, including a target for us to hit in 2020, and then by 2020, our emissions kept climbing year over year and we spectacularly blew past that climate goal. And I pride myself, and I’m sure many Oregonians do, on being a part of clean energy and climate leader. And that was really disheartening to see how far we fell from leader to laggard at that point.
There are these real and significant costs of climate delay and inaction, and it’s also an equity issue of course, because this climate crisis and fossil fuel pollution really multiplies the harms for everyone, but especially our Black and Brown and Indigenous communities, as well as our low-income in rural communities.
Frost: So what turned us around?
Connolly: That’s a good question. I think more than a turning point, it was really more of a boiling over point, that acted as a catalyst. There were all these attempts to make climate progress that were thwarted by fossil fuel companies and entrenched special interests in Salem. But at the same time, we had these climate disasters racking up, like the 2020 Labor Day fires and Oregonians across the state and advocates, including many youth-led movements and advocates, who I hope are part of this event tonight, really said ‘enough’ and did not let up. They didn’t stop pushing their elected officials to take it more seriously and to actually respond with commensurate actions. And unfortunately, it also just meant that we’re at a later point and there’s more to do, more quickly.
The good news is, there’s also clean energy solutions that keep falling in price. And so making those clean energy alternatives more affordable and available, it started to become an economic no brainer at the same time. So these elected officials are getting pushed, the solutions and the alternatives are becoming more affordable, and they are running for office during a time when there is a visible unfolding climate crisis outside their window. So it became much less possible to skirt responsibility for doing something about it in power. And I think it’s really led us to these breakthroughs the past couple of years that have started to change that trajectory of our climate pollution and much more to do, but we’re on a much better track now than even just a couple of years ago.
Frost: Well, one of the things that at least helped a bit, is the elimination of all coal production, energy produced by coal. And that is one of the things that perhaps lowered our emissions, but that certainly wasn’t the only factor. How are we doing in general about meeting these really ambitious goals?
Connolly: This is the tough part. We have ambitious goals. They were updated by Governor Brown, an executive order in 2020 and even those are insufficient compared to what we actually need to do for Oregon to cut its fair share of emissions and keep us below 1.5° warming. So it is also true that it is ambitious to achieve these goals. What really gets us there is thinking about, where are the biggest sources of emissions, and what are the solutions to those?
There are three big sectors of emissions that are driving our climate pollution. That’s our transportation sector, how we get around our cars, busses, trucks; it is our electricity sector, coal and gas power plants especially; and it’s our building sector, and a large part of that is our reliance on gas in that sector and not constructing efficiently enough in our homes and offices and apartments. So the good news is, that also means it’s relatively straightforward for how we actually bend that curve in, and start to solve that. The pithy way to think about it is electrify everything, and then get our electricity sector to 100% clean power To actually power our electric trucks and buses and cars, to power electric appliances, industrial processes. And that backbone of clean electricity, we’re now on a good trajectory to actually achieve 100% carbon-free electricity by 2040 and a lot more work to do to reduce our car dependency, more alternatives for how to get around in the transportation sector, and then all the vehicles left on the road to electrify them, use cleaner fuels. Those are the solutions that will really get us there that we were starting to see that transition. But now we have to scale it up to a transformation, so that’s the work ahead
Frost: Meredith Connolly, thank you so much for joining us today.
Connolly: Thank you. Happy to be here.
Frost: Meredith Connolly is the Oregon director of Climate Solutions, a nonprofit focused on policy.
We are discussing how climate change is affecting youth and what some youth activists are doing to push for solutions. And we are going to talk with some of those activists now, starting with Avery McRae. She is one of the 21 youth plaintiffs who are suing the federal government to force a change in the current fossil fuel energy system. The case is called Juliana v. United States. It’s perhaps the biggest and best known climate change case in the country certainly, and one of the biggest in the world. Avery McRae, like many of the plaintiffs are Oregonians and she joins us now from Eugene, where she’s a senior at South Eugene High School. Thanks for being here Avery!
Avery McRae: Oh my gosh, thank you so much for having me.
Frost: Juliana was first filed seven years ago and that was, you were just 10 years old. It’s hard to imagine that. But how long before that did you first learn that climate change even existed?
