The Journey from High Schoolers to Climate Leaders in Two Semesters or Less

School is back in session for high schools all across the country and the one thing on every student’s mind is, of course, climate change. OK, maybe in most schools who’s dating whom, getting into college and the elections are getting a bit more play.  But as we, the Alliance for Climate Education (ACE), start back up, we’re getting climate change to top of mind, too.

Since 2009, we’ve been working with high schoolers – with an assembly, student action programs and leadership trainings – in climate science and solutions. We’ve reached more than a million high schoolers and seen the first of this generation of leaders step up to tackle some issues that people twice their age are intimidated by.

But since I’ve started at ACE, I’ve heard the question: “Why high schoolers?” or “Can we really wait for high school students to become tomorrow’s leaders, given the window of opportunity on climate change?” more than I ever would have expected.

Sometimes, I cite statistics on how influential high schoolers are on their peers, their family decisions and their schools.

Sometimes, I show videos of students we’ve worked with speaking at Power Shift, taking meetings at the White House, speaking at school board meetings and state assemblies about local environmental issues.

And sometimes I even show the findings that most high school students would fail a test on basic climate science without ACE.

Why we focus on high schoolers is simple. High school students need, want and deserve to know the science and possible solutions to an issue that is going to affect the rest of their lives. They may be young, but high schoolers are not kids.

They’re forming their own strong opinions about the world and the way it should work. They’re passionate about causes that involve fairness, their future and their communities.

They’re vocal. They’re influential. And, they’re able to vote for the first time in the next four years -- some are getting ready for their first election in less than 50 days. Victories such as California’s Prop 23 movement and local coal plant closures are rooted in young, diverse audiences caring and being connected. So we want to make sure that there’s a steady stream of young, diverse audiences engaged on the solutions to climate change.

We start with engaging students with the science and solutions – not just the theoretical, but tangible stories of students their age and what they’ve accomplished. So the imperative to do something about climate change is quickly followed with ideas to spark their imaginations and “case studies” that give them confidence that they can actually do something.

But we also follow up. We support environmental clubs, tracking projects that reduce CO2, whether they’re energy projects or waste-reduction campaigns. We encourage them, help them brainstorm project ideas, reward them and, when they accomplish amazing things, help them tell their stories. Including sharing their stories with other schools to inspire more students into action.

Every project isn’t just a small CO2 reduction. It’s also an opportunity for young leaders to find themselves in the climate movement, develop confidence in themselves and practice the tools and skills that will make them effective in school, in life and in directly addressing climate change.

Yes, sometimes they make handmade posters about polar bears. But young people also get Styrofoam trays eliminated from their schools decades after others had given up. They shift their school’s energy consumption patterns, not just for ACE’s campaigns but for good.

And they bring back what they learn about efficiency, climate impact and waste back to their homes and community in ways that other generations haven’t done before them.

We see high schoolers as a critical piece of the movement. Of reducing climate change. Of bringing more people into the issue. Of building the communities we want to live and thrive in.

Every June, we launch another crop of energized, smart and engaged climate leaders into the world. Seeing the action, the energy and the impact they make regularly along the way, we’re proud to be working on climate change from homeroom out.

Amanda Peterson is director of communications and marketing for the Alliance for Climate Education. 

Photo used with persmission from Flickr user ACESpace

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Amanda Peterson

At ACE (The Alliance for Climate Education) we're focused on building knowledge, skills, action and network of climate science advocates within high schools across the United States.