Graduate cap

In the throes of final exams, graduation parties, and turning tassels, the high school class of 2019 is staring down a future full of climate challenges. The class, most born in 2001 and 2002, hasn’t experienced a year without record-breaking temperatures. According to NASA, 18 of the 19 hottest years on record have come since 2001.

“It’s just like a fact of our life, right, like social media,” said Claire Burnet, a senior from Asheville, North Carolina. “It’s not something that necessarily other generations have grown up around.”

Global temperatures

Researchers have shown that climate change is on the mind of American young people. A 2019 Gallup poll found that young adults in the U.S. are more concerned about climate change than older adults. And a 2018 survey by the American Psychological Association found that 57 percent of Gen Z – respondents aged 15-21 – said they feel stressed by climate change, compared to 45 percent of adults.

Having grown up in a warming climate, these teens worry about what their futures will look like, and they’re searching for solutions that will give them the chance to live happy and healthy lives.

Graduating senior: ‘Who are we to just be going to parties’ … with ‘insane things happening in the world?’

“High school has never looked for me like what it looks like in the movies,” Burnet said. “Climate change can contribute to that because I feel like, who are we to just be going to parties and gossiping about guys, when there’s so many more insane things happening in the world?”

Meet some of this year’s high school graduates

For this story, Yale Climate Connections heard from 65 high school seniors. Ten seniors and one junior took part in one-on-one phone interviews with the author. Of the 65 seniors, 61 took an online questionnaire, and three took the survey and also participated in a phone interview. All quotes in this story came from phone conversations.

To find student voices, the author contacted more than 40 high school teachers across the U.S. who teach science courses or mentor environmental clubs. Some of those teachers then connected YCC to students or shared the online questionnaire. As a result, the students quoted here are very likely more engaged on environmental issues than average. Thirty-nine students – a majority of the respondents – ranked their knowledge of climate change as a three or four out of five.

The 61 seniors who completed the online questionnaire were asked if they worry that climate change could affect their future. All but eight said yes. In a question that allowed each respondent multiple answers, 46 seniors said thinking about climate change makes them feel worried, 27 said it makes them feel sad, and 16 said it makes them feel angry. Four said they are indifferent or not worried and were not interested in a phone interview.

For some students, signs of climate change are already all around them. In Sitka, Alaska, Muriel Reid has noticed winters warming and the length of time with snow on the ground getting shorter. In Missoula, Montana, senior Madeline Swanberg’s area is still recovering from a wildfire that burned within six miles from her house. And in Honolulu, Hawaii, Riley-Jade Yee said he’s noticed beaches eroding as sea levels rise.

Experiences

North Carolina graduating senior: 'Before we turn 30, there is a really high risk that our environment is just going to be exhausted.' Click To Tweet

“We all have this weight on our shoulders. We have to think about what are we going to do, because before we turn 30, there is a really high risk that our environment is just going to be exhausted,” said April Springer, a junior from Chapel Hill, North Carolina. “Teenagers have had to think about those things, when really in reality they should be thinking about what math homework is due next period.”

Planning for and fearing a warming future

For worried students, those concerns affect how they plan for and imagine what their lives will look like.

For some of those students, though not the majority, climate change is influencing their post-graduation plans. Sophie Guthier, of Madison, Wisconsin, is an organizer with the Youth Climate Action Team, a local organization that Guthier and other students formed after organizing the Wisconsin chapter of the global Youth Climate Strike. She said she had thought about going to an out-of-state college, but ultimately decided to stay in town to continue fighting climate change.

Career objective: Become head of EPA

“If I were to move somewhere else, I might not be able to have as much of an impact because I would have to start making new connections with people and finding new organizations to work with,” Guthier said.

Other students said climate change has driven them to pursue college programs or careers in environmental policy, science and engineering, or medicine. “My goal in life is to become head of the EPA,” said Anne Elise Russell, an Asheville senior.

Reid, from Sitka, said some of her classmates from rural Alaska plan to pursue tribal government positions to help their communities maintain their culture and traditions threatened by climate change.

Plans to shun coastal living

Looking even further into the future, a number of the graduates say they worry about how climate change will affect the places they love and want to live. In particular, settling down in coastal areas seemed unattractive for many.

“There are so many more hurricanes and natural disasters now because of climate change that, implicitly, I don’t want to be on the coast,” said Chapel Hill resident Springer. “When all these terrible things are happening, I automatically start thinking about the safest places to go, and what would be the best place to not be majorly affected by climate change.”

Future climate

In addition to thinking about safe places to live, Deanville Celestine, a senior from Asheville, said he wonders how much more expensive life will get. “How much are my goods going to cost every day, and how much could my debt accumulate even larger if problems about the Earth are going to be ignored?” he said.

Several seniors also noted that climate change is making their thoughts of having children almost unfathomable. Those who do imagine having kids said they are worried about family traditions and experiences they may never be able to share.

“I do a lot of skiing with my parents and some backcountry skiing. When I think about the future, I get scared sometimes that I won’t be able to do those same things with my kids,” Swanberg said. “I really hope that my kids will get to ski mountains and look out over where they grew up like I have.”

Searching for solutions and hope

Despite their fears, many teens said they are optimistic. They have been encouraged by how the conversation around climate change has grown louder since the fall 2018 release of a special report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change giving the international community 12 years to avoid catastrophic change.

Additionally, they were inspired by the Youth Climate Strike movement led by 16-year-old Greta Thunberg from Sweden.

“Looking at my peers, we really do have that passion and knowledge to make a difference,” Yee said. “Sometimes it doesn’t seem like that just because in daily life you don’t really have that much power to make those changes, but I know that we have the passion.”

Some students interviewed said they are involved with their own chapters of the climate strike, the advocacy organization Sunrise Movement, their schools’ environmental clubs, and other climate and environmental groups. They have advocated for renewable energy and sustainable practices within their schools, and to school boards and local governments. In some ways, action is an antidote to fear and the frustration of being too young to vote.

“It really comforts people when they can say they’re doing something,” said Elias Varn, a senior from Asheville. “That certainly has been something that’s helped me calm down about climate anxiety, and be like, ‘Well, I’m doing something about it, so if I just keep this up, maybe everything will be OK.'”

Climate strike
Students protest at the climate strike that high school senior Sophie Guthier helped organize in Madison, Wisconsin.

Additionally, some students mentioned the role that their teachers have played in helping them deal with the emotional weight of climate change. Thomas McDermott, an Asheville senior, said of their environmental science teacher, “Sarah Duffer, she’s a godsend.” McDermott said students talk to Duffer about their fears, and they can count on her to share books and information that offer solutions and hope.

Concern that youth try, but elder’s don’t

But even in the midst of hope, students also expressed a profound frustration with what they see as a failure of older generations and people with power to act on climate.

“We’re doing a lot of work, but at the same time I feel like a lot of adults, especially adults that have power in Congress or in state assemblies, still don’t really want to take us seriously and give our voices the power that they deserve,” Guthier said. “They just kind of want us for a photo op.”

From North Carolina to Alaska, high school seniors said they have no illusions about the climate challenges they will face. Many said they already feel they’ve had to make sacrifices because of climate change. If she weren’t so focused on climate activism, Guthier said she would dedicate more time to art and photography. Russell said that to deal with climate change as a teenager, “Emotionally and mentally, you have to grow up really fast.”

But for a livable future, they said the sacrifices are worth it. They just want people with power to get on board, too.

“Eventually someone has to step up, but it’s really hard to do that when you’re only like 17,” Reid said.

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