Smile Politely

Students do the grading on climate

Looking back on my high school and college student self, I can guarantee that most of my motivations were completely self-centered. My friends, my job, my activities, my classes, my choices, the things I invested my time in, everything pretty much revolved around what was happening in my own little world. (You could probably say that about a good chunk of my adulthood as well.) The students I met this week defy that somewhat typical description of your average teen and young adult. They’re concerned about how current policy decisions could negatively impact their futures, and they’re doing something about it.

A couple of weeks ago, these student activists spoke in front of the Urbana City Council to present their Climate Report Card for the City of Urbana. The students, consisting of representatives from University High School, Urbana High School, and the University of Illinois, had been researching the existing environmental policies and initiatives in Urbana as a part of a national organization called iMatter. The organization was founded in 2007 by a 13 year old, and according to the website has the goal to “befriend and support young people as we collectively step into our authentic voice and power to disrupt the status quo and push local leaders to do what is necessary to end the climate crisis and transition to a just, sustainable society.” Rebecca Laurent, a junior at the U of I (shown on the far right in above photo at the D.C. Climate March), had been working with iMatter at the national level and decided start a local group. She began reaching out to high school and university students, and when the U.S. pulled out of the Paris Climate agreement, Laurent says, they gained a lot of momentum to take action.

Lily Banihashem, a junior at Uni, feels like the current climate situation is “terrifying.” She went on to say “I know that our generation is going to have to deal with these issues, so it’s important for me that youth get involved”. Laurent agrees. “We have grown up learning about climate change, and it’s something that we’ve always known is going to drastically shape the world we live in. I think the sheer magnitude of climate change, that it’s affecting all of us and affecting every aspect of our lives and everything we’ve ever known, it just makes this really important.”

iMatter has developed a Youth Climate Report Card tool that local groups can use to evaluate their city’s action on climate issues. The tool was developed by experts in local sustainability policy. To evaluate Urbana’s existing policies, the students talked with Scott Tess, the Environmental Sustainability Manager, and discussed how Urbana has been working toward greater sustainibility. “We talked about their Climate Action Plan, about waste, carbon removal, and renewable energy,” says Laurent. “For each of those categories we answered questions that are needed to fill out the report card, and from there the grade was assigned.”

Not to generalize or anything, but I gather most would consider Urbana to be a city that is very forward thinking in their environmental initiatives (see this statement from Mayor Diane Marlin after the Paris Accord decision). That’s why it was rather shocking to me that based on guidelines set forth in the report card, Urbana received an overall grade of “C+”. That was a seriously surprising result to me, and one that was surprising to Laurent as well. Based on her past work with iMatter, and seeing cities that had been evaluated and had no type of climate policies or action plans in place, she expected Urbana to “blow them out of the water.” She does acknowledge the very high standards of the grading process, and in reality it’s setting an expectation that most cities would have trouble meeting. It’s a way to see what is possible, and what steps still need to be taken. You can see the report card in it’s entirety here.

So what’s next? The students will meet with city council members as well as the Sustainability Advisory Commission to talk through next steps. They plan to keep communicating and going back to the city council until they see follow through on ways to improvement the climate score. They also plan to evaluate the City of Champaign.

You can check out video from the city council presentation here. Banihasem and Laurent are both presenters.

Gives me a bit of hope for the future knowing that this is the generation that will soon be leading us. We should probably keep listening to what they have to say.

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