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Lessons from Utah's Student-Led Climate Resolution

From left to right: Piper Christian, Genesis Wardle, Kiyan Banuri, Josh Velazquez, Keely Toledo, and Kai Torrens at the Utah People's Climate March

From left to right: Piper Christian, Genesis Wardle, Kiyan Banuri, Josh Velazquez, Keely Toledo, and Kai Torrens at the Utah People's Climate March on April 29th, 2017. Photo Courtesy of: Chris Detrick, The Salt Lake Tribune

Thousands of feet marched the streets of Salt Lake City. The spring air was filled with the electricity of protest, voices rising in unison with songs of climate justice. The Utah People’s Climate March was a sight to behold. Leading procession was a group of high school students with a 12-foot banner of Utah’s first ever Climate Change Resolution gripped in their fists. I was one of those students. Delivering this resolution to the Governor’s Mansion was the culmination of the march-- and a journey spanning two continents and nearly two years.

In December of 2015, as a high school sophomore, I had the opportunity to attend the U.N. Climate Conference in Paris. While most people saw the climate talks as diplomatic meetings between world leaders, there were thousands of other participants: artists, scientists, indigenous leaders, and more. I made it my mission to gather the stories of these people. I learned that ordinary people have the capacity to create extraordinary change in their communities. We all have unique skill sets and perspectives to contribute to the climate movement, and when each of us takes action at the local level, our collective impacts can have a global reach.

With this inspiration, I returned to Utah. I spoke with my high school environmental club, the Logan Environmental Action Force, about ways we could address environmental threats within Utah. While we were only a handful of students at that time, we shared an ambitious dream: to introduce a Resolution on Climate Change to the Utah State Legislature.

We knew that in order to establish credibility in the state Legislature, we needed to prove that communities around Utah supported environmental protection and action to address climate change. We drafted a Clean Air and Climate Change Resolution to introduce to our local city council in Logan. I was skeptical that our city council members would take a group of high school students seriously. However, I soon learned that our age was not a disadvantage, but a strength. When we addressed our city council, we spoke about our concerns of inheriting an environment in peril. To our surprise, our city council passed the resolution unanimously.

One year later, we mustered the courage to introduce our Climate Change Resolution at the Utah State Capitol. We spoke with numerous legislators about the actions communities were taking to address climate change and encouraged them to sponsor our resolution. Many were dubious. After all of our preparation, we feared that our efforts were a lost cause. Then we met the self-proclaimed “senator of last resorts,” Jim Dabakis. Standing well over six feet tall, Dabakis has a presence that is hard to ignore. With a long history of challenging the status quo in the Utah Legislature, he offered to sponsor our bill after only a few minutes of discussion. We were dumbfounded and overjoyed. Little did we know, we still had a long journey ahead of us.

The next step for our resolution was the Senate Natural Resources Committee. We eagerly awaited the opportunity to have a dialogue with legislators from both parties about climate change. Unfortunately, the chair of the Natural Resources Committee, Senator Margaret Dayton, happened to have the worst ranked voting record on environmental protection in the Legislature. She refused to give us a hearing unless we removed the words “climate change” from our resolution, which would render it meaningless. We attended town hall meetings, emailed and called legislators, and attempted to contact Senator Dayton numerous times, but she held her ground.

We refused to give up. If we couldn’t get an official hearing for our resolution, we would hold our own. We reached out to environmental organizations and schools across the state, inviting them to attend our mock hearing. If nothing else, we wanted to create an opportunity for students to participate in the political process and know that their voices matter. We booked the largest conference room in the capitol building and filled it to capacity. With over 14,000 people watching on Facebook Live, over 20 students, from elementary to graduate school, gave testimonies on why climate change matters to them. It’s hard to put into words the power of this hearing. My friend Josh Velazquez, a sophomore, summed it up well: “This youth led initiative is physical proof that young people have a voice, that change is possible through us, and that we can have an impact.”

When the we finished the mock hearing, we figured our journey was over; our resolution could go no further. We were wrong. Among the legislators who had attended our mock hearing were Representatives Joel Briscoe (D) and Becky Edwards (R). They were so inspired by our testimonies, they decided to take on our cause, cosponsoring our resolution in the House. This in and of itself was a significant victory: a bipartisan cosponsorship proved that action on climate change could transcend party divisions. Plus, now that our resolution was sponsored in the House, it was rerouted into a committee that was less hostile towards discussing climate change. Finally, we were granted the first official student led climate change hearing in Utah history.

Once again, students and citizens packed the hearing and gave powerful testimonies in support of our resolution. Unfortunately, we were one vote short of getting our resolution passed to the House floor. Many were disappointed, myself included. It was painful to have seen our resolution go so far and then see it fail to pass, but I learned that it is important to find victories in the process rather than the product. While we failed to accomplish our original goal, in many ways we achieved far more than we could have imagined.

We engaged 28 legislators in a respectful discussion on climate change. We attracted national attention. Students have contacted us from as far away as Massachusetts, Georgia, and Arizona to learn how they can take on similar initiatives. We circulated a petition in support of our resolution, that now has over 2,000 signatures, demonstrating that Utahns care about climate action. Most importantly, we helped unite a coalition of students from around the state who care about environmental protection. This September, we will host the first ever Utah Youth Environmental Summit to rally students to be more active stewards of the earth.

We refuse to give up. Next year, we will reintroduce our Climate Resolution to the state legislature. When we do so, we hope you will attend our public hearings, contact your representatives, and stand with us as a unified force.

A force like the People’s Climate March. Despite the many setbacks and difficulties the environmental movement has faced, as I marched down the streets of Salt Lake City, I couldn’t help but feel hope. I was surrounded by my own biggest heroes, the students who had relentlessly pushed for climate action in the state Legislature. Behind us marched people of every background and orientation, chanting in unison, “When our Earth is under attack, what do we do? Stand up and fight back!” While the journey to address climate change may be long ahead of us, we will be in good company. It’s time that we recognize the capacity for positive change that each one of us possesses. Our own ingenuity may be our damnation or salvation, and it is our choice which direction we go.

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