NYC youth take the lead in climate activism

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Although some are still only high school or college age, Gen Z — typically around the age of 25 and younger — has established itself as the generation most committed to climate action.

Adi Talwar

New York University students rallied on Earth Day to demand the surrender of NYU’s endowment to fossil fuel companies.

On her first day at Manhattan’s prestigious Beacon High School, Daphne Frias strolled through lunch and was overwhelmed by the colors that surrounded her.

She walked past rows of vibrant produce stacked in downtown markets and hot pink meat fridges and realized how drastically different the food options were from those in the West Harlem neighborhood where she grew up.

“It looked like a coloring book,” she said. “Like someone picked out the brightest markers from the pack and used them to color all the fruits and vegetables.”

The realization – and the anger that followed – was a turning point for the medical student and climate activist, now 24. “It was the first time that I was very clearly exposed to how your socio-economic status dictates the quality of your life,” she said.

While a sophomore in high school, Frias studied the correlation between asthma rates and automobile pollution in Washington Heights as part of the Lang Youth Medical Program, a high school collaboration with Columbia Presbyterian Hospital. Suddenly it clicked – public health and climate were inextricable, and understanding the connection would be something she still carries with her now, a decade later, as she works towards a career as a neurologist.

Frias also has a personal reason for wanting to improve public health policy: at age 3, he was diagnosed with cerebral palsy. Although there have been many advances in pediatric care for the disease, adults receive little medical advice on how to manage it later in life. She wants to change that, without losing sight of how climate and the environment affect overall health.

“You have to lobby as your patients’ fiercest advocate and you have to understand how their environment and their lived experiences impact their health,” she said. “Addressing the climate crisis, which is going to be – if it isn’t already – one of the biggest risks to our patient population, it makes me a better doctor.”

Courtesy of Daphne Frias

“Addressing the climate crisis, which is going to be – if it hasn’t already – been one of the greatest risks to our patient population, it makes me a better doctor,” says activist and medical student Daphne Frias .

Frias would continue to travel the world, meeting with world leaders to spread the message of the urgency to act on climate change alongside Greta Thunberg and other young activists. And although a leader of the movement, she is no exception among young people who are demanding that elected officials and leaders take a tough stance on climate change and environmental racism.

Although some are still only high school or college age, Gen Z — typically around the age of 25 and younger — has established itself as the generation most committed to climate action.

READ MORE: “What motivates me is to act” – A panel explores the pressures and expectations placed on young climate activists

In an April Pew Research study of people ages 18 and older, more than a third of Gen Z respondents said climate change was their top personal concern, and 67% said they had talked about climate change. need for climate action at least once or twice. recently at the time of the survey, surpassing Millennials, Generation X and Baby Boomers for both questions.

The urgency is even more pronounced among Gen Z teens. In a national survey of 1,500 13- to 19-year-olds by 4-H, three-quarters said teens felt “responsible to protect the future of our planet”. More than 8 in 10 people said they expect to make future decisions based on climate change and believe that if change doesn’t start now, it may be too late for future generations.

This focus on the environment also crosses party lines. Nearly half of Gen Z and Millennials respondents to the Pew survey who identify as Republicans say climate change should be a priority, compared to just 1 in 4 baby boomers and older Republicans.

Young voters, however, are notorious for their low turnout, and that is the challenge of Saad Amer, 27, co-founder of Plus1Vote. He confirms that it can be difficult to mobilize at the polls a population eager for change but disappointed by the country’s political system, where politicians use the climate as a platform but then take little action to advance progressive policies.

“There have been a lot of young and young climate activists who have aged into this voting demographic who are very excited to get out and vote and who are also very disappointed in a system that pushes them away,” said Amer, who also works as a consultant for the United Nations and expert reviewer of the sixth assessment report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

“Our current context makes it much harder for young people and especially people of color to vote across the country,” Amer added. With that in mind, Amer is taking a three-pronged approach: not just vote, but also divest from fossil fuel companies and protest.

The data shows that some younger activists may be more focused on these political strategies. A third of Gen Z respondents said they had recently taken alternative approaches to direct action – donating, calling elected officials or mobilizing – to address the climate crisis.

Tens of thousands of young people have taken part in climate marches in New York in recent years: one such rally in Manhattan in 2019 drew around 60,000 participants, according to reports. A similar event downtown last fall saw more than 2,000 walkers, according to a blitz survey of Columbia University attendees, which found that more than half of those attendees — including the average age was 16 – said it was not their first climate manifestation.

Alicia Colomer, a 25-year-old student at New York University, has lobbied her university to divest itself of its fossil fuel industry endowment. In October 2020, she launched an NYU sector of the Sunrise Movement, a national youth climate movement, and has since led more than 1,500 members of the NYU community to sign a petition demanding divestments.

Campus climate movements are spreading to other universities in the city. At The New School, 22-year-old Marikit Mayeno leads an undergraduate climate club that focuses on using artistic expression to engage students in conversations about the climate crisis.

In a recent campaign, she encouraged students to write notes of appreciation on the earth and read them on Instagram, an effort that saw her engage with more than 100 students on sustainability this alone. week. She was also able to connect with students from affiliate programs in Paris and bring the conversation into an international context.

“Something that gives me incredible hope is to collaborate with people who have completely different goals and fields and come together with a common goal and a common passion,” she said.

Thoughts of the future can also elicit feelings of uncertainty and anxiety among the younger generation, who in the past year alone have experienced wildfires, multiple record heat waves and flash floods that have killed more than a dozen people. Disastrous reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change suggest that these events will only become more frequent and more severe unless immediate action is taken.

For many activists, the slow pace of action by Congress and local leaders does not match the urgency of the moment.

Colomer and her friends talk about not wanting to have children and feeling uncertain about the world she will live in. “It’s really difficult for us to plan our future or have long term goals because there’s this great uncertainty, it’s the feeling that no one is listening to us or that no one cares,” said she declared.

Amer admits it’s hard to avoid feelings of pessimism, but he oscillates between that and feeling pressured to push harder for action.

“Frustration can do two things: it can paralyze you into inaction and throw you into apathy or it can motivate you to get organized, to redesign our system to be something that actually works for us and reflects who we are.”

For Daphne Frias, who is now in medical school and has just returned from two weeks of advocacy for climate action in Europe, the future remains bright for her and her peers.

She said she wanted to be a “human microphone” for members of the community she grew up in, advocating for the use of hyperlocal solutions to global issues.

“[We] we see ourselves as a generation defined by the very similar and often sad hardships we all face,” Frias said. “But at the same time, we are fountains of hope.”

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