McRae: Yeah, so my climate change beginning was really when I was in kindergarten. I learned that snow leopards were endangered by climate change by reading a book in my kindergarten library, and I was heartbroken that animals were being impacted by something that was caused by humans. I went home and I talked about it with my parents and I was really heartbroken. And so that kind of began my sense of needing to do something. So I threw a party for the Snow Leopard Trust and raised like $200 for the Snow Leopard Trust by inviting my friends and asking for donations. Little kindergarten me.
Frost: Not bad for a five or six year old!
McRae: Looking back on it, I know I am pretty proud. And then the next year I did the same thing for one and got like $250 for Oregon Wild to help bring wolves back into Oregon. And then the year after that I did the same thing for salmon and got like $300 for Mackenzie River Trust, which helps take care of local salmon populations here in Lane County. So that was kind of the beginning of it. And then when I was in fifth grade, right around the time that my climate advocacy was really becoming a thing, I went to a camp with Our Children’s Trust which is a local nonprofit law firm that helps youth bring lawsuits against their government, state governments and federal governments now. And then about a year later they asked if I wanted to join this federal lawsuit Juliana.
Frost: So yes, well let’s get to that. Can you explain it just a little bit about what is the case actually alleging?
McRae: Juliana v. United States is a landmark federal lawsuit against the United States government. We’re basically bringing to court asking them to create a plan on how we’re going to lower our carbon emissions federally. That was the initial ask that we were bringing to court. We’re now kind of going back and amending our complaint and really what we’re doing now is asking for declaratory relief. We’re asking for this court to solidly say that climate change is an issue and that the defendants are some of the main perpetuators of climate change, which will be super monumental.
Frost: That the government is actually responsible for supporting the fossil fuel system and they are required to come up with something different.
McRae: Yeah, so that’s the goal.
Frost: To what extent do we know what it would mean if the lawsuit is successful? Is there any like, ‘oh well, A B and C will happen’? Or is there some uncertainty there?
McRae: Yeah. Now that we’re back in the district court and we’re asking for declaratory relief, really the only thing that we’re hoping to get from it at this point is that declaratory relief, which will basically just ensure that in court we can argue that the United States government has a huge role in causing climate change and [is] continuing to perpetuate the climate disaster basically. But hopefully, I think the goal would be that that would set a precedent for future cases to be able to go back and basically just use that as their baseline argument and say, hey look, whoever is that they are going to try and create change to and just really say in court that, we have already decided that climate change is caused and perpetuated by the defendants, which is the the United States government. And then really just trying to continue on from there and try to come up with the solution. So that’s the goal.
Frost: And you have learned so much about all of this. It’s hard for me to even grasp how much you were involved in this whole climate change context and the climate change lawsuit . . . a lot changes from 10 to 17. And one of the things that you studied partly and learned through being involved in this was the political rhetoric versus the policies of different governments, certainly we’ve gone through different administrations from different political parties. What was the overwhelming observation that you made from that?
McRae: When we sued in 2015, it was against the Obama administration. And I remember telling some of my peers and just the people around me, ‘Yeah, I’m suing the Obama administration, we’re against them for their actions taken to worsen climate change’. And I remember peers being like, ‘well, why are you suing Obama? He has all this amazing climate rhetoric. He’s known for being a climate champ basically.’ And I really had to stand my ground and say no, he was talking, he did talk a lot about climate change and needing to have systemic change off of fossil fuels and onto renewable energies. But what we were really seeing was that he was continuing to allow fossil fuel industries to lease out public lands and drill and frack and there were continued actions behind closed doors that were really not matching what he was saying to the public.
Then when Trump was elected in 2016, that all shifted, because everything that he was doing against the environment was really happening publicly. He wasn’t afraid to say that he thought that climate change was a myth and that he didn’t believe in it. And so it was a lot easier for me when talking to people who didn’t know about the lawsuit, I was like, ‘I’m suing Trump for his actions taken to worsen climate change.’ Like that makes sense, right?
