By Erin Hinrichs
January 10, 2019
Minnesota youth filled the hallway outside of the governor’s reception room at the state Capitol on Wednesday afternoon, waiting for their first meeting with Gov. Tim Walz. Many wore white T-shirts decorated with their demands. And a cardboard cutout of planet Earth, worn by one of the students, drifted among the crowd.
In some ways, the scene felt reminiscent of the youth-led gun reform movement that defined much of last session — albeit on a much smaller scale.
“What we’ve seen with the whole gun-reform movement and March for Our Lives is that we’re not letting our age define what we can do,” said Lia Harel, a senior from Hopkins High School. “I think that’s something that’s really opened a lot of our eyes. For my generation, I feel like we don’t have to feel that just because we’re students or because we don’t have degrees or years of experience in a certain field doesn’t mean that we can’t step in and ask for change.”
There was no chanting, no demonstrating on the steps outside of the Capitol. But the group had representation from middle- and high-schoolers from across the state, who had organized largely through social media. And they knew how to assert their concerns and demands over another threat to their futures: climate change.
“Minnesota cannot wait for bold but necessary climate action. We, the young people of Minnesota, are calling on our leaders to do what’s right for our state: to stop emitting greenhouse gases and be fossil fuel-free within a decade. We want a transition to clean, renewable energy that is equitable for all Minnesotans,” said sophomore Anna Grace Hottinger, seated next to Walz, Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan and Laura Bishop, the newly appointed commissioner for the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA).
Participants of the newly formed youth-led group focused on climate change action, MN Can’t Wait, presented a three-point platform, with specific demands for all three branches of government, including executive action from the new governor to direct the MPCA to to begin a rule-making process to regulate and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
While Walz made the case for not immediately taking executive action on this matter, he did assure students that he shares their sense of urgency to take action. (Playing watchdog on this claim, his daughter, Hope, stepped forward to ask how she could get involved with the youth group.)
To illustrate the new administration’s commitment, Bishop told students her department would be appointing an assistant commissioner of climate — a new position that had not yet been publicly announced.
“This move by the MPCA — to elevate it to that level — is tangible evidence of where we’re going to go,” Walz said. “What I’d tell all of you is this is going to be incredibly frustrating. It’s 2018 and a race for governor of Minnesota and we did … 72 or 73 debates and the issue of climate change was asked of me three times.”
Walz, along with Flanagan and Bishop, encouraged the students to stay engaged not only with their administration and colleagues in the House and Senate, but also with the public.
“As we get together to start talking about concrete plans, how do we continue to build that social will? How do we put things in place that show people: ‘Yes, we’ll have to make some changes to our lifestyle, but we’re also talking about creating new opportunities and new jobs and more prosperous communities,’” Walz said. “At the same time, we’re trying to clean the environment. That’s what we’re trying to figure out how to do across agencies.”
A growing coalition
MN Can’t Wait doesn’t have a clear-cut membership count, or elected leadership positions. But many of the youth who have united under this new campaign have ties to the various local environmental advocacy nonprofits and groups that have already been working in this space.
“One of the interesting things about young people is they’re often members in multiple groups,” said Larry Kraft, executive director at iMatter, a youth-driven climate change advocacy nonprofit based in St. Louis Park that empowers youth to advocate for policy changes at the city level. “I think what’s going to be really exciting about this is there are already youth involved not just from the metro and suburbs, but from other parts of the state. It’s going to get even bigger. I think this will be a model for other states.”
His predictions are bolstered by students like Olya Wright, a 13-year-old from Grand Marais who’s homeschooled. She spoke at yesterday’s event, sharing her experience moving from founding a nature group with her peers five years ago to lobbying her city council to adopt an aggressive youth climate heritage resolution in 2017, to getting involved on a much larger scale through MN Can’t Wait.
She grounded her pitch for bipartisan climate change action in concerns for the future of longstanding northern Minnesota traditions like sled dog racing, which she recently appreciated as a spectator. “Minnesota is known for our cold, long winters — something we’re already losing to climate change,” she said. Watching the dogs reminded me what happens when we work together: the sled moves forward.”
In addition to their ask of Walz, students laid out two other main goals: to stop any new development of fossil-fuel infrastructure and to create an equitable transition to an environmentally sustainable economy.
To accomplish this last ask, students have already begun working with state legislators on crafting a Minnesota Green New Deal bill, inspired by the national Green New Deal, championed by new U.S. Reps. Ilhan Omar, of Minnesota’ 5th District, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York.
In an email response, state Rep. Jean Wagenius, DFL-Minneapolis, chair of the House Energy and Climate Finance and Policy Committee, confirmed that she and state Rep. Frank Hornstein, DFL-St. Paul, have already met with youth climate leaders and will be working with them “to rapidly accelerate efforts to reduce climate gases.”
Climate change education
In Katie Christiansen’s experience, as a senior at St. Louis Park High School, climate change education has been empowering. She says the AP Environmental Science class that’s offered to freshman at her school is incredibly popular, and it often serves as a feeder into the environmental club “Roots and Shoots.”
“Right at the beginning of high school we’re imbued with this [understanding that] climate change is real, it’s important, and we have a voice on it. We can act on it,” she said.
In talking with her peers from other cities — as they meet online to coordinate their platform and events through online apps like Slack and Zoom — she’s realized that in-depth exposure to climate change education often isn’t available to students until later on in their high school career.
“In all honesty, it’s something that should start in elementary school,” she said.
In a separate, but related, initiative at the Minnesota Department of Education, educators and content area experts have been rewriting the state’s science education standards. In a draft of the revised standards, which are currently open to public comment, “climate change” has been added under the grade 9-12 earth and space sciences heading.
The draft standard reads: “Analyze geoscience data and the results from global climate models to make an evidence-based forecast of the current rate of global or regional climate change and associated future impacts to Earth’s systems.”
Its possible inclusion is significant, say climate change advocates, because it grants teachers permission to directly tackle an important science issue in their classrooms that still comes with a lot of political baggage and potential pushback from parents.
“There are a lot of teachers, especially in the more conservative parts of the state, that fear backlash. So it becomes something that a lot of teachers … avoid, or just because they’re so busy, it becomes one more thing to add on instead of a really integral part of the existing curriculum,” said Sarah Goodspeed, youth and policy manager with Climate Generation, a nonprofit that provides professional development workshops for teachers, equipping them with material to teach about climate change.
Harel considers herself fortunate to have received a bit of climate change education in her eighth-grade earth science class. Now she’s taking an AP environmental science class that dives more into the causes and effects of climate change. It’s a challenging course, she says, but one she wishes more students had access to across the state.
“I’m glad the science standards are moving in that direction,” she said. “But I hope to see that we put even more emphasis on human relationships with the environment.”