By BEN WESTCOTT
About 250 people participated in climate-action workshops at the Wild Center’s two-day 11th annual Youth Climate Summit last week.
Speakers included Curt Stager, a natural sciences professor at Paul Smith’s College, and Rachel Lit, a Youth Arts Coordinator at the Climate Museum in New York City. Stager discussed relevant science that students should know in order to be effective climate activists, while Lit told how the arts can inspire climate action. They addressed 180 students from 31 New York schools. Most were high school students, though Hamilton College, Paul Smith’s College and the State University of New York at Potsdam also sent students.
Summit coordinators at the Tupper Lake center asked teams of students to craft action plans that they could bring home. The emphasis on solutions appealed to students such as Andrew Fagerheim, of Homer.
“We hear so much in the media about how awful climate change is,” he said. “And while that’s true, I think what’s more important is focusing on what we can do about it. Hearing about all those steps is so encouraging and empowering.”
Though only a high school senior, Fagerheim was already acting on climate change.
At last year’s climate summit, he sat in on a presentation about Climate Smart Community programs. These are New York State programs designed to help local governments take action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and take other steps to adapt to a changing climate.
Fagerheim was motivated to get his hometown registered as a Climate Smart Community. When he met with his mayor to pitch the idea, the mayor responded that villagers were interested, but that many didn’t think they had enough time in their lives to put into the project. So the mayor, noticing Fagerheim’s passion, asked if the high school junior and some of his peers would be willing to take leadership. They said yes.
Thanks to their work, their village ultimately registered as a Climate Smart Community.
“For the past year we’ve been leading that process,” said Fagerheim. “It’s been a lot of work. But it’s been so rewarding.”
Students at last week’s summit could participate in a number of workshops that covered topics like writing and poetry, filmmaking, art, and preparing food from ingredients that can be grown at students’ own schools. The variety of workshop options for students marks a shift from the summit’s earlier years, when the programming was more science-focused.
While most of the schools represented at the summit are in the Adirondacks, students also traveled from other places including Brooklyn, Troy, Utica and Canton.
Summit speakers and participants ate meals with food from local sources, including Essex Farm, Jones Family Farm, Byrne Dairy and the Hub.
Thanks to a number of sponsors, the summit is free for participating institutions. “We try to make the summit as accessible as possible, and make sure that there are not financial barriers,” said Jen Kretser, the center’s director of climate initiatives.
According to Kretser, there are now 78 summits — in 36 communities around the country — that are similar to what happens each year at the Wild Center. Many of these were and are influenced by the Wild Center’s Youth Climate Summit, which Kretser deemed the first of its kind.
To promote the creation of climate summits around the country, the Wild Center has posted a do-it-yourself toolkit on its website. In addition, alumni from Wild Center summits have started summits at their respective schools.
“We share out the model as widely and freely as we can,” Kretser said.
Still, the Wild Center’s approach is seen by outsiders as unique. “The fact that this is youth-driven, youth-focused, youth-designed — that is a unique dimension,” said Frank Niepold, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s senior climate change education manager.
“(The Wild Center) is a small museum in northern New York, and it is doing some of the best work in the country, maybe world.”
Niepold, who is based in Washington, D.C., traveled to the Adirondacks for the summit. “I’m here to learn, partner, support, and also help move (the model) across to other communities,” he said.
Indian Lake Central School science teacher Sandra Bureau said her students are more tuned in to climate change because of its frequent discussion in the news. She brought a group of interested students from Indian Lake to the summit for the first time this year. They are in the beginning stages of forming a green team, and Bureau hoped the summit would give them ideas.
She also hoped the passion shown by students from other schools would be contagious.
“My students come from a small school, and showing your passion is pretty scary when there is only a few people around,” she said. “I’m hoping they’ll see that there are other kids out there that are like them and are really excited about this.”
Newcomb Central School art teacher Jessica LaFountain noted that at the climate summit her students “have the time, the mental space, and all the surroundings to work on an actual plan that we can hopefully take back and implement.”
All of the teams that participated at the summit will have the opportunity in December to apply for grants to implement their plans in their schools and hometowns.