By the end of the century, the World Bank has predicted the coolest months in tropical South America, Africa, and the Pacific are likely to be warmer than the warmest months at the end of the 20th century. Youth are the ones who will be affected most by climate change. According to the United Nations, by 2050 we would need the equivalent of almost three planet’s worth of resources to sustain our way of living if our current consumption and production patterns stay the same. The current generation of youth face a massive crisis that they are the last generation to be able to effectively do something about. Global warming is also referred to as the climate crisis, and high school students in Portland are fighting for a livable future amidst the most massive human-caused crisis of our time.
I spent time discussing the climate crisis with Adah Crandall, a sophomore at Grant High School, who is one of Portland’s most vocal youth climate activists. “To me, climate justice is the fight for a livable future for everyone, specifically doing that through the lens of equity and finding ways to transform the world in a way that is just and isn’t continuing the harm that has been caused, often not working through the same systems that have created this crisis in the first place.”
KGW8 Straight Talk, a Portland news outlet, comments that Crandall has been called Oregon’s Greta Thunberg. Crandall emphasized that climate justice is connected to many other social justice issues, saying “ [You] really can’t solve the climate crisis without also addressing systemic racism, and economic justice, and dismantling capitalism, there are just so many things that are all tied up in that.” Youth from the PDX hub of the Sunrise movement have been rallying outside Oregon Department Of Transportation (ODOT) headquarters every other week for over seven months now demanding that ODOT stop expanding freeways and prioritize decarbonizing our transportation system.
Crandall became involved in climate justice work while attending Harriet Tubman Middle School. Crandall’s middle school was located next to the Interstate 5 highway, which led to her learning about the highway’s pollution and the adverse health effects associated with it. The more Crandall learned about transportation pollution, the more she learned about the larger scale climate impact. Currently 40% of Oregon’s carbon emissions come from transportation. “Transforming our transportation system is a really important part of fighting for climate justice at a state level and also at a national level but I’m focusing on a state level for right now,” said Crandall.
Senator Akasha Lawrence Spence, an Oregon state senator, is a proud supporter of the local work being done in Portland by youth climate activists such as the Sunrise and Youth vs ODOT movements. Like Crandall, Lawrence Spence emphasises that climate justice is an intersectional issue involving economic justice, health justice, and racial justice. “Young people understand the complexity and urgency of the climate crisis implicitly. They must be at the forefront of fighting to ensure that our planet remains a viable place for everyone in our global community to thrive.” Lawrence Spence states, “I will continue to fight alongside youth by facilitating young voices in state policy making–centering youth, especially BIPOC youth, in the fight for our future.”
While climate change threatens the futures of youth, the climate crisis is already having a serious impact on the lives of youth today. “We often say we are fighting for our futures but at this point we are really not just fighting for our futures, we’re fighting for our present.” Crandall highlighted that record breaking heat waves and wildfires of the summer of 2021 as a prime example of how climate change has taken over the present conditions, saying, ¨People literally have died from climate disasters in Portland, like the 116 degree heat, that’s not just like a coincidence of weird weather, that’s a climate disaster.” Crandall pointed out that the climate crisis impacts people in ways that we cannot always see because we accept it as being normal, saying, “ It’s only going to get worse, like this past summer, that’s probably the coolest summer for the rest of our lives. The people in power won’t live to see the lasting effects of their climate inaction; they have less motivation to fight for it.”
Taking action against the climate crisis can seem daunting. The world isn’t on track to reach the goals of the Paris Agreement, an international treaty negotiated by 197 parties. Its main goal is to limit global warming to two degrees celsius (preferably 1.5 degrees). Two degrees celsius used to be considered on the brink of catastrophe. With the warming planet, two degrees would mean tens of millions of climate refugees. With four degrees of warming, it is estimated 40% to 70% of the planet’s species would become extinct. The geological history of the planet has shown that the earth can warm as much as five degrees celsius within the span of thirteen years. It can be a struggle to have hope for the fate of the climate crisis. “It’s really hard to be hopeful. I try to be, and to a certain degree if I didn’t think we could win this I wouldn’t be trying, but there’s sort of no choice so we have to do our best even if we think that the chance of winning is small. The future is really uncertain and it’s not looking great, but I don’t think we have a choice but to at least try,” said Crandall. Lawrence Spence adds, “The impacts of climate change are already devastating the lives of Oregonians. Black, Indigenous, and other people of color as well as people experiencing homelessness, are feeling the brunt of the impact, and we need to center our response on these
Crandall emphasizes that in order to make the deepest impact, action should be grounded in mass mobilization and systemic change. “[Individual action] is great if you want to improve your own personal sustainability, but the idea of a carbon footprint was created by fossil fuel corporations to try to place the blame of the climate crisis upon individual people, and cover up from the damage that they’re actually doing, and so that’s sort of a lie we tell ourselves.” Crandall further explained, “ This crisis is not the fault of individual people who don’t go vegan or bike everywhere, and so that’s not to say that individual people can’t make an impact but I think we need to change the narrative around what individual impact means and looks like.”
