Teens at climate panel speak to need for collective action to combat climate change


Staff Writer

Published: 03-21-2023 9:50 AM

GREENFIELD — Despite being among the youngest in the room, a group of teenage environmentalists were turned to for guidance during a climate action panel at the Episcopal Church of Saints James and Andrew. Their generation, after all, will be most directly saddled with the impacts of the climate crisis.

Ollie Mae Perrault, founder of Youth Climate Action Now (YCAN), was invited to lead a panel as part of the monthly Environmental Sunday series organized by the church’s Green Team. She was joined by YCAN leader Sasha Kracauer; Jane Scanlan-Emigh and Julian Hynes from Sunrise Amherst, a chapter of the national youth-led climate and racial justice-focused Sunrise Movement; and environmentalist Morgan Brown-McNeil, who moderated the forum.

Dozens of community members listened intently as the activists discussed their personal awakenings, organizational goals and strategies to support climate action in western Massachusetts.

The panelists began by sharing their “climate stories,” which Brown-McNeil described as “how you got involved and why you’re doing this work.” Each account showed that while the speakers are young, climate concerns have been on their minds for a long time.

“It was through experiential learning, through hands-on work at the farm next door, through playing on the playground, through being in the stream on the playground that really taught me about the environment hands-on,” said Kracauer, who attended The Common School in Amherst and later Northfield Mount Hermon School in Gill.

“I remember right before the pandemic … I started to have a really sudden sort of awakening surrounding climate change,” Scanlan-Emigh said. “Of course, I had grown up knowing it existed and knowing it was this huge existential threat, but something clicked, or maybe a dial turned and I really started to feel anxious all the time.”

Perrault, who said she observed the effects of climate change having grown up on a small farm in Easthampton, recalled having a “terrifying wake-up call … that far too many people are not treating this crisis as a crisis at all.” She said this realization, which was similarly experienced by other panelists, translated to an “overwhelming feeling of anger and frustration,” which was then mobilized into action.

Perrault’s activism and founding of YCAN amounted to her receiving the Boston Celtics “Heroes Among Us” award from then Gov.-Elect Maura Healey on Nov. 30, 2022. Meanwhile, Scanlan-Emigh was put in charge of drafting curriculum at Amherst’s Hitchcock Center for the Environment, Kracauer started NMH’s first climate action week and first interscholastic youth climate summit, and Hynes lobbied for climate-conscious policies and equipment purchases with municipal officials.

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“The purpose of climate action to me is to invoke change on a systematic level,” Kracauer said. “It’s all about invoking that mindset shift.”

Kracauer carried forth the notion that climate action must be undertaken as a “big system concept” when prompted by Brown-McNeil, who asked a series of prepared discussion questions before fielding questions from the public.

“The definition of sustainability was coined by the fossil fuel industry to trick us into thinking that climate change is a result of individual impacts, when really it is a product of … this detrimental system,” Perrault said, noting that harmful, capitalistic efforts can be combated by “radical … collective action” that includes protests, early climate education, electing motivated politicians and heeding Indigenous perspectives.

In terms of making progress on a local level, Hynes observed that action is impeded when municipal officials want to be climate-conscious, but don’t know what steps to take. Addressing this issue, he said, “can be as simple as having a conversation,” such as the one held for Environmental Sunday.

“I say this a lot, but I believe that education is the progenitor of change, and even coming to something like this is so important,” Kracauer told the audience.

Reach Julian Mendoza at 413-930-4231 or jmendoza@recorder.com.]]>