If young people are going to inherit the Earth, they want to make sure they can still live on it.
Twenty-four-year-old Ania Wright of Bar Harbor has already attended three international climate summits, most recently COP26, the annual United Nations Climate Change summit where parties work toward mitigating climate change. She was disappointed by what she saw at the conference in Glasgow, Scotland.
“It’s pretty discouraging, to be frank,” said Wright, a grassroots climate action organizer with Sierra Club Maine and youth representative at the Maine Climate Council. “We’ve seen a lot of big statements, but really what we need is actual political action and policy action. What we’re seeing is a lot of statements that are not legally binding and may or may not come true.”
Young climate activists in Maine are engaged with environmental policy at every level, from advocating for adjustments to local zoning to making their voices heard at COP26. These members of Gen Z feel that policymakers are missing some of the most important issues of the climate crisis, from removing large polluting corporations from the negotiating table to making sure Mainers have access to funds for simple climate fixes like weatherizing their houses.
Even those who didn’t attend COP26 were disappointed with what they saw as minimal commitments to reducing emissions from developed nations.
“We don’t have the infrastructure nor the political will nor do we have an economic system that will support these reductions,” said Amara Ifeji, 19, who serves as the director of youth engagement and policy at the Maine Environmental Education Association.
Ifeji pointed to the fact that fossil fuel companies had the largest delegation at COP26, with more members than any nation in attendance.
“That is starkly alarming,” Ifeji said.
Though international negotiations often dominate the conversation around climate change, state politics matter just as much to young climate activists. In Maine, many were heartened by the passing of Question 1, but despondent about Central Maine Power Co.’s response to continue construction on the corridor despite the vote to end it. CMP temporarily suspended construction on Friday.
The confusion surrounding the corridor ahead of the election concerned Sirohi Kumar, 17, a founding member of the Climate Emergency Action Coalition in Bar Harbor.
“Every day when you check your mail, you would get a different propaganda piece. I think that approach to an issue is just not effective because it relies on this lack of education,” Kumar said. “The CMP corridor is multifaceted. The best way for us to have effective and just climate action in Maine, and anywhere, is to focus on having discussions from walks of life that will be impacted by decisions.”
Young activists are also homing in on issues that aren’t particularly punchy or eye-catching. Wright, for example, advocates for weatherization of the old housing stock in Maine — a simple step that can save considerable amounts of energy through the winter — by providing incentives to landlords or low-cost alternatives for people who rent.
At the municipal level, 15-year-old Anna Siegel, a core member of the Maine Youth for Climate Justice, advocates for changes like preventing pollutant-filled runoff from finding its way to waterways and increasing green public spaces in zoning codes.
Another issue important to many youth climate activists in Maine is tribal sovereignty, like the fights of the Penobscot Nation to have control over the Penobscot River Watershed and the fact that the Penobscot Nation doesn’t have a voting member in the Maine State Legislature on environmental issues.
Young activists are also concerned with corporate interests in environmental issues. For example, Fryeburg-based Luke Sekera-Flanders, 18, said the water privatization in Maine is an issue that does not get nearly enough coverage in the state or internationally.
Aside from the bottled water industry creating plastic pollution, Sekera-Flanders — a changemaker fellow at the Maine Environmental Education Association and a cofounder of the statewide network Community Water Justice — said that as climate change makes water more scarce, companies stand to profit disproportionately from the resources they are taking out of the community.
And while some members of Gen Z may still be in school, they see education as a key element to tackling the climate crisis. Ifeji worked on a climate justice education bill that was introduced into the executive session, but did not go through.
“I’m only like two years out of high school but I had no climate change education,” Ifeji, who is from Bangor but currently attends college in Boston, said. “I thought that was a disservice to me and my peers. We are inheriting this existential crisis but we have no idea what’s going on.”
Despite their fresh perspective, Kumar said that she and other young activists are under no delusion they can solve the climate crisis alone.
“The climate burden isn’t on children. I don’t have the years of experience in politics and business that other people do,” Kumar said. “We’re an effective tool for breaking into a space, but a lot of us aren’t old enough to know much about politics and science.”