Co-written By: Beck Andersen and Matt Henchen
On November 17th, hundreds of Vermont youth, from middle school to law school, will converge on the statehouse to create a “Declaration of Independence” from fossil fuels. “We’ve been asking for bold and comprehensive climate-related policies for the past several years and most of our political leaders have been slow to respond,” Harwood Youth Lobby member Sydney Kulis argued, “so now we’re going to show them what we expect them to do this legislative session” “We just hope they listen.”
“Young people are the least responsible for the climate crisis, but we are the ones who will inherit the dire consequences of climate inaction.”
Youth lobby students are also planning the 5th annual Rally for the Planet this Spring, which they hope will be a “celebration of climate policies that have been passed this year,” said Kulis. “They’ve been telling us to wait and be patient,” said Harwood Youth Lobby member Willa Yonkman, “but when your house is on fire and all that’s being used is a garden hose, it’s pretty easy to get discouraged.” And while many can relate to the feeling of hopelessness, movements like the Youth Lobby are giving the generations that will inherit these problems, a voice and a platform to air their concerns. Lili Platt, one of the key organizers of the Climate Congress and member of the Harwood branch of the Vermont Youth Lobby, agrees “We believe now is the time to show policymakers in Vermont and nationwide that the climate crisis requires immediate legislative action.” Platt also added that while the younger generation is the least responsible for the climate crisis, they will be the ones to inherit most of the problems associated with it, and that is why it is crucial that they have a voice in what happens next.
This, in fact, seems to be a common sentiment throughout the various youth organizations that have sprung up to push for stronger legislative action. While the Vermont Youth Lobby continues to promote working within the democratic system, some of the students in the movement are beginning to feel the draw to join other groups that are using increasingly disruptive acts of nonviolent direct action. Many students, like Sydney Kulis, argue that both forms of civic action might be the most effective way to spark change. She articulates the need for much more attention on the issue and gives credit to groups like the Sunrise Movement and Extinction Rebellion for bringing this issue to the forefront of civil discourse.
And although she sees a need for civil disobedience and direct action, Kulis points out there is also a need for the movement to identify clear goals and policies they want to see enacted. “[We have to] make sure that we aren’t being seen as uneducated children who don’t know what they’re doing, so using civil discourse and policies that we have in place already to create change is really important,” said Kulis.
This desire to make change by working with the system is reflected in the work of the Youth Lobby, who looks to help youth voice their opinions through civil discourse and to push legislators to be more accountable to their constituents’ interests, and especially the interest of future generations. While this work pushes the ideas behind the movement through congress, it is only through forced public accountability that those in power are forced to account for the promises they made to get elected.
“Our democracy is often slow to change. In fact, it was designed to be slow to change. But when we finally decide, as a people, to take action there is nothing we cannot do.”
Matt Henchen, a civics educator at Harwood Union High School and an adult mentor with the Vermont Youth Lobby, says the majority of his work is spent trying to figure out how to help students organize to use their collective voice. Saying that the quality of a democracy depends on what it’s citizens demand of it, Henchen believes it is important that the public educate itself as to hold those we put in power accountable.
“If we aren’t educated on public policy, how can we know whether our representatives are doing good, or just saying they are” Henchen states.
Students and their adult allies have met on multiple Sunday evenings to plan this exciting event, which will include delegations of students from schools all across Vermont that will gather to write a Declaration of Independence from Fossil Fuels. This declaration will include a preamble that includes a realistic, fact-based assessment of the threats of climate change, a list of grievances against our political leaders, and a comprehensive list of policy-based solutions they hope lawmakers will seriously consider this legislative session. Students in the Youth Lobby have expressed a common desire for politicians to put their disagreements aside, settle pending legislation quickly and then get on with passing the nation’s most bold and comprehensive package of climate-related policies. “Paid family leave and a legal cannabis market are important issues,” Henchen said, “but the disagreements between lawmakers on these issues are pretty small.” “We would like both sides to take a deep breath, compromise on a suitable solution, and then move on to more important and pressing issues, such as the fact that Vermont’s carbon emissions have actually increased by 16% since 1990, while the rest of the New England states have seen reductions.”
Henchen also shared some of the frustrations he has heard from many young people over the slow pace of climate-related legislation. “If there’s no impactful legislature in the second year of this biennium, after several years of ‘next year’ promises, I think you’ll find the youth movement in Vermont over the next few years is just going to explode. And unfortunately for society, I think it’s going to get much more disruptive and divisive.”
Others believe the time for more disruptive actions is already here and feel that since our elected officials are largely ignoring the demands of their constituents, the people need to take it into their own hands to create change. Social change can be promoted in many ways, and while the Youth Lobby focuses on civil discourse within the democratic system, other groups believe public actions and nonviolent disruptions are vital to bringing attention to the reality and severity of the problem. They argue that doing this creates a level of public accountability that is necessary to hold those in power responsible for the impact of their inaction. Extinction Rebellion is a worldwide climate movement that enthusiastically falls into this camp.
“One of the most common ways youth voices are discredited is the belief that we are indoctrinated and uneducated, by publishing a document with facts and realistic solutions, we can ensure we are taken seriously.”
Carmen Skinder is a coordinator of Extinction Rebellion Youth Vermont, and has also been helping to create the Declaration for the Climate Congress. She says that she is advocating for the legislature to demand zero fossil fuel emissions by 2025, in opposition to the common net-zero emissions that many are advocating for.
“Cap and trade is broadly recognized as a false solution by peer-reviewed science and economists, but continues to be at the forefront of nonprofit organizations campaigns,” Skinder said when asked if cap and trade policies were enough for Vermont moving forward.
“This is because cap and trade allows for the one percent to continue business as usual and continue to get richer. Nonprofits rely on foundations, who rely on rich people, causing their messaging to be influenced by what their funders, who are a very select group of people, want.”
Skinder is determined to make sure that Extinction Rebellion’s three demands are included in the upcoming Youth Congress Declaration including that the government; 1) tell the truth, 2) acts to stop biodiversity loss and reduce emissions to zero by 2025, and 3) creates a people’s assembly to make decisions about policy surrounding the ecological climate crisis.
With all of the public support in Vermont behind climate action, it seems hard to believe that we cannot be a leader in the nation for bold and effective public policies. This is where a growing youth movement has found itself needed. The issue of climate change is the largest single issue facing our world, yet few seem willing to accept that the generations inheriting this planet should have a stronger say in how we proceed. This is a large motivating factor behind the Climate Congress and why it is such a unifying force between groups like Extinction Rebellion and the Youth Lobby. Being told to wait patiently will not make the youth go away, it will only make them louder and more motivated.
In a recent speech given directly to political leaders from around the world, Swedish youth climate activist Greta Thunberg stated, “I want you to act as if your house is on fire.” Climate movements from across America, and the world, are heeding her call and demanding that their public officials bring more than just a bucket of water to the problem. They are, through the power and connection of technology, able to understand policy and recognize the lack of political action that has not been possible in the past. And though national action is required, the youth of Vermont are simply asking their political leaders to listen to the science, follow where the facts may lead, consider the immense cost of inaction, and most importantly, keep the promises they made to future generations.