Engaging Our Youth: Taking Climate Action to the Streets

Bringing climate action to the streets means addressing youth unemployment by training young people for in-demand green careers.
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With scientists warning that time is short to curb greenhouse gas emissions sufficiently to slow climate change, it's urgent that we engage our youth in creating a clean-energy future for themselves, their children and grandchildren. Most importantly, the next generation needs to participate in ensuring a clean energy future for low-income communities and communities of color -- those most at risk if climate change continues unchecked.

In the spirit of the 1987 UN Brundtland Commission report defining sustainable development as "meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs," we urge governors to take the Obama Administraion's Clean Power Plan (CPP) "to the streets" by enlisting youth to help meet their state's CPP-mandated emission-reduction goals.

The CPP offers a unique opportunity to involve young adults in both addressing climate change and advancing climate equity by requiring states to meaningfully engage vulnerable communities in planning to meet those goals. It also incentivizes renewable energy and energy efficiency initatives that benefit low-income, minority and tribal communities.

Bringing climate action to the streets means addressing youth unemployment by training young people for in-demand green careers. Clean energy outpaces the fossil fuel sector in the realm of employment, creating twice as many jobs, offering more jobs requiring only a high school diploma and paying 13 percent higher median wages. Climate solutions should intentionally prepare youth for climate-related careers - including higher-paying jobs in STEM and construction.

With the help of local career training programs, young people from the most vulnerable communities are already rebuilding and greening their cities and neighborhoods while gaining skills to implement sustainability programs, including those that could help states meet their CPP targets.

Ruben Castro, a graduate of the Austin, Texas, Casa Verde YouthBuild, was inspired to work in green construction after learning to build energy-efficient homes for local low-income families very much like his own. After graduation he did general contracting work, new construction and remodel projects, eventually being hired by D. Martin Homes LLC, which had donated a solar array for a Casa Verde home. Ruben quickly proved his worth, advancing to superintendent. He now oversees multiple green building and renewable energy projects.

YouthBuild Schenectady, N.Y., has built an effective pipeline for its students to gain hands-on experience in weatherization, earn industry-recognized certifications and find employment with the program's weatherization social enterprise, Home Energy Connection. Graduates Amir Mans and Erica Melendez found jobs installing insulation immediately after completing YouthBuild, and Erica is now a Building Performance Institute-certified crew chief.

The Sustainability Institute (SI) in Charleston, S.C., trains young adults - including former offenders like Timothy Gunn - to make energy efficiency retrofits in low-income homes. After more than two years behind bars for armed robbery, Tim was motivated to do right but lacked options. SI helped him gain retrofitting certifications and home weatherization experience, and he is now being recruited by the energy efficiency industry.

As a Rocky Mountain Youth Corps and Americorps member, Jasmine Romero, a young Native American woman from New Mexico's Taos Pueblo, provided weatherization services to disadvantaged homeowners, helping them reduce home energy costs. Through her service, Jasmine went from living out of her car to being on track to become New Mexico's first official female energy auditor.

Thousands of young adults like these YouthBuild and Corps participants are making a difference in their communities by implementing energy efficiency programs in YouthBuild programs, Service and Conservation Corps and other training and service programs. In the context of meeting CPP carbon-reduction targets, states should increase access to such green career pathways by funding existing, proven program models beyond the levels currently funded by the federal government. Both YouthBuild and Service and Conservation Corps turn away thousands of young adults each year solely for lack of funding.

Taking climate action to the streets also means strengthening community resilience. To ensure that today's progress on carbon reduction continues into the future, we must engage our young people in local efforts to address climate change and adapt to extreme weather. Such involvement prepares them to become the passionate leaders who can address these serious issues.

Perhaps the best reason to engage our young people in sustainability is that they "get it." At a recent PolicyLink conference, one Native American youth warned that decisions made today must take into account seven generations - past, current and 150 years into the future. He respectfully advised us to craft a world that is "youth-led and elder-guided."

Our call to action for state leaders is this: Embrace the spirit of intergenerational sustainability by involving our young people in building a more resilient, sustainable and equitable community.


Denise Fairchild is President and CEO of Emerald Cities Collaborative; Dorothy Stoneman is Founder and CEO of YouthBuild USA, Inc; Mary Ellen Sprenkel is Chief Executive Officer of The Corps Network.

Emerald Cities Collaborative (ECC) is a national nonprofit network of organizations working together to advance a sustainable environment while creating greater economic opportunities for all. We're transforming the energy efficiency sector in a high road way, by retrofitting building stock, creating high wage jobs, and revitalizing the local economies of our metropolitan regions.

The Corps Network provides leadership and support to over 120 of America's Service and Conservation Corps. Through advocacy, access to funding opportunities and expert guidance, The Corps Network annually enables over 23,000 Corpsmembers, ages 16-25, to strengthen communities, improve the environment and transform their lives through service.
To learn more about The Corps Network, please visit www.corpsnetwork.org.

YouthBuild USA, Inc. is the nonprofit support center for over 250 YouthBuild programs in the United States and over 100 in 15 other countries. In YouthBuild programs, low-income YouthBuild students, ages 16 to 25, who had left high school without a diploma, work toward their high school equivalency or diploma while serving their communities by building affordable and increasingly green housing in their neighborhoods, under highly skilled supervision, preparing for careers in construction, for post-secondary education, and for community leadership. www.YouthBuild.org.

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