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COP26 is over. But youth climate activists are skeptical of when they will see change

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Passionate youth activists made their voices heard at the U.N. Climate Summit, COP26, earlier this month.

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TXAI SURUI: We have ideas to postpone the end of the world. Let us...

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VANESSA NAKATE: We see business leaders and investors flying into COP on private jets. We see them making fancy speeches. We hear about new pledges and promises, but we are drowning in promises. Commitments will not...

KELLY: World leaders did sign off on a new climate change agreement. It covers deforestation, coal financing, rules on carbon trading. But it's just an agreement, not a law. Nothing's enforceable. So people, especially young people, are skeptical about when and if countries will turn their promises into action. NPR's Brianna Scott found out what some young activists who did not attend are thinking.

IMAN DERICHE: Like, I don't mean to criticize anything, but at the same time, it just feels like they're making lots of promises, and they've done that in the past. But we don't really know if they're actually going to follow up on it.

BRIANNA SCOTT, BYLINE: Iman Deriche wasn't at COP26, but she was listening to the leaders who spoke. Deriche and some other youth I talked to say it's up to the younger generation to take action against climate change if world leaders keep dragging their feet.

SALVADOR GOMEZ-COLON: My name is Salvador Gomez-Colon. I'm 19 years old. I'm a climate resilience advocate from San Juan, Puerto Rico. So I think that we need to make sure that climate change solutions - and solutions to really any issue - are inclusive of younger generations because while adults, I should say, have, well, the experience, we have youthful idealism that can fuel action.

ETHAN OZAN OZDEK VANDIVIER: My name is Ethan Ozan Ozdek Vandivier. I am a 14-year-old youth climate activist from Washington, D.C. We're already thinking about our future children at a very young age and the situation that we put them in because a dead planet is not an environment where you can live in.

DERICHE: Hi, I'm Iman Deriche. I'm from Minnesota, and I am 17 years old. Including more indigenous and BIPOC voices in these spaces where policy is being made is super important just because listening to them in protest and movements is a lot. But policymakers having them by their side when making these policies will ensure that they do have a voice.

SCOTT: For a lot of these youth, it wasn't that they just heard about climate change on TV or read some book about it. They were living through it, like in Oregon where Avery Mcrae lives. This year, Oregon's fire season lasted over 130 days.

AVERY MCRAE: We were in a blanket of smoke for a solid three weeks, and at one point, they were asking people to wear N95s if you had to go outside because it was so hazardous for your lungs. And that was really tough because it kind of - it's so real and it feels so apocalyptic.

SCOTT: And in Puerto Rico, where Hurricane Maria hit in 2017, Salvador Gomez-Colon remembers the impact it had on his family. He says his grandfather needed refrigeration for his medicine. And so without any power at his grandparents' home, his family was able to convince the two to evacuate with them.

GOMEZ-COLON: I'd never felt as vulnerable, as scared, as hopeless as I did then, even though I was surrounded by my family. And I think that vulnerability, that danger that I felt drove me to take action because I said I've put off greater ideas and greater initiatives before because I just thought, you know, there's still time, there's still time. But living through this showed me, there is no more time. This is the moment.

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SCOTT: Installing solar panels, giving up fossil fuels, consuming less meat - yeah, those are ways to combat climate change. But some activists say education also must be part of the solution. Earlier this year, the Climate Change Education Act was reintroduced in Congress. One of its goals is to establish a grant program that would help state and local education agencies improve climate literacy. But it stalled in the Senate, and in 2019, an analysis done for NPR education by the National Center for Science Education showed that 36 states in total recognize human-caused climate change somewhere in their state standards, but less than half of teachers cover it.

ETHAN: I think when it comes to education, it's either completely ignored or miscategorized and underwhelming. And it doesn't recognize the severity of the issue and how it will impact every single student in the room.

SCOTT: That's Ethan Vandivier, whom we heard from earlier in Washington, D.C. Iman Deriche has had a similar educational experience in Minnesota.

DERICHE: We never really talked about how climate change intersects with different communities and how it has disproportionate effects.

EMERSON STEADY: I actually had a science teacher at my old school who didn't believe climate change was manmade.

SCOTT: That's Emerson Steady. He's 17 and lives in Santa Barbara, Calif. Now, climate change isn't such a polarizing topic where he lives, but Steady says this teacher he had back in middle school would sometimes get into debates with students. Debates in class, normal stuff, but...

STEADY: The difficulty there was that he would always, at a certain point, just get very stubborn about it. And even though he was a science teacher, he didn't really seem open to having, like, a scientific debate about it.

SCOTT: Steady says that all changed in high school when he signed up for Jose Caballero's AP environmental science class.

STEADY: I mean, one of the first days of class, our teacher asked us all if, when we go to a grocery store, we prefer to use paper bags or plastic bags. People, for the most part, selected paper bags because we've learned that, you know, plastic pollutes the oceans. It kills sea life. But as we got into talking about it and really looked into where these bags came from, we learned about how paper bags actually have a much larger carbon footprint because they take so many more materials to make.

SCOTT: The class focused on the human impact on the environment. And one assignment students had was choosing an environmental project to work on and come up with solutions, like making a cleaning product that's friendly to the environment.

JOSE CABALLERO: What I've learned from teaching that topic over the years is you have to teach it both as a problem and then show the students that there is this imperative to solution part.

SCOTT: That's Mr. Caballero. Thing is, while his class is really popular amongst the students, it can also be really depressing.

CABALLERO: I would hear from parents that their student was struggling with depression, and their science class was adding more bad news.

SCOTT: He gets why some teachers might be reluctant to broach the topic in class, so he's changed his presentations, offering hope during discussions while focusing on solutions to problems.

CABALLERO: I don't really get into how they need to be like me, or they need to keep a bucket in their shower like I do. I actually love the idea that they're already curious. And so if I just give them the nitty-gritty, then they've got a whole life left to make meaning of that.

SCOTT: And Caballero says the students who come to his class are there because they care about what's happening to their planet, students like Emerson Steady.

STEADY: When we break it down in the scientific way, I think that that is actually very comforting because it allows us to talk about solutions instead of just being afraid.

SCOTT: Young people like Emerson Steady say the solution to climate change isn't going to be up to just one person. It'll be up to all of them. Brianna Scott, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.