I remember having the shift where I was like, okay, it’s really interesting the way that this has become so politicized and we have realized that we have seen climate change as such a political issue, and it’s just not. It continues to be an issue whether a Republican is running the country, whether a Democrat is running the country, and no matter what they’re saying, they are continuing at least so far, to lease off public lands, and to drill and frack and to offer large subsidies to also fuel industries that are just making money off off of producing large portions of natural gas and oil. Now we’re suing against the Biden administration. We’re really trying to have an optimistic view that hopefully he will hear the case and be a little more civil about it in court. But we’re really just trying to see how it goes.
Frost: I want to read another youth comment made in connection to the Oregon Health Authority report about the connection between youth, mental health and climate change. This is from Te Maia Wiki, who lives in Ashland. She says ‘this isn’t just a stressful conversation when we’re talking about the climate crisis, this is a full spiritual, emotional and physical embodiment of how this stresses me out, how this impacts me. So, you can imagine when I hear adults say you’re the leader of tomorrow, or we are leaving behind this planet for you, it’s frustrating, because I’m not a leader of tomorrow, I’m a leader of today. I don’t magically get the earth as soon as my grandmother’s generation is gone, I’m getting it now. From the moment I was born, I was born into this crisis.’
And you too, Avery, were born into this crisis. Is this something that’s been tangible for you?
McRae: Yeah, absolutely. I think that because I started climate advocacy at such a young age, it wasn’t necessarily something that I could put my finger on, because it was something I just kind of grew up with. I think that climate trauma is a very real thing and especially among my generation, it is very real. And I’ve been through all the emotions about climate change and the feeling of just absolute betrayal by my elected officials and political leaders. I felt everything.
But I also think that it’s really important to note that I have experienced a lot of adults telling me, ‘you are so inspiring, you are the only hope’, right? Kind of like that quote was saying, you are the only hope, you’re our last hope. It’s all on you, right? And I remember as a kid, it was maybe a couple years after the lawsuit was filed, and Eugene is a pretty small community, a lot of people know each other. I remember having this older lady walk up to me in the supermarket and she was like ‘are you one of the climate kids?’ And I was like, ‘yeah’. And she was like ‘you are our last hope’. And she walked away. And I remember just sitting there for a minute and being like, how do I respond to that? Because I understand that the reason you’re saying this to me is because you feel so much deep guilt and climate, grief and trauma and you clearly have a lot that you’re feeling and it’s so much easier for you to put it on to me because you see me as a beacon of hope. But also trying to now help adults realize that is just not useful. I don’t need you to tell me that I’m your last hope. It’s awesome that I’m inspiring you, and I’m so happy that I’m really hammering home some emotions for you, but you need to carry yourself because I’m already carrying enough stuff. Just knowing that I’m inheriting this planet that is actively being destroyed by my federal government, I don’t need to take on your grief.
It’s definitely an interesting interaction that I had and I definitely think that that changed my perception of just climate trauma in general and how it’s so much more of a kind of community thing and it needs to be, at least in my eyes, recognized as that because it does affect every generation, even if it’s not being acknowledged in that way. And I think that acknowledging it and saying yes, you can be 60 years older than me and you can still have climate trauma and still feel frustrated after 70-plus years of living and seeing elected officials not doing anything. I fully understand that.
Frost: Stay with us Avery, we have more questions for you, but I want to now introduce our next guest, Adah Crandall. She is a climate justice organizer in Portland with Sunrise PDX and a senior at Grant High School. Welcome Adah.
Adah Crandall: Hello, thanks so much for having me.
Frost: Thanks so much for being here. Can you describe briefly the context and the aim of the Sunrise movement more broadly, because you’re part of Sunrise PDX, but there’s a broader movement, right?
Crandall: Yeah, so the Sunrise movement at a national level is a movement of young people who are fighting to stop the climate crisis and create millions of good jobs in the process. Sunrise originally set out to sort of dispel this myth that it’s jobs versus climate, because the reality is that stopping the climate crisis will create jobs and will better our society in pretty much every way. And so Sunrise PDX is a local chapter of that. We’re fighting for those things at a local level. Specifically, recently we’ve been very involved opposing the expansions of freeways, because of the 40% of our state’s emissions that come from transportation.
Frost: What have your successes been so far?
