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December 8, 2015 | The Evolution of Climate Activism

“Take action.” These are the two words young people are most frequently met with when we ask what we can do about climate change. These are also two of the most frustrating words in the English language. What does “taking action” really mean? Considering the urgency and scale of catastrophic climate change, what can young people do to make a significant difference, and push for the sort of bold solutions we need to protect the one planet we have?

There’s an evolution of perspective and behavior change whenever someone first learns about climate change. The first step is shock and horror. How could humanity possibly have caused such enormous and irreversible harm to the environment and human lives? How could this have gone on for so long? Why are we not doing everything in our power to turn things around?

And so the second step towards action is in personal behavior and emissions reductions. We all know the laundry list: turning off the lights when you leave the room; using less water; biking; or for those of us that are really committed, reducing meat consumption. As Ban Ki-moon said at the UN Foundation’s “Earth to Paris” conference, “There are many small things you can change to make a difference.”

But what if these “small things” aren’t enough? As a young person who recognizes the urgency of the climate crisis, and as someone in the privileged position to do more to fight it, I don’t believe that our actions can stop at personal behavior change. As the Pope pointed out this year, climate change is an issue of justice, as poor and marginalized communities did the least to cause it but are the most vulnerable to its violent effects. There’s a much more important way that young people must confront climate change, and that’s step three: on the political stage.

When I first arrived at Tufts University in 2013, there only seemed to be one means by which to do this: fossil fuel divestment. This movement asks institutional endowments, organizations, and individuals to remove any investments in fossil fuels and aims to revoke the social license of the fossil fuel industry from destroying the environment. As students, we invest in our universities, and so we ask our universities to invest in us and our futures instead of in corporations that profit by wrecking the planet. This movement, founded only a few years ago by Bill McKibben and 350.org, has grown faster than any divestment movement in history. As Bill puts it, “The fossil fuel industry is still the biggest power in the room, but at least it’s not a completely one-sided game anymore.”

But how can we not only change the game but also win it? Divestment is important, but it’s not happening quickly enough. Symbolic statements like divestment can move minds, but not mountains, and we need multiple solutions to address this complex crisis. What more can students and young people do to leverage their power and push for immediate action on climate change?

In the 2016 election, young people will make up over 30% of the voting demographic; yet in 2014, voter turnout in this demographic was the lowest in history at less than 20%. And so this is what “taking action” must really mean: civic engagement.

It’s too late for us to have a Congress is which the term climate change is still taboo, while there are low-income and marginalized communities in the U.S. and around the world already suffering and fighting for their lives in the face of climate disruption. Mosquitoes and hurricanes don’t have borders, and so it’s up to young people — and government for the people — to make sure the most vulnerable communities don’t suffer the most from climate change impacts. If we want our government to work for us, we need to do our part to make sure the people in power are representing us, not corporate interests.

So if there’s one thing that young people can do to “take action” and make sure this historic COP does not come and go without insurance for planet Earth, it’s vote — a point that Conergy’s CEO Andrew de Pass hammered in during a conversation with Masdar CEO Ahmad Belhoul during “Earth to Paris.”

These UN negotiations are the scoreboard, not the game; they reflect how hard we’ve played the game so far, and how hard we’ll have to play in the future. As Secretary John Kerry said at “Earth to Paris,” the importance of this COP is “that everybody sets goals,” but we cannot afford to let these goals be trashed by a climate denier in political office.

Young people have a responsibility to themselves and to frontline communities to “take action.” I’ll see you at the voting booth.

Shana Gallagher is one of Conergy's Future Solar Leaders. Shana is an aspiring marine conservation biologist and climate change activist who attends Tufts University in Boston, Massachussetts.