“This is our time. This is our space,” asserted Stephanie Janeth Salgado Altamirano during the opening plenary at the 2022 high school climate conference which was titled Gen Z: Meeting the Challenge of Our Changing Environment.
Stephanie was a fitting opening speaker at this event; a junior at UW-Madison, she was the only youth representative on Governor Evers’ Climate Change Task Force. In addition to sharing what it means to have a seat at the table, she talked about the intersections between equity, identity and climate action and about insights she wished she would have had when she was a high school student, including the sacrifices involved in being a student activist.
Mikhaila Calice, a PhD candidate in the Department of Life Sciences Communications at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, delivered the second keynote, focused on communication strategies. Her talk included a group exercise that got attendees thinking about how they might talk about climate action with various folks including family members and school administrators.
The attendees—more than 80 high school students from at least 20 high schools across Dane County—responded enthusiastically to both of these presentations with smart questions and high levels of engagement. And that engagement continued through the rest of the day, through breakout sessions and a closing plenary where, still, students were present, thoughtful and motivated to make change happen.
Even before the first high school climate conference last November I knew that our local youth understood the climate challenge and were motivated to address it. Still, each time I interact with local young people I have an ever larger sense of respect for them and their efforts.
I also feel an obligation to apologize to them. After all, their generation will have to manage through all the climate disasters my generation did not choose to prevent.
While appreciated, an apology does not address the issue. Emissions still rise. I still remember what one local youth said to me more than a year ago, “yes, adults say all the right things but then they don’t actually do anything different to reduce climate change.”
She was right. When the house is on fire, actions matter most.
Probably that is why I love this high school climate conference so much: it brings youth together for action. Last year’s event spurred increased membership in the Dane County Youth Environmental Committee and The Connection, an online climate news service for young people as well as numerous initiatives in local communities. And that first event led to a second conference where students took on a substantial portion of the thought leadership. Increasingly I see myself as an ally and supporter to these youth. So I cannot predict just what will come out of this second conference because that depends on these young people—it is their future and it is their time to lead.
Kathy is the Director of the Dane County’s Office of Energy and Climate Change. In that role she's leading efforts to implement the Climate Action Plan. Prior to coming to Dane County, Kathy led Cool Choices and, prior to that, she led Wisconsin's Focus on Energy program.
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