Middletown residents, local activists, students, professors, and State Senator Matt Lesser gathered in Downey House on Sunday, Sept. 29 to attend a discussion organized by Sunrise Movement Middletown hub and Middletown Green Community Center (MGCC) entitled “Youth Climate Activists Speak Up!” Organizers Jackie Duckett ’20 and Middletown activist Jeff Hush ’82 invited Connecticut Sunrise leader Sena Wazer—a 15-year-old first-year student at the University of Connecticut—to help lead the discussion, which was open to anyone seeking to learn more about the new frontier of climate activism and how to combat the climate crisis.
Wazer, who worked to organize the Hartford climate strike on Sept. 20, began the presentation with a brief overview of her work with the Sunrise Movement. She began by describing her motivation to get involved: When Wazer was five years old, she was devastated to learn that plastic in the ocean kills whales in overwhelming numbers.
“So I did what any little kid would do: I cried and whined for three days, until my dad couldn’t take it anymore and said, ‘Well, if you don’t like something, then do something about it,’” she said.
Wazer spent the next 10 years lobbying politicians, speaking at events, and educating people about whales and the ocean.
“But then, in October of 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [IPCC] released a report,” she said. “Their report said that we need to decrease global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. That 2 degrees Celsius would be catastrophic, and that we have 12 years to accomplish these goals. And for the first time in my life I felt like this problem was too big—like there was nothing I could do to help combat climate change. And I was also so scared.”
After the release of the IPCC report, Wazer began her work as a Sunrise Movement organizer and activist. Since then, she has become one of Connecticut’s leading climate activists.
Like Wazer, Duckett also got involved with Sunrise Movement after the release of the IPCC report. As she explains, Duckett followed an instinct to advocate for people suffering the most from changes in the natural world in whatever way she could.
“It’s very important to acknowledge that as someone who is white and middle class, my story is not as important as people—specifically indigenous, [people of color], and low-income people—who are facing this crisis to a degree that is not being acknowledged by the world, but also our current administration,” Duckett said.
Wazer and Duckett continued their discussion with a recap of the Hartford climate strike, which drew over a thousand people and provided an opportunity for climate activists across the state to unite and demand bold climate action from the Connecticut legislature. Governor Ned Lamont, they said, has yet to respond to the strikers’ demands, which include declaring a climate emergency in the state of Connecticut, divesting from fossil fuels, and ensuring climate and conservation education for all public school children.
After outlining some guidelines on how individuals can help combat climate change through their behavior and political engagement, Wazer and Duckett opened up the room for discussion and encouraged people to voice any and all thoughts about climate change and climate activism.
“I’m like brand new to the movement, climate change and stuff like that,” said Meriden resident Justin Mitchell. “I don’t know really where we can fit in, but I want to be able to fit in…. So I guess I want to know, what’s the main thing that when we’re out here talking to people in the community and the representatives in our town—how can we make a change, as individuals? What can everyday people do to start a change immediately?”
People floated a variety of answers: get an energy audit of your home, try to limit your driving, join movements like Sunrise to lobby your politicians, educate yourself, educate your friends.
Wazer urged Mitchell not to underestimate the impact that he could have on his community and legislators, suggesting that hosting a town forum on the climate crisis can serve as an effective way to get involved in the movement.
“Just presenting concerned citizens of your town with the facts about climate change, and the steps that they can take on a personal level, and also on a legislative level,” Wazer said. “Because I think it’s really important to empower people both personally in their lives and legislatively. Because we can actually make changes with our legislatures. And another really important thing I think is educating on the urgency of climate change. A lot of people know it’s happening, okay, they know the climate’s changing, but what does this mean? Right now it is really urgent, because we have these 11 years to really change things, and I think people need to know that. It’s their right, people need to know what’s happening to our planet.”
Middletown resident Joe Dillard then took a moment to share a Native American proverb.
“When all the water is polluted, and all the animals have been hunted, when all the trees have been cut down and the air is unsafe to breathe, only then will you know you cannot eat money,” he read.
The role of money became a recurrent theme in the conversation, as various attendees expressed their frustration fighting climate change on an individual level when one hundred companies are responsible for 70 percent of global emissions, according to a 2015 study.
“There’s a great urgency, and a sense of emergency here,” Hush said. “How do we get people to recognize that? I think everyone has to say, ‘What the hell can I do?’ And then we have to try to spread it at least among the people close to us, and with some urgency. And that’s something I struggle with.”
“We all share that struggle,” Middletown resident Veleka Clarke said.
Climate Action Group leader Miles Brooks ’20 echoed these sentiments, calling specific attention to the ways in which young people have often been dismissed in conversations surrounding climate action.
“I have tried to have conversations with people who are older than me, like my parents age and whatnot, trying to discuss things like a climate emergency,” he said. “And a response I got recently was ‘Miles, you’re too young. We’ve seen crises like this for the past 40 years, these alarmist arguments.’ And I’m wondering from the people in the room, like, what would be a better way of approaching these conversations?”
Wazer, too, emphasized the importance of recognizing that this issue has already taken victims and that it does not only exist in the abstract.
“I think no matter who you’re speaking to, it’s important to talk about the people who are already being affected,” she said. “Because I feel like a lot of people think of climate change as something that is going to happen, but it is already happening, and it’s already affecting real people, and I think we need to acknowledge and talk about those people. They need to have their voices heard. Because they’re the ones who are actually feeling the effects of climate change.”
After some discussion of how institutional structures like the military-industrial complex and the fossil fuel industry bear responsibility for climate change, Duckett showed the group a YouTube video called “A Message From the Future with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez,” in which the progressive congresswoman outlines a hypothetical future, a world in which the Green New Deal is implemented and politicians come together to combat climate change.
State Senator Matt Lesser, who dropped by for part of the conversation, was impressed by the video, and reiterated some of the congresswoman’s message concerning the disproportionate effects of climate change on low-income communities of color.
“Some of the communities in Connecticut that are most immediately affected by climate change are also some of our poorest: Bridgeport, New Haven, and Stamford are right on the water, there are lots of low-income residents, and they’re absolutely affected by climate change right now,” Lesser said. “And I think we have a series of choices we can make as a state. We can help address some of the immediate impacts of climate change in a way that focuses on equity, that shows that we actually care about everybody in this state.”
Wazer closed the event with a call to action, reminding the group that as climate activists, they must strive for the impossible, they must work against a system which is set up to exploit the earth, and that they must not lose faith.
“Recently there have been times when I’ve been told by other climate activists that the kind of climate action I’m asking for is impossible,” she said. “That we cannot meet the 2030 deadline [set] by the IPCC, or that maybe that deadline isn’t correct. And do you know what I say to those people? To the people who question whether or not we can save my future? I tell them that yes, maybe it is impossible, but I’m 15 years old, and I have everything at stake here. My generation and future generations cannot risk inaction or delayed action any longer.”
Sasha Linden-Cohen can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.