Crandall: I think that in this campaign that we are working on around transportation, one of the biggest things has been just watching the paradigm shift around the way that our leaders talk about these issues, the way that they talk about the connection between transportation and climate. Because I think even a few years ago, within the climate movement, freeways and transportation weren’t something that were being seen as one of the biggest factors in perpetuating climate change. This series of youth rallies, essentially that we did for over a year, every other week outside the Oregon Department of Transportation headquarters, they started to get people’s attention and they started to get people talking about the ways in which our transportation system is harmful. And we’ve definitely brought the conversations about transportation and about climate change together.
Frost: That awareness that you’re talking about, that shift going from how do we get cars to admit less, how do we get cleaner buses, to ‘wait, there’s a transportation infrastructure’, like widening a highway, that is supporting one way of developing the systems. So, you recently held a training for student and youth activists to train to be activists? What was the focus of that event?
Crandall: Yeah. I am one of the co-leads of Portland’s Youth Climate Strike, which for the last several years has been mobilizing our peers to take part in local and global climate strikes. And this fall, we realized that another massive mobilization was not the most important thing that the climate movement in Portland needed, and so we thought we can do another strike in alignment with the global strike happening all over the world - students walking out of school - or we can use this opportunity to take things a step further. Because in my mind, thousands of kids walking out of school and marching in the streets and demanding climate action that is threatening to the status quo, but it is not as threatening as thousands of students actively organizing their communities to fight for change. And for me this training, it was a day of workshops about different climate organizing topics. Really, it was a tool for movement building and for recruiting people into this movement and telling them, you have a role to play whatever skills you have, whatever interests you have, we need you in this movement, and we’re going to welcome you and we’re gonna give you the knowledge and tools to take part in this and to be active in your communities. And that I think is one of the most powerful things that the Portland climate movement has done and one of the most strategic.
Frost: You’ve been involved for several years and I think it’s fair to say one of the leaders in the Student Climate Justice movement here in Portland. Is there a fear that you have or a concern that when you go, there’s not going to be people to take your place or enough of that movement to come up behind you?
Crandall: That’s definitely something that I think about a lot. It is so important that we are building a movement that is going to sustain itself in the years to come. And I think that’s one of the biggest struggles with student organizing is that people are only around in a place for so long before people move on and do other things with their lives. The training also for me was like very much a tool to make sure that we are training up new leaders who can step into these roles after the current leaders graduate. It definitely does worry me, because I do feel like I take on a lot of sense of responsibility for leadership in the climate movement, because a lot of people look to me as a leader. So I definitely feel a responsibility to ensure that the next generation of climate organizers has the resources that they need to be successful and to keep this fight going.
Frost: You’ll be graduating this year and deciding what direction you want your life to go next. How does climate change or climate anxiety affect you? Is it having an effect on how you’re thinking about where you want to go specifically?
Crandall: It absolutely is. I made the decision to graduate high school a year early almost entirely because of climate reasons. I feel that I cannot wait around another year sitting in a classroom, when our planet is actively on fire, and when all of these terrible, scary things are happening. I feel absolutely this sense of urgency, like I need to get out in the world, I need to do things. I feel like I have learned so much more from the organizing that I’ve done outside of school than I’ve learned in school. And I’ve also been able to make such a bigger impact. But with that, simultaneously, I do feel like a sense of grief almost for the childhood that I feel that I have lost over this. I started organizing in 7th grade and this movement has in a lot of ways taken over my life since then. I’m absolutely grateful for the opportunities that I’ve had, but I also know that fighting the climate crisis should not fall on my shoulders. It should not be the responsibility of my generation. I should not be planning my future around the idea that the leaders of the past and our current leaders have failed and are continuing to fail us.
Frost: If it weren’t for this climate crisis, do you think you would be drawn in a different direction entirely?
Crandall: It’s hard to say. I feel like I never really had the opportunity to think like, ‘oh, I can do anything I want with my future. And there are limitless options,’ because in my mind it feels like I can’t imagine doing anything else. I can’t imagine a future where climate organizing isn’t a huge part of what I’m doing with my life. And so yeah, I wish that I had more of an opportunity to feel like this was a choice, because, for generations and generations of people and politicians and fossil fuel CEOs, this was a choice. They made this choice to leave us with this planet. And now my generation, we don’t have a choice except to do everything that we possibly can to stop the climate crisis, because otherwise we don’t have a future. We don’t have a planet.