Grace Wilde, a junior at Franklin High School, has been active in the fight against the climate crisis and had her first experience speaking at a climate strike in September of 2021. Thousands of young people in 99 countries around the world led a coordinated global youth climate strike demanding government action on the climate crisis in September of 2021, which was the first global climate action since the start of the pandemic. Wilde, Franklin’s school leader in the Portland strike, shared opening notes.
“Adah Crandall, one of the leaders planned it, she texted me on Instagram asking me to be a school lead. And I said yes.” Wilde reflected on her experience at the climate rally noting that having courage can go a long way, “I think it took a lot of courage, just kind of to step up because there were a lot of people there. But it was a really cool experience. So I think cool things can happen when you take big risks.” Wilde continued, “ I think that the protest was a really good example of how we can all step up and try to make change.”
Balancing activism and school is another challenge as a young person. “It’s hard to be trying to fight this fight and also do schoolwork and also try to have fun and be a kid. I definitely feel a sense of loss that I have put so much time into this work that kids shouldn’t have to be doing.” Crandall has voiced her dissatisfaction with how schools have handled the climate crisis, saying, “I would like to be able to tell people that there are ways you can use your education to help with this work but honestly I don’t think that school is teaching us the right things. It’s not teaching us the things that we need to know in order to stop this crisis and that makes me really sad.” Crandall continued, “There have definitely been some exceptions with it and I have had some teachers who have taught units that are really impactful, or like teachers who really inspire me, and so I’m not saying that the entire education system is horrible, because there are people within it who are doing really great work and who I really appreciate it. But I think that as a whole, to me at least, it feels like school is something that I have to do to get done with so that I can do the really impactful work and actually learn things.”
Getting involved in climate justice may seem daunting, as is the climate crisis itself. Crandall emphasized the importance of acknowledging being overwhelmed, sad, angry or any other feelings that might come up about the climate crisis. “Realizing that [the climate crisis] is really angering and saddening, but what we do with that is what really matters, and so [ we can turn ] that anger into action or that hope into action.” Crandall encourages young people to research work that is already being done locally and see how they can get involved. “Sunrise Movement is always looking for more people; a lot of schools have environmental justice groups that are doing various work. The internet is a really powerful tool and you can just look up ‘Climate Justice youth work in Portland’ and find a bunch of different ways to get plugged in.”
Greta Thunberg, a world leading teenage climate activist, spoke on the Daily Show about getting involved in climate justice, saying, “Just find out the truth and if you fully understand the climate crisis, if you read enough that you fully understand it you will know what you can do as an individual and then I think, at least in my experience, most people have become fully aware of the real implications of the climate crisis have become activists and gone out on the streets, organized themselves, whether it is joining an organization, or becoming part of Fridays for future, or just campaigning locally or online.” Wilde and Crandall have also emphasized the importance of informing yourself on the climate crisis as a first step. “I would say do your research, because there’s a lot of facts that will kind of move you to say, ‘wow, that’s a big problem,’ ” said Wilde. The climate crisis isn’t going to be fixed with just the power of youth. Everyone can play their part to create a world that is habitable and just. It is essential to have adult allies in government. Senator Lawrence Spence recognizes the vital importance of addressing climate change. “The time for urgent action is now, and I am committed to working arm in arm with youth advocates across the state in the fight for our lives.” Crandall and Wilde are examples of the leadership we need to see in young people today. What we as young people do together can and must make a difference for the future of our planet.