At the Youth Summit, activists give a crash course in combating climate change

August 5, 2022 – The way Ilana Cohen sees it, young people are in a unique position to speak out about the dangers of climate change – and to fight it.

Cohen, a climate journalist and Harvard student, was one of more than 30 speakers at a week-long summer session for high school students, held July 24-30, titled Harvard Chan Si-Chang Youth Summit on Climate, Equity, and Health. Now in its second year, the course has provided concrete strategies for taking climate action, leadership skills, and tips on inspiring others to join the fight for a healthier, more sustainable and equitable future. The course attracted 121 students from across the United States as well as Australia, Austria, Canada, China, Colombia, Hong Kong, Pakistan and Spain.

The course is hosted by the Center for Climate, Health, and Global Environment at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health (Harvard Chan Si-Chang) and Putney College Foundation, an initiative of Putney travel students.

Ilana Cohen (left) and Nadia Nazar

Cohen spoke July 28 at Youth Keynote, alongside Nadia Nazar, founder, co-CEO and CTO of Zero Hour, a youth-led climate organization. The event was held at a packed Kresge G1.

“Young people can see things with a very unique level of moral clarity,” Cohen said. “Being less immersed in an existing, structurally unfair situation, I think it’s easier, in fact, at a younger age to be able to speak out. I think using our voices in a way that makes our moral clarity resonate with people who have much more authority and formal authority than us is Really important thing.”

Cohen and Nizar spoke about the ways young people can get their voices heard, from lobbying politicians to organizing high-profile protests. Cohen, for example, recalled how she and other climate activists spin-off a fake oil spill outside Harvard’s Smith Center in 2019, trying to persuade the university to divest from its fossil fuel investments. The event, she said, “motivated us to have fun in the process and to break the boundaries of what people expect the activity to look like – which ultimately sparks more conversations.”

Nazar and Cohen also acknowledge that trying to tackle climate change can sometimes feel overwhelming.

“The fatigue is real,” Nizar said. “I was really grateful to have parents who supported me, who drove me to the capital to take part in the protests … or friends who were able to catch up with me on my homework. … But in high school I didn’t take care of myself at all, just organized at night, believing It’s okay not to sleep as much. … I didn’t spend as much time with my family and friends as I would have liked. Taking care of yourself is definitely very important.”

“It is important to realize that the climate crisis is overwhelming,” Cohen noted. “It is very sad and outrageous to live in a world with so much inaction on an issue that is not only existential but is also the highest level of every form of injustice and inequality we have ever seen. … I think it is really important to deal with this Indeed “.

Throughout the week, the Youth Summit featured workshops, field activities, and meetings with scientists, health and policy experts, academics, energy innovators and climate activists.

Aaron Bernstein, Interim Director of C-CHANGE, opened the summit on July 25 with a talk, “Climate and Health 101,” presenting information on how climate change affects health (“in every possible way”) and health equity. Later that day, Howard Koh, Professor of Leadership Practice in Public Health at Harvey F. Change, such as eating less meat and dairy, less flying and driving, and less energy use.

Other Harvard Chan experts who took part in the summit included Marcia Castro, professor of demography at Andalot. Grace Chan, assistant professor in the Department of Epidemiology; Caleb Dresser, Climate and Human Health Fellow, Harvard Chan Si Chang; Tamara James Todd, Associate Professor of Environmental Reproductive Epidemiology Mark and Catherine Winkler; Natalia Linus, Executive Director of the FXB Center for Health and Human Rights at Harvard University; and Amanda Yarnell, Senior Director, Health Call Center.

Sabrina Guo, 16, returned from her home in Long Island, New York, for the summit. She was grateful to see so many young people come together to tackle climate change, and said she found the summit very valuable. “I’ve really learned how to use all the resources around me and seize opportunities to lead and collaborate with other young people to make sure our voices matter,” she said.

Karen Feldscher

Photos: Ella Niederhelmann

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