Frost: That was Adah Crandall. She is a climate change organizer with Sunrise PDX and a senior at Grant High School.
Our next guests are part of [Our Children Oregon’s] youth leadership cohort. Caroline Gao is a senior at West Albany High School and Oregon’s Youth Governor. Jax Richards is an Oregon State University senior. They both have past experience working in Congress. Jax for a representative, Caroline for a U.S. senator as a page. They’re both highly involved in civic life locally. They’re members of the Our Children Oregon youth leadership cohort, and they consider addressing climate change a top priority. I began by asking Jax if climate change has played an increasing role in his studies focused on international relief.
Jax Richards: Yeah, it certainly has. When I came into college, I wanted to get into specifically youth advocacy and social services and that’s kind of the direction I was headed. Then in 2020, I was working as a youth residential assistant at an at-risk-youth home. So essentially I worked in the home with youth that were displaced. That’s obviously when the wildfires happened. And that was kind of an internalizing moment for me, realizing that when we talk about social services for youth and for families, ultimately the climate crisis is one of the biggest threats that we face. Then from there, horses are off to the races, and I’ve been involved in that kind of policy ever since.
Frost: And climate change has also impacted the way you’ve been studying about humanitarian relief, I understand. Part of that humanitarian relief is directly tied to catastrophes caused by climate change. Is that fair to say?
Richards: Yeah, 100 percent. I’m actually applying to more programs right now. Everything that’s been talked about so far is kind of like mitigation, where we need to look at the front end of carbon reduction and that kind of thing. That’s incredibly important. But I’m focusing more on the adaption end where, even if we become perfect as a society tomorrow, we’re still going to have catastrophe. I really want to work on that back end and help communities, specifically marginalized communities that are disproportionately at risk, to face whether it’s drought or flooding or fires or what we’re seeing in Florida right now with Hurricane Ian. Ultimately that’s where I want to work, which I think is also a really important thing to consider when we’re talking about policy, climate policy.
Frost: You have experience working as a congressional intern in the U.S. House of Representatives, as I mentioned, and also a legislative aide in the Oregon Senate. What have you learned in those roles, with that experience of the kind of impact that youth can have on policy making – as youth?
Richards: I’d really say two things on that. One is, youth having just a voice or being in the room is no longer enough. It’s never really been enough. Youth are not an optional voice when we’re having conversations about climate or anything else for that matter. They need to be treated and recognized as legitimate stakeholders that have meaningful power in these conversations, so they can put forward an agenda that is actually youth centered.
When we talk about climate change – this gets into the other thing that I’ve learned a lot in policy circles, and this has been hinted at already – we used to just talk about carbon reduction, but now it’s everything from transportation to disaster response to how we actually structure even childcare services to function in disasters. Climate needs to be at the center of all these conversations, and in the center of those conversations needs to be the youth that are ultimately going to be the most impacted by this. As you said, I’ve worked in the state level and the federal level, and ultimately those voices are needed everywhere from communities to the international platforms. Some of them are there, but we need to do a lot better at integrating them and making those spaces safe and accessible for youth.
Frost: And perhaps expanding them because there’s certainly plenty of boards and councils that do not have a place at all for a youth representative.
Frost: Caroline, I want to turn to you. You also have worked in Congress, as I mentioned, as a page. What do you think you took from that experience that you find is most helpful for youth who perhaps want to get into this more actively?
Caroline Gao: Absolutely. I think there are a lot of takeaways from that experience. But the one probably most applicable to youth is that your organizing matters, and it does make a difference. Even if progress is painstakingly slow and painstakingly incremental, it is progress nonetheless. I think for me that was especially clear when the Senate voted to pass the bipartisan Safer Communities Act while I was in the Senate. I was just feet away from Senator Murphy as he was giving that speech. All filled in the spectator area of the Senate were the families and especially the youth from organizations across the U.S. that have been pushing for gun safety legislation for decades. I think there’s still a lot of progress that has to be made: the way that this legislation is reactive rather than proactive, the way that we had to fight for this long for any change, however incremental the bill is, to actually be passed. But the fact that it happened would not have been possible without all the youth that have been pushing for that change. So yeah, I would say that’s the main thing I took away from that.
