Charlotte Carey and Rachel Knapp
As high school seniors doing internships at 1Planet, we decided to host a small group discussion with our peers. We called it our Climate Cafe, a relaxed conversation we co-moderated to get input on the issue of climate change.
The five young women who attended are students with us at T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, Virginia, and are active in clubs like Model UN, Science National Honor Society, the TC Williams High School Leadership team, and the Garden Club. During the nearly two hour discussion, we heard how climate change ranks among other pressing issues and what motivates young women — or discourages them — from taking action.
How We View Climate Change
When asked how they view climate change, the women said that the tone of the news they read dramatically affects how they feel. While news focused on the “bad stuff” sometimes made them feel discouraged and powerless, it also drove them to “go small” and look for ways to create change in their own environments: personal goals, working with their community, etc.
The junior summed up the general feeling:
“I think...it can be tough… when you're being bombarded with so much negativity… and I think when I encounter that, I focus small.” — Ana Humphrey
The group was passionate about food as a way to “focus small.” Many said they participate in Meatless Mondays or are vegetarians, while others say they try to buy food that is local and sustainable. While adamant about food as an important part of the climate change solution, the women acknowledged that most people aren’t fortunate enough to be able to make sustainable food choices like shopping at a Farmer’s Market or buying fresh produce over industrially raised meat.
Several acknowledge that they feel some guilt when it comes to the environment and climate change. They see that they often fail to live up to the expectations they may have in terms of making sustainable choices. One young women said that comfort and routine often become the default. She gave the example of clothing, something a lot of teenage girls are well acquainted with, where she chooses to buy the cheaper, more accessible outfits rather that seeking out more sustainable clothing.
The group agreed they felt fortunate to live in a community like Alexandria, which has a strong recycling practice and pro-environment policies. Many had relatives that didn’t have access to the resources that fosters the growth of environmentally aware citizens. Although the women feel like Alexandria is relatively homogenous in regards to views on climate change, they see the issue as politically polarized with most people at the extremes. They described moderate voters and moderate views as on a path to extinction.
Support for Grassroots Solutions
The group agreed that, with the current political climate, not much was getting done to reverse climate change on a large scale, federal government level. The change they saw that was the most effective — and the most motivating — was small scale local, grassroots change.
One senior hopes change comes from individuals:
“I think the grassroots movements are ultimately what’s going to change everything... as opposed to top down change.” — Brielle Quarles
Another of the young women works with elementary school students and is really encouraged by what she sees:
“5th graders come up with the same solutions [as politicians] in a quarter of the time because of creativity and passion widespread among different backgrounds”
A senior in our group had a similar view:
“[Climate change] is something that has to be addressed and if nobody else is doing it then you have to step up and be the one to do it.” — Meredith Lemke
Climate Change Relates to Other Issues
When asked how climate change ranks when compared to other issues, the group agreed that while it was a top priority, “climate change” could not be a stand alone issue. They were adamant about the intersectionality of climate change with other issues like health care, racial injustice, and economic inequality. There was a significant focus on the disproportionate effect of climate change on vulnerable populations due to the lack of resources available for them to adapt.
“Ultimately, environmental issues are health issues, they are social justice issues…everyone is affected but not everyone can respond equally.” — Ana Humphrey
The women were passionate about climate change as a real, pressing issue but believed that all issues were interconnected — social justice, racial equality, health care, global warming, food safety.women were passionate about climate change as a real, pressing issue, but believed that it intersects with many other important issues like: social justice, racial equality, health care and food sustainability.
While the common issue of climate change united the students we talked to, the reasons behind their concern for the environment varied. One senior was frustrated by energy and electricity companies who engage in fracking and the dangers associated with that practice. Many were driven by the undemocratic hold they feel big “dirty” energy companies have over the government. The women were motivated by reversing the effects of tragedy of the commons, especially when related to depletion of public water sources due to overuse. Food was also a huge driving force because of unsustainable packaging, enormous water usage, mistreatment of animals, and the effects of antibiotics in meats and GMOs on human health.
Finding a Solution
When discussing solutions, the women had a wide range of suggestions. One senior suggested a tax on carbon, a program she said has had success in Germany. Another senior was enthusiastic about “leapfrogging”, a method in which developing nations switch directly from widespread fossil fuel usage to renewables like solar panels and wind turbines.
One woman saw technology as the solution. She used Tesla as an example of a green technology that was able to bring about positive change purely because a Tesla became a luxury item and owning one became a status symbol.
“If you can introduce something as a novelty...It might be easier to make that transition [to a healthier climate].” — Ana Humphrey
The solution that overwhelmingly held the most passion was cutting back on meat consumption partially or completely. The women noted that the United States has a pattern of heavy meat consumption, as meat seems to be such a part of our culture (Fourth of July, Memorial Day weekend, etc.). Because completely ditching meat can be hard, the women agreed that even small steps (Meatless Mondays, giving up red meat only, no meat at lunch) can make a world of difference.