Indiana’s Youth Take the Lead in Climate Change Action

November 4, 2019

FISHERS, Indiana Three young Indiana women are working to avert the upcoming environmental disaster that scientists warn could be their future.

One leads a program that teaches elementary school students about the impact of climate change. Another helps lead recycling efforts as president of her school environmental club. And a third is developing a city climate change resolution with her local council representative.

Inspired by 16-year-old Swedish climate crusader Greta Thunberg and other youth activists across the world, Hamilton County high school students Martha Abaddi, Vernice Riego and Emma Summers are using their passion for environmental issues to change their communities.

Abaddi, president of the environmental club at Hamilton Southeastern High School in Fishers, said she feels a responsibility to stand up for the planet that her generation will someday inherit.

Vernice Riego, Emma Summers and Martha Abaddi attend the 2019 Earth Charter Climate Leadership Summit in Goshen, IN

“Environmental activism is important to me because, growing up in a generation where our Earth is being exploited, I feel more of a responsibility to do something about it because I’m going to be here,” she said.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates that by the year 2050, a child born in 2000 is likely to experience “atmospheric concentrations of CO2 between 463 and 623 parts per million, 1.5 to 2.6 C warmer, and with sea levels higher by 5-32cm.”

These projections predict consequences in the form of economic loss, human health and the reduction of current land mass. Younger people today will face the potential for more disease, extreme loss of ecosystems, and food and water vulnerability. These changes will disproportionately affect populations that are already vulnerable, such as indigenous people, coastal communities and those currently experiencing poverty.

Along with worries about global ecosystems and communities come concerns about these activists’ own loved ones and futures.

“I want our children to have a future like my childhood,” Riego said. “I want them to be able to play outside without worrying about what's in the air and what's going on around their planet, because it's being destroyed right now.”

For Abaddi, Summers and Riego, an essential part of protecting the global environment starts at the local level, with awareness and policy changes. At their respective high schools, the girls have launched a variety of initiatives to make local change.

Martha Abaddi,Vernice Riego, and Emma Summers

To help inform and educate younger generations, Abaddi is leading a program called Eco-scouts, where she and her fellow environmental club members visit local elementary schools to discuss environmental issues and to make students aware of how climate change is affecting their community.

“They are going to be our future leaders — we are our future leaders — so we’re trying to implement that in the community,” she said.

Summers, who serves as president of the environmental club at Fishers High School, said she and the other club members are in charge of the school's plastic and aluminum can recycling.

Before her club took responsibility for the recycling a few years ago, the school was sending plastic to landfills.

Now, members of the environmental club take care of all the recyclables in and around the school each day.

“We have our slogan: ‘Sustain, protect, educate.’ We want to be able to make the information that we hold and are being exposed to more accessible to the public — not only the school, but to the community as well,” Summers said. “We're working with ideas of how to get our concern out in a more acceptable sort of medium for people to understand.”

At HSHS, Riego is working to develop an environmental summit at the school this December. She is also writing a climate change resolution for the city of Fishers with the help of Public Administration Fellow Steven Chybowski.

Riego, an officer of the environmental club at HSHS, said the goal of the resolution is to make the city more environmentally resilient and sustainable. If all goes according to plan, the resolution will be established before Riego goes to college.

“That way when I leave for college, I know Fishers will be taken care of,” she said.

Vernice Riego at the Climate Change Reality Project in Minneapolis.

This past summer, Riego and her mother attended the Climate Change Reality Project hosted by Al Gore in Minneapolis. Riego had been interested in mitigating climate change, but wasn’t sure where to begin.

At the conference, she attended a presentation on engaging young people in climate activism.

That’s where she met presenter Jim Poyser.

Poyser is executive director of Earth Charter Indiana, an organization that has been identifying grass roots leaders in sustainability and climate action in the state for almost 20 years.

Through Youth Power Indiana, ECI helps young people in elementary through high school understand climate impacts and solutions. The organization also works directly with mayors and municipal officials on sustainability and resiliency programs at the local level.

Poyser and ECI are helping Riego and other young Indiana activists write resolutions for their cities. Poyser said seven cities have passed municipal policy, called Climate Recovery Resolution, led by young people: Carmel, Indianapolis, Lawrence, South Bend, Goshen, Bloomington and West Lafayette.

Jim Poyser speaking at the 2019 Earth Charter Climate Leadership Summit in Goshen, IN

He said seeing city officials listening to young people and voting accordingly were some of the happiest moments of his life.

“It’s also important to note the healthy mixture of Republican and Democrat cities in this process,” he said. “Addressing climate change is not a divisive issue in Indiana. On a municipal basis, at least, mayors get it. Their cities are flooding and there are other clear climate impacts happening. It’s time to act.”

Poyser said these resolutions give young people something tangible and local to do.

“In the age of Greta, young people are experiencing anxiety, even despair,” he said. “Our city resolutions are a great way to address this anxiety, while helping young people learn civics, while exploring potential career paths, from science to engineering to politics.”

Abaddi, Summers and Riego share their passion for the environment with each other. On a recent afternoon, they met at a coffee shop in Fishers to discuss a speech they would deliver later that night at a Hoosier Interfaith Power and Light event.

They also share their frustrations when things might not work out

Summers has been ridiculed by her peers for recycling at her school, but she said that wouldn’t stop her.

“It makes me upset to see this level of ignorance amongst my peers,” she said. “I just try my best to have an optimistic view, however difficult it may prove to be sometimes given the circumstances.”

The three students believe small, simple changes can help the environment. They encourage carpooling, using a reusable bag when shopping, and shopping locally. The girls also said that replacing older habits with sustainable ones could be fun, such as thrift shopping with friends.

Summers adds that taking time to contact local, state, and federal representatives is also important.

The young women plan on either studying environmental fields or continuing to participate in environmental activism in college. They are hopeful about some of the changes they are seeing.

“I think compared to previous generations, the kids now are more environmentally conscious and involved,” Abaddi said. “I think we are seeing different lifestyle choices. Whether it’s being vegan or using reusable cups and metal straws, it’s really important to see that change happening.”

Summers attended the Global Climate Strike at the state house in Indianapolis Sept. 20 and said it gave her hope to see so many participants. Indianapolis was one of 13 communities across Indiana that participated in the strike, spurred by a movement inspired by Thunberg.

“No matter how many times this girl gets knocked down, she keeps going because she knows it’s not about her, it’s about something so much bigger,” Summers said of Thunberg. “To see people like that, it gives me a lot of hope to know we have the future on our shoulders.”

Riego said she is encouraged by awareness about environmental issues on social media.

“Raising awareness has served as a great medium for people to understand what’s going on with the news and also learn tips about being more sustainable. I wouldn’t have known about the climate conference I went to if I hadn’t seen it on social media,” she said.

For now, these young activists will continue working with their clubs, writing legislation and inspiring other young people to become more involved with environmental issues.

“All of these environmental issues are not just affecting the environment but also our heath and our lifestyle,” said Abaddi. “It’s really changing all of these different aspects in our lives, and it’s time that we actually recognize those and start doing something about it.”

Indiana’s Youth Take the Lead in Climate Change Action