Frost: You and Jax, you’re both on different boards, student representatives or advisers. Jax, you’re on the OSU Board of Directors. Caroline, you’re a student advisor to the Oregon Board of Education. So I want to ask both of you, what have you learned from these experience on boards that could be relevant or that other youth could take, specifically in getting onto boards or their actions on boards. Jax, do you want to start?
Richards: Oh, I’ll start. I serve as the student representative on the Oregon State University Board of Trustees. Oregon State University, just for context, as Oregon’s flagship Land Grant University. We have extension services in all 36 counties. We have tens of thousands of students across a lot of our different communities. When talking about student representation and youth representation in these spaces, ultimately it’s impossible to actually meaningfully engage in any work without it. In fact, I really think it should be more accessible to more students.
The one thing I’d really say is a key takeaway, beyond the scope of climate policy or climate work and more just getting into youth representation, is what I really would think is like external power versus internal power. Where I have a lot of friends and a lot of activists, colleagues who work night and day in the community to get out the vote and to work within their own circles to push an agenda. But at the end of the day, the agenda is enforced by whatever policy-making mechanism or board or congress has that authority. I think increasing representation in these spaces is critical, and so infusing the voices of those most impacted is ultimately what’s just going to get the best policy.
Frost: Caroline, do you feel listened to at the State Board of Education? Do you feel listened to, and do you feel like you have an impact?
Gao: Yes, that’s honestly a great question that I’m still discovering the answer to as I move forward with my term. I started in August, so it’s still been relatively new position for me. I do feel that I’m heard for sure. I do know that I have the opportunity to speak on the educational issues that come before the board and that my perspective is valued.
I think listening is a much deeper concept. It means considering that when you’re voting on the issue. It means considering that in the actual actions that you take. As an advisor, I don’t have a vote on the board. I am an advisor, so I get to provide my opinion and hope that that guides their thinking, but there’s no way where I can really ensure that. I think in a lot of advisory roles, and kind of reflecting on what these other youth activists have said, is oftentimes when you do something or you say something, the adults in the room will say, ‘Wow, this is why we need student voice. Wow, this is very powerful that a youth is here.’ In my opinion, these extremely powerful rule-making bodies… like the state Board of Education is making policies around our education of which we are the ones most directly impacted. The fact that it’s more anomalous that we have a voice in this space as opposed to normalize that we are participating in the process of forming our education, I think is something that continues to need to be changed.
Of course I appreciate my seat at the table, and I very much value that we have that seat at the table at all. But I think there’s still progress to be made in terms of adding voting powers, in terms of allowing more youth to be part of that process before I can truly believe that I’m fully being listened to, and that not just me but every other young person affected by the system has that same opportunity to be listened to.
Frost: It’s one thing to be listened to, and it’s another thing to have an actual vote. As I mentioned, Caroline, you’re the Oregon Youth Governor. Can you tell me a little bit more about that program?
Gao: I am Youth Governor through a program called Youth and Government™, which is actually a national civic education program run by the YMCA that operates mock state legislative programs in most states. In Oregon our program has actually been around since 1948, so I’m the 77th Youth Governor. With that program we basically allow students from across the state to develop policies and do so in the format and the processes of the Oregon State Legislature. Then our main event is an annual state legislative conference in Salem where these students [from] across the state get to meet and present these bills that we’ve developed in our individual clubs. Ultimately, students are the ones who debate those bills, decide whether to pass or fail those bills, and I’ll be the one who either assigns them into youth legislative law or vetoes them. That is kind of the culminating part of the program.
Frost: That’s coming up in February. How many of the bills deal with climate change, in past years? Obviously you don’t know what’s coming in February, but in general?
Gao: A very large proportion to be sure. That, I think, has risen over the years as well. I would say, honestly a minimum like 15% to 30% and potentially more depending on the year. We have committees where we work on our bills of course, and oftentimes our environmental bills have the largest committee. It’s definitely a significant concern.
