When it comes to climate change activism, young people are leading the way.
Greta Thunberg might have the most name recognition, but she’s not the only young voice demanding action on the climate crisis. On social media, at city council meetings and in schools, young people are also making a difference in Northwest Florida.
“Our generation has always been exposed to the negative effects of climate change, so there’s a little more urgency,” said 21-year-old Jay McGee, a senior at the University of West Florida and vice president of the Student Environmental Action Society (SEAS).
At UWF, McGee led the campaign to make the university commit to generating 100% of its energy from renewable sources such as solar and wind. The UWF Student Government Association passed the resolution unanimously in late March.
The resolution calls for the transition to be made no later than 2050, with all electricity coming from renewable sources by 2030.
“We started in the spring of 2020, right before COVID, collecting opinions about the resolution,” he said. “We interviewed close to 50 people and 99.9% said there were in favor. That’s when I started to think ‘this could really work.’ I just wish I started the work sooner.”
Student governments at the University of Central Florida in Orlando and University of South Florida in Tampa have also passed similar resolutions.
As part of the campaigning, McGee got press in the Pensacola News Journal and recieved his first taste of “mixed receptions” as he called it.
“That’s going to happen when you speak up about changing the status quo,” he said.
But he’s undeterred by any backlash. In fact, the project has introduced him to a new interest: policy making.
Fridays for Future Pensacola is a local chapter of the global organization that was founded in 2018 by a then-15-year-old Thunberg. The Pensacola chapter hosted sit-ins at Pensacola City Hall to put pressure on local government to commit to sustainability. One of the youngest participants is 12-year-old Ally Atchison, a seventh-grader at Brown Barge Middle School.
Learning about the environment, and inspired by the activism of Thunberg, Atchison decided to go vegetarian last summer. A vegetarian diet is said to reduce carbon and requires two-and-a-half times less the amount of land to grow food.
“You’d think you miss meat, but you really don’t,” said Atchison. “I know it’s for a good reason and my dad makes good vegetarian meals.”
Carbon emissions are a major concern to Atchison. She wants more of her peers to get involved, and she tries to encourage better habits with leading by example.
“If the younger generation doesn’t act, their future is going to be in danger,” she said. “This is going to affect our generation. It’s not fair for the older generation to burden us with climate change.”
Christian Wagley, coastal organizer for Healthy Gulf, has dedicated years to environmental causes. He says these young voices brings clarity to urgent issues.
“I love the purity and honesty that young people bring to the climate issue, which often allows them to see things more clearly than those who are older,” he said. “We need that clarity more than ever as we phase out fossil fuels and embrace the opportunity to create a better and healthier community in the process."
With COVID putting a lot of in-person events and marches on hold, social media has been an even-more-powerful communication tool for young activists.
It’s how 27-year-old Paige Plier communicates her message of sustainability and conservation. She even makes some money at it working with influencers on her Instagram to tout sustainable brands which creates a “ripple effect” of change, she said.
When she’s not on Instagram (you can follow her at @paigeplier) the UWF graduate spends half of her year in Tampa teaching climate and marine science at the Moore Center for Marine Conservation. She’s also a regular speaker at climate events.
“I try to dissect climate concepts in simpler terms to show how things are connected,” she said. “It’s personally gratifying to see people have that lightbulb-over-head experience.”
Plier has always been a steward of the environment, but it’s the past five years that she’s considered herself more of an outspoken activist. After she attended a climate strike organized by Wagley, it “ignited a fire inside,” she said.
“I can’t see a reason why not to speak up with the direction that things are going,” she said. “With more problems, more people are needed to solve them. I’m pretty confident things are only going to get worse.”
Activists like Plier, McGee and Atchison suggest anyone (of any age) can make a difference by joining local environmental groups and writing letters to local and state leaders.
“The main thing that gives me hope is that more and more people are becoming aware,” said Plier. “Hopefully it continues to grow.”