TUPPER LAKE - It was two days packed with education and inspiration for young adults intent on saving the planet.
The fifth annual Youth Climate Summit at The Wild Center natural history museum hosted 26 schools from as far away as Albany and a cadre of climate-minded speakers, educators, scientists and farmers who spoke and led workshops on climate science and sustainable practices.
The main goal of the summit, which took place Wednesday and Thursday, was to guide students in creating their own climate action plans.
A group of students from schools throughout New York state perform a song they wrote at the Youth Climate Summit.
(Enterprise photo — Shaun Kittle)
Those plans weren't just pipe dreams, either. Each team of students first ran their ideas past a teacher or administrator from their school to make sure they were feasible before they became part of the action plan.
After two hours of brainstorming, the students shared their plans during the summit's grand finale presentation.
The climate action plans included goals like starting school gardens, getting schools to unplug energy-draining devices like computers at night and over the weekends, and fundraising or grants to purchase solar panels.
Before the plans were unveiled, attendees were treated to a song that had been quickly composed behind the scenes by students who had just met at the event. The last line of the song was sung over acoustic guitar and a melodic chorus of voices. It seemed to capture the feeling of the entire summit: "With the world so down, will we ever mend? Only if we come together as friends."
For Brian Stillwell, the answer to the question is an optimistic yes.
Stillwell works for the Alliance for Climate Education, a national nonprofit organization based out of Oakland, Calif., that works toward empowering young people to take action against climate change. The five-year-old organization now has offices in 14 cities, including New York and Boston.
"It's really clear when 97 percent of climate scientists tell us that climate change is happening and is human-caused," Stillwell said. "I think we're starting to see the conversation shift. We're finding that young people especially seem to get that this issue is real and it's happening, and they're enthusiastic to get involved."
For Stillwell and the ACE, getting young people involved is about energy and momentum.
"If you look back at the social movements that occurred throughout history, a lot of that was led by youth," Stillwell said. "Our organization specifically sees the potential in tapping into high school students because I think that's a demographic that's often overlooked. As we're seeing here, these students really do have the energy and the passion to get these movements going."
Stillwell brought the ACE's blend of science-based animation, stories and music to the opening ceremony of the Youth Climate Summit. He told the Enterprise that accepting the reality of climate change is becoming more prevalent in American society. He noted that droughts, wildfires and more frequent storm events are possibly catalysts for that shift in attitude.
Besides devastating environmental events, putting climate science in a language people can understand is paramount to getting people to listen. Stillwell said many people don't know the distinction between weather and climate.
"I often make the comparison of, 'Where would you rather go swimming in January: Miami or the Adirondacks?'" Stillwell said. "People get that Miami is generally warm and the Adirondacks are generally cold in January, and that's the climate. People understand that."
Another way to engage people is to make the topic hit home for them.
"One thing that's really powerful, that I think takes the science and really grounds it, is telling stories about how climate change is impacting different communities, and using those stories as a means to connect to the science," Stillwell said. "Climate change is something that affects every aspect of our lives, from the economy to social justice and health. There are different ways for people to connect to climate change through those different lenses. This is a challenge, but it is something a very diverse coalition of people can work toward."
One of the people fighting climate change is Ivy Huber, an 11th-grader at Saranac Lake High School. Huber said she also localizes the effects of climate change to help people understand it.
"I tell people their life is going to change," Huber said. "Things you love are going to disappear. If the climate continues to change and we're like North Carolina in 2050, then we're not going to have maple syrup. We're not going to be able to ski."
Huber said the Saranac Lake Winter Carnival is an example of how climate change can affect that community.
"It's been rough, even in these last couple of years, to get enough ice for the Ice Palace," Huber said. "If we keep on warming, we're never going to have enough ice again, and that's such a big part of Saranac Lake's history and culture that it's really going to be missed."
Huber's colleague, 12th-grader Samantha Martin, said in her experience, talking to people doesn't always work - guiding people down the right path is the best way to enact change.
"I think a lot of people are just too lazy to do it, or they say other people will do it for them," Martin said. "If you give people a path and say, 'If you do this, it will help,' then maybe more people will do it because they don't have to think for themselves; they can just be followers. I'm talking about making it socially unacceptable to not recycle, to not do your part."
Ninth-grade Tupper Lake student Tess Klossner said the climate summit reassured her that climate change is an issue the world is discussing, not just her school's Green Team.
"A lot of people in our school don't really care," Klossner said. "I would like to see a change in people's perceptions. I'd like for people to see how bad this issue really is and start to try to fix it."
Tupper Lake 12th-grader Hannah Herzog echoed Klossner's frustration over her fellow students not being concerned about climate change.
"In our community it seems the adults are more open to it," Herzog said. "You'd think it'd be the other way around, but you talk to adults in Tupper Lake, and I think since we have The Wild Center, they're into it."
Toward the end of the finale, Cody Barry, an 11th-grader at Lake Placid High School, offered some words of encouragement to attendees for dealing with climate change naysayers.
"This is my third year at the Youth Climate Summit, and every year you might go back and you might start a project, and there's going to be a little bit of apathy," Barry said. "Every year, please do come back. Since my first year, this thing has changed a lot, and it's changed for the better. Seeing people every year rejuvenates my pride; it rejuvenates my courage in what we're doing. Sometimes you get downhearted because someone says, 'No, I'm not going to recycle," but just keep persevering and keep implementing things. If people are going to be apathetic, that's their loss."
Contact Shaun Kittle at 518-891-2600 ext. 25 or email@example.com.