Frost: Can you give us just a couple of quick examples of the kinds of bills that have been successful?
Gao: Just last year we had one around banning the felling of old-growth trees. Old-growth trees are trees that are at least 150 years old, and they’re very central to a lot of the ecosystems they’re part of. We had another one around requiring an environmental education course as a requirement for high school graduation. I think both of these show that we as youth are looking at environmental policy and climate and combating climate change through many, many different lenses because this is an issue that affects every aspect of our lives. It’s not just fighting against further worsening of it by, for example, felling trees that are absolutely critical to our ecosystem, but also setting the foundation for future change where it is normalized to talk about and learn about this issue that’s so central to how our futures will be situated.
Frost: And briefly, I understand that Oregon legislators are invited but not very many of them come, and their role has mainly been to talk and perhaps answer student questions. How would you like to see their roles change in this upcoming mock legislature?
Gao: Yeah, I would say the main shift I would like to see is legislators coming in with the primary intention of listening rather than talking. These are some of just the most politically engaged and informed youth that I’ve interacted with – oftentimes more informed than a lot of the adults I’ve interacted with – on our political systems. The fact that we don’t get to vote and decide who our legislators are, I think, makes it all the more important that these legislators come in with the intention to listen to what we are bringing up as the issues that we’re passionate enough about to spend a year writing a bill and developing and bringing to students from across the state.
Long story short, during our legislative sessions, we all go into chambers, we just go through our bills. We debate them just like the state legislature does with their bills. So, having legislators come in during those sessions to hear what we’re talking about and then afterward engage with us in individual meetings with, for example, students from a school and their local representative to talk about their bills, to talk about what the students want to see from their legislators. I think having that listening perspective where they’re learning from us as much as we’re learning from them is a shift that I would like to make in this program.
Frost: And getting the numbers up from a half a dozen to maybe a few dozen.
Frost: Well, we want to ask all of you if you have specific advice for people listening now or Oregon youth. We’ve touched on this a little bit, but what advice would you give to youth who are committed to having a seat at the table to actively work to stop climate change? I’ll start with you, Avery.
McRae: I would say there’s kind of two paths in my mind that I would like to touch on. One is really directed at youth. For me, when I joined the federal lawsuit – I’m suing the United States government with 20 other youth – I definitely got a lot of motivation just by being around 20 other politically active and very conscious youth. I think that trying to really find community and finding people that you feel comfortable working with and that you feel motivated and inspired by and you’re able to just inspire each other, I think that that is one of the most powerful things that we can do. Just as a climate community, I think that that’s super important.
Then the other thing is more directed towards parents and adults who are looking to support youth in getting involved in climate work. Both my parents are environmentalists, but I never felt pressured or forced into environmental activism in any way. I think that honestly not being forced into it and not feeling like there was any pressure on me because of family reasons really gave me that ability to be my own driving force. My parents have done just a really awesome job just supporting me by trying to give me opportunities to be active where I want to be. They drove me to city council meetings when I was 10, so I could talk to city councilors and try to stop the new fossil fuel infrastructure in Eugene, or whatever the current discussion was. I think that that is definitely super valuable.
I think also just, adults, really listen. I think that that’s been a common theme in this discussion, but take the microphone away from yourself and just give it to the youth. Really try to understand the mental impacts that are coming from us feeling the weight of climate work and climate trauma and everything. Also just really try to understand how best to help us because obviously every individual is different. Really trying to figure out what the youth in your community need I think is really important.
Frost: Thanks Avery. Adah, you can feel free to give advice to youth and adults the way Avery did. Your choice.
Crandall: Cool. I think first of all just for youth, I want you to know that you aren’t alone in feeling scared and worried about the climate crisis. It’s so easy to feel isolated in this, especially when so much of the media we receive is so focused on the individual impact of reducing our individual carbon footprints. But that’s a myth. Don’t worry about that. It was literally created by the fossil fuel industry to make you feel bad. Instead, focusing on, as Avery said, finding a community. Join an organization who is doing this work. Find people who are going to fight for these things with you because it can help you feel less alone. It can also help to validate all of the many, many emotions that come up when thinking about the climate crisis. However you feel about it is okay. I’ve been told by a lot of adults like, ‘Oh don’t be worried. You’re going to fix it.’ But it’s like, okay you’re telling me to fix it and to not be worried. It doesn’t make sense. So it’s okay. It’s okay to be scared and anxious because a lot of us feel that way.
