When I asked elementary school students in a climate action workshop that I co-led on May 20 how they thought about climate change, they didn’t hesitate to volunteer that they felt scared, sad and angry.
That’s hard to hear as an adult, and we may instinctively want to shield kids from the climate crisis. But, we can’t. Children and teens are hearing about climate disasters already on the news or experiencing them firsthand. We need to prepare kids, and that means creating a climate literate and empowered generation who understand the essential principle of Earth’s climate system, and know how to communicate about climate and climate change in a meaningful way.
We also need to be giving kids solutions and tools in their toolbox, because the future will demand imagination and creativity on a large scale.
Enter the Youth Climate Summit, which was founded in 2009 at The Wild Center in Tupper Lake, in the Adirondacks, with the goal to convene, engage, connect and empower young people around the world for action on climate change. As of now, more than 30 locations around the world have hosted a Youth Climate Summit.
In 2019 I helped organize a Youth Climate Summit for middle-school students at the Garrison School with since-retired science teacher Kevin Keegan. One hundred and thirty students from seven schools attended and we had plans to make it an annual event before COVID hit. I was beyond thrilled when Rachel Arbor, the environmental educator at the school, took up the mantle to revive the summit and expand it to all grades.
The day began with 11 student volunteers from the fourth to eighth grades working to lead a keynote speech about the local environment, the challenges it’s facing and what they can do to help. Arbor said her goals for the summit were “to connect students to nature and the wide variety of careers in science — and empower them to understand climate issues so they could take climate action.”
The day was full of hands-on workshops centered on nature, science careers and turning climate anxiety into action. Students foraged in the 181-acre Garrison School Forest, heard from a NASA botanist and a biomimicry engineer, interacted with birds of prey, reptiles and snakes, explored the Green Machine — a truck with a multitude of interactive forms of renewable energy — and learned about climate action from the organizers of the Philipstown Fights Dirty campaign (myself included).
Arbor said that, along with the content of the keynote, students helped choose the workshop topics. Students from a range of grades met nearly every day at lunch and recess in May to create a 30-minute presentation.
“The highlight of my day was being inspired by our middle-school students who presented thoughtful and practical solutions to combating climate change, the single greatest challenge facing their generation,” said Superintendent Carl Albano. “They give me great hope for the future.”