Youth activists stress collaboration, urgency to respond to climate change
This year’s American Renewable Energy, or AREDAY speaker series and related film festival aimed to promote actionable solutions to climate change by bringing a lot of the key leaders chasing those solutions to one place.
At 15- and 30-minute intervals, these leaders spoke about things such as hydrogen-based clean energy technologies and how to make them economically viable in hopes they will replace the fossil fuel industry as the world’s leading energy producer.
Much of it was technical and there were a lot of charts, graphs and numbers presented to the AREDAY audiences who soaked them up, snapping iPhone photos of the data and taking detailed notes.
But while the 16th annual AREDAY summit was titled “The Politics of Change: Creating New Hydrogen-Carbon Economy” and did feature a lot of cutting edge science predominantly produced by older men and women, it also made a point of bringing a different set of leaders to the table — youth activists.
A conservative, a millennial and an environmentalist walk into a room
One of those young leaders was Benji Backer, a 21-year-old student at the University of Washington in Seattle and founder of the American Conservation Coalition, who was a different voice for the AREDAY audience to hear.
“As you can tell, on the agenda, I am not Michael Brune and I am not the head of the Sierra Club,” Backer said. Brune was supposed to speak instead of Backer on Thursday afternoon, according to the agenda.
“In fact, I might be in many people’s eyes one of the exact opposites of that because I am a conservative political activist who believes that our party, our movement needs to do more on environmental challenges,” Backer said.
Applause rung out around the room.
During Backer’s short speech, he briefly explained his personal history, his frustration with how American politicians on both sides have framed climate change and his thoughts on why it has become such a divisive, bipartisan topic in America.
“In the past, Republicans have had a great track record on the environment with national parks being created by Teddy Roosevelt and the EPA being created by President (Richard) Nixon,” Backer said, acknowledging a few positive Republican environmental initiatives. “So, where have we gotten lost as a conservative movement?”
Backer pointed to a handful of reasons explaining where he feels the political divide on climate change comes from.
First, he said the negative effects of climate change were presented in an alarmist way right off the bat. Telling people they can’t do what they want with their lives turns those people away, Backer said.
Second, Backer said big government is often presented as the only solution to environmental challenges, which he feels turned off 50% of the conservative population because they don’t believe in big government.
Instead, Backer said it’d be more beneficial to promote the multitude of climate change solutions that exist outside of government.
“Of course I believe there needs to be regulations and there needs to be a governmental role in some environmental challenges, the market and market-based mechanisms can do a lot and arguably can do more for the environment than anything else,” Backer said.
Related to this second reason for the climate divide, Backer said vilifying corporations is another turn off for conservatives, when corporations can really contribute to climate change solutions.
But beyond trying to make sense of why there is a divide, Backer aimed to give the AREDAY attendees hope that conservative millennials are working to fix it.
“Conservatives in my generation are leading and want to lead on climate change and other environmental issues,” Backer said. “The environment is bipartisan and we have to work with every person to protect it because we all have a stake in this, and young people get that.”
After Backer’s speech, he talked more about his conservative environmentalist vision for the future.
His desire to start his own nonprofit, aimed at empowering young conservatives to talk with their legislators and be a larger voice in the environmental movement, came out of a climate change course he took as a freshman.
Backer said he’s been speaking on national conservative stages since he was 10 and had the connections to help him get his nonprofit up and running, but that the thousands of young conservatives the American Conservation Coalition has interacted with and their desire for positive environmental change is what will keep the nonprofit moving forward.
“We’re in an all-or-nothing political climate,” Backer said. “We need to think in bipartisan ways that don’t turn people off to solutions and showcase the allies, like me, that most people don’t realize exist.”
Saturday’s speakers focus on youth activism, urgency
Backer isn’t the only young speaker at the AREDAY summit this year.
Other millennials took the stage over the three-day event, and the whole Saturday afternoon speaking series, titled “Rising Up! The Urgency is Now!” will feature youth activists and organizations emphasizing the need for rapid widespread use of clean energy and decarbonization strategies.
“For us, this is an emergency because it’s (climate change) impacting the future we have to live in,” said Xiye Bastida Patrick, a 17-year-old youth climate activist based in New York City. “In 10 years I’ll be 27, I should be worried about what I want to do after college and where I want to work, not where I have to live.”
Bastida Patrick has been fighting for greater political action on climate change solutions ever since her family was displaced from their home in Mexico by extreme cycles of drought and flooding in 2015.
“I became an activist when I realized the power my personal story had on people. I didn’t even realize it was a climate story at first,” Bastida Patrick said. “In order to shift the culture, we need to shift the narrative and show how climate change is affecting real people in real time.”
Since she left her hometown and moved to New York City, Bastida Patrick has spoken at United Nations conferences around the world, worked with leading organizations like the Peoples Climate Movement, and has helped organize her city’s piece of the “Fridays for Future” movement.
“Fridays for Future” started about a year ago when Greta Thunberg, 15, vowed to strike in front of the Swedish parliament building every Friday until Swedish policies ensured the country’s energy and emissions standards would be in line with those laid out in the Paris Agreement.
She posted what she was doing on social media, which went viral and inspired students like Bastida Patrick in dozens of countries around the world to hold similar strikes in front of government buildings in their local communities.
Thunberg is on her way to New York City by boat for the strike Sept. 20, three days before leaders will gather there for the UN Climate Summit.
“We know these strikes won’t solve the climate crisis, but we hope it will enable the political mechanisms that can,” Bastida Patrick said. “We understand the science and the research but we don’t have time for it. There’s no time. We have to speak out.”
In three panel discussions Saturday, Bastida Patrick and another prominent youth activist, Xiuhtezcatl Martinez, will talk about the need for both rapid political and cultural change.
Bastida Patrick also wants to speak with AREDAY attendees about her indigenous roots and cosmology, which fuels her relentless drive to protect the Earth; and the need for lower socioeconomic voices at the decision making table, as she feels these peoples are being hit hardest by the negative impacts of climate change but aren’t empowered to speak up.
Overall, Bastida Patrick said she feels the best way to turn the climate change solutions that already exist into a worldwide reality is through an intergenerational, political and cultural movement anchored by the younger voices.
“We can bring the urgency. I mean this (event) has been going on for 16 years and we still haven’t solved the climate crisis,” Bastida Patrick said of the younger generations. “Right now is a powerful time because young people around the world are standing up and fighting for their future.”
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Pitkin County’s vaccination roll-out continues Friday and Sunday and will include the newly-approved Johnson & Johnson vaccine.