Then I think, for adults, just ask how you can help. Ask a local climate organization, ‘What do you need? How can I support?’ Because I think that’s the obvious step that a lot of people overlook sometimes because it is easy to feel helpless. But there are so many different roles for everyone, regardless of how much time you can contribute or what your skills are, what your interests are. The climate crisis is such a multifaceted issue, and we need everyone we can possibly get to join this movement.
Frost: And Jax, how about you?
Richards: Well, I was gonna originally go with, ‘You are not alone,’ but that got taken. I would say this instead: For my advice, I’d say be conscious of the spaces you have and the ones you don’t have. I’ll start with the ones you don’t have. I think youth representation on community boards, school boards and local government and state government and federal government, is an absolute necessity. But I don’t think it should be capped at one voice or two or three or however many. At the end of the day, I don’t think you can ever truly capture what we consider the voice of a generation with just a handful of students or youth. I think stopping and accepting that you’re only going to get one or two slots or spaces in this is just not exactly what we need. You should be thankful for it, and you should use them to your advantage. But, I think we own the future in this matter, and I think ultimately our representation needs to see that reflected.
The other thing I’d say is be conscious of the spaces you occupy. At least in my personal experience with the climate crisis and the advocacy I’ve seen around it, it’s a predominantly white space. It’s a space that is largely college educated and comes from a lot of people that come from a lot of privilege. I’m very thankful to a lot of those people, and a lot of them I consider close friends. But when we talk about the people most impacted by the climate crisis, and probably some of the most important voices we should be hearing from in these spaces, we should be looking at traditionally marginalized communities. We should be looking at rural communities. We should really be considering the voices of lived experience that have been disrupted by climate events. Sometimes it’s okay to take a back seat if you know there’s someone else that has a voice that has lived experience that should be heard over your own. I think being conscious of the spaces you take up and the spaces you don’t have yet are just as equally important when talking about the progression of this movement.
Frost: Caroline, I think it’s a hard position to go last because so much has been said, but do you have anything to add?
Gao: I’ll give it my best shot. I think so much good has been covered. Maybe just kind of like tactical advice I would say, thinking back to when I first started getting involved in politics and advocacy. I think it can be a field that feels kind of foreign to a lot of young people because we don’t talk about it that much in school. For me especially, I grew up in Albany, which is a fairly small place. There aren’t a lot of political organizations that I would hear about and not a lot of political activity in general. I think this is something that maybe a lot of people in smaller communities are familiar with. So I would say being conscious of the resources that you might already have that you might not realize are available for you. I know for me, I honestly had to spend a lot of time researching online different political opportunities in Oregon and just how the process worked because those resources weren’t presented to me. I kind of had to hunt for them, I suppose. So I would say be conscious that you might have to look a little bit before you find the opportunity that fits right for you. For me, my family is really quite apolitical, and I was kind of the only one who really got into it. But again, finding your community, as everyone said, realizing there are other youth like that is very important.
I guess lastly, just trying to turn things that might seem like obstacles into opportunities, especially for people from more rural or small rural areas. Most of my political opportunities and internships were virtual because they were based in Portland or places that I wouldn’t otherwise have access to. So I would say be creative with your resources and your time and be okay with having to spend some time to find that right opportunity for you.
Frost: That was Caroline Gao, a senior at West Albany High School, and Jax Richards, an Oregon State University senior, two of the youth leaders in Our Children Oregon. We also talked with Avery McRae, one of the 21 Juliana v. U.S. plaintiffs, Adah Crandall, a climate justice organizer with Sunrise PDX, and Meredith Connolly, Oregon director of Climate Solutions, a nonprofit focused on policy. We recorded this conversation in October as a live Zoom event focused on youth and climate change in partnership with Our Children Oregon.
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