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News / Clark County News

Youth aim to change climate efforts; Vancouver developing program for high school students

By Lauren Ellenbecker, Columbian staff writer
Published: January 9, 2024, 6:08am

Isaac Segal, 17, thinks about the future a lot, particularly about the quality of the water he will drink or air he’ll breathe.

“We are inheriting this planet, and it’s our responsibility to fix it,” said Segal, Mountain View High School’s environmental club president.

But Segal worries young voices like his aren’t included in climate-related conversations and decisions. The city of Vancouver is attempting to remedy this by creating a youth climate leadership program.

Vancouver identified a lack of opportunities for young people in climate action and civic engagement, according to a city memo. Staff are currently developing a program for high school students to address this scarcity.

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The program’s development taps into existing efforts, such as Educational Service District 112’s ClimeTime that supports climate education and student engagement. City staff also connected with local environmental advocacy groups, including the Alliance for Community Engagement.

“It’s hard to turn away from youth,” said Heidi Cody, the alliance’s co-director. “The impact that they’re going to feel from having to live with the consequences of our actions — or lack of actions — makes it hard to dismiss them.”

Being in the room

Though the city’s leadership program is targeted toward high school-age residents, young adults outside its intended audience advocate for its creation and urge their peers to get involved in other climate initiatives.

Vancouver resident Rosalyn Minh, 21, wants to work in conservation, hopefully to hold companies and leaders accountable for greenwashing — deceptive advertising to make the public believe products and policies are environmentally friendly. Minh is pursuing an environmental science degree from Washington State University Vancouver.

“People who are in power don’t have to deal with the direct consequences of climate change,” Minh said.

Maya Uchtmann, 24, of Battle Ground can recall being at beach cleanups or environmental campaigns where she was the youngest person in the crowd. These experiences drove her to urge her peers to join the cause. Most recently, she created a local volunteer matching quiz to help people find opportunities according to their schedule and goals.

Both Minh and Uchtmann interned for Washington Conservation Action, a Seattle-based nonprofit, and then turned their attention to local efforts. When they spoke with Vancouver staff, they emphasized that youth need to be empowered to participate in climate projects.

“People my age or younger may not be involved because they think it’s hopeless and there’s nothing for them to do,” Uchtmann said. “But it’s up to us to bring new ideas and find solutions.”

Further addressing

Nationwide, young environmentalists’ involvement extends beyond leadership programs. Columbia Law School’s Sabin Center for Climate Change Law found that, generally, the number of climate lawsuits grew in 2023. Some plaintiffs were as young as 8.

Young people nationwide are suing the Environmental Protection Agency, arguing it violated their constitutional rights by not protecting them from the effects of climate change.

Our Children’s Trust, a nonprofit and public interest law firm, filed a federal lawsuit in December on behalf of 18 children in California ranging in age from 8 to 17. The lead plaintiff’s family can’t afford air conditioning, something they identify as necessary to live as days of extreme heat increase. The lawsuit is seeking declarations to be made about children’s environmental rights and the federal government’s duty to protect them.

In 2023, a failed Washington House bill would have created a student advisory group for each legislative district, which proponents said would have elevated youth perspectives on environmental issues.

Vancouver’s program is still in development and anticipated to launch during fall, but Segal urged young people not to wait. Taking part can take many forms, he said, such as planting a tree or petitioning.

“I have a piece of advice for teens looking to make an impact: Get involved.”

Community Funded Journalism logo

This story was made possible by Community Funded Journalism, a project from The Columbian and the Local Media Foundation. Top donors include the Ed and Dollie Lynch Fund, Patricia, David and Jacob Nierenberg, Connie and Lee Kearney, Steve and Jan Oliva, The Cowlitz Tribal Foundation and the Mason E. Nolan Charitable Fund. The Columbian controls all content. For more information, visit columbian.com/cfj.

Columbian staff writer