Missouri youth channel climate anxiety to fight for environment-saving action
Growing up in Sikeston, near the ankle of Missouri’s Bootheel, Mandy Huang spent much of her free time working in her parents’ restaurant and dreaming of becoming a doctor.
The child of immigrants from the Fujian province in southeastern China, Huang often helped translate for her parents during doctor’s appointments. She hoped a career in medicine would allow her to care for her family and have a positive impact on the world.
But as she got older, she became more aware of a looming threat to human health: climate change.
“I realized how pressing climate change is and how all-encompassing it is to public health,” said Huang, 22, a recent graduate of Washington University. “It touches all of us and impacts everything we do.”
She dropped her plans to go to medical school and joined a growing movement of young activists worldwide demanding their leaders take action to reduce emissions. Teenagers and young adults have experienced record-breaking temperatures for much of their lives, along with increasingly severe natural disasters, including floods and wildfires. Frustrated with what they view as complacency among their parents’ generation, some young Missouri activists are taking action in their communities.
The past eight years have been the hottest ever recorded, based on global data that stretches to 1880. Following the release of the latest international climate report in April, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned we are “firmly on track toward an unlivable world.”
Faced with unprecedented environmental change, many teens and young adults are anxious about the future. More than 7 in 10 American teenagers surveyed said climate change will cause a moderate or great deal of harm to people in their generation — and 1 in 4 had already taken action on the issue, such as contacting their elected officials or participating in a rally.
Students have increasingly sounded the alarm in recent years. In 2019, hundreds of teenagers in the St. Louis region skipped school as part of the Global Climate Strike and rallied in front of St. Louis City Hall, waving signs that read, “Climate change demands policy change now” and “This is the future my parents and grandparents left me.”
Bearing the burden of climate change
Eve Rosenblum, 17, started thinking more seriously about climate change when she was in fifth grade, but her parents rarely discussed it with her.
“I wish we would have had the conversation,” said Rosenblum, who graduated this year from Metro Academic and Classical High School, a public school in St. Louis. “Like, ‘We understand this is a problem that we have left you with, but the responsibility will fall on you just as much as it falls on us’ — rather than what we've been left with, which is that our parents’ generation isn't willing to do anything and we will solely bear the burden of climate change.”
Though climate change was a required component of the district curriculum in St. Louis Public Schools, Rosenblum said her sophomore chemistry teacher refused to teach it to her class. “He handed us a packet and said, ‘Teach yourselves, because I don’t believe in this,’” she said. “It was a little unbelievable.”
This spring, with the support of another teacher at her high school and a professor at Mizzou, Rosenblum organized a roundtable discussion among her classmates and students from St. Clair High School in Franklin County, Missouri.
Many of the St. Clair students were from farming families experiencing the effects of climate change firsthand, including more intense droughts and floods. While the two groups of students agreed that climate change is a major issue, they “butted heads” on solutions, Rosenblum said. The St. Clair students advocated for technologically based fixes that would preserve personal freedom, but the students from St. Louis argued that cities and states must transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy, such as wind and solar power.
The most severe effects of climate change, including searing heat waves and poor air quality, will fall on communities of color, low-income people and the elderly. Black Americans are 40% more likely than others to live in areas with the highest projected increases in heat-related deaths, based on a 2021 analysis from the Environmental Protection Agency.
The structures of U.S. society are deeply and inherently unequal, Rosenblum said, and addressing climate change in a meaningful way will likely require radical change.
“I think about the elderly person waiting for the bus at a shelter that doesn't provide any shade on a 90-degree July day that will soon be a 100-degree July day, and a 110-degree July day,” she said. “I'm extremely concerned about that.”
Frequent natural disasters
Allison Fabrizio and her family are already experiencing the effects of climate change.
The 20-year-old Washington University junior grew up in northern New Jersey and spent much of her childhood outside, climbing trees, gardening and collecting seashells along the beach.
But in 2011, when Fabrizio was 9, Hurricane Irene hit her hometown — the first hurricane to make landfall in the state in more than a century. Nearly 10 inches of rain fell in a single day, flooding the streets and inundating homes with sewage-laden water.
The following year, Superstorm Sandy slammed into the East Coast, carving another path of destruction through Fabrizio’s hometown. “I've been around so many natural disasters that have caused damages to our town,” she said. “I think that really makes people here more aware of the effects of climate change.”
Climate change is driving more intense hurricanes, with heavier rainfall and higher wind speeds. That worries Fabrizio, who has family in Saint Vincent and Grenada, two island nations in the Caribbean that are especially vulnerable to climate change.
“People who are marginalized, people who are women of color, they are the most affected,” she said. “They're the ones that are experiencing the worst of climate change. I think it's sort of my duty to advocate for those people.”
Fabrizio has volunteered with the Sierra Club and Citizens' Climate Lobby, pushing lawmakers to institute carbon pricing, which charges companies for their carbon dioxide emissions.
“When I talk about climate change, I try to make it as personal as I can,” she said. “It’s not just affecting people halfway across the world; it’s affecting people in your immediate family, and it’s going to affect your family for generations to come.”
Faith and the environment
Emma Heienickle’s interest in climate change began with “Laudato Si,” a 2015 papal encyclical in which Pope Francis calls climate change “one of the principal challenges facing humanity” and instructs Catholics to care for the environment.
After reading the book, Heienickle decided to study atmospheric and environmental science at the University of Missouri — work that she said closely aligns with her faith.
“There's a verse in the Bible where God calls all people to have dominion over the Earth,” said Heienickle, who grew up in St. Charles and graduated this spring from Mizzou with a degree in atmospheric science. “Dominion, often people have seen that word as to have control over, but dominion is to mean to nurture, to tend to.”
She later attended a conference at Creighton University, a private Catholic college in Nebraska, where she and other college students developed strategies to educate their parishes about climate change.
Scientists overwhelmingly agree that human activity is causing climate change. But when Heienickle gives presentations at schools and Catholic parishes, she sometimes encounters people who are resistant to the scientific evidence.
“It's the people that aren't aware or don't consider climate change to be real — that's the people that we need to target our efforts towards and try to figure out what their experiences are and share our own,” she said.
Pushing for institutional change
Though many young activists agree that it’s important for people to take responsibility for their own contributions to climate change, they argue that holding powerful institutions and individuals accountable is also critical.
Mandy Huang helped create the Washington University Decarbonization Coalition, a group of students lobbying administrators to commit to specific goals that will help the university achieve carbon neutrality.
More than three dozen undergraduate and graduate groups have joined the effort to push the university to take action on climate change.
“As an institution of power, Wash U has a lot of responsibility for where it’s leading our region and how it’s impacting our community,” said Huang, who graduated in May. “Academic institutions have a huge carbon footprint.”
Washington University is slated to release its final 10-year strategic plan this fall, according to the Office of the Provost. Huang and other student activists hope that administrators will follow the lead of other U.S. colleges and universities that have already committed to net-zero emissions.
Though the anxiety her generation feels about climate change is ever-present, connecting with others who are pushing for major institutional change helps Huang stay motivated.
“Climate change is on our minds, basically, every hour of the day,” she said. “But I cannot solve climate change on my own. I’m going to do whatever I can and that’s all I can do. What brings me the most joy is being able to bring other people together to do the same.”
Follow Shahla on Twitter: @shahlafarzan