Valedictorians focus speech on climate change

WOODLAND PARK, N.J. (AP) — Climate change and how to curb it is the most important issue on the minds of young Americans — an issue that will likely influence their vote.

We’re already seeing young voters more vocally active on climate change.

Earlier this year, thousands of college and high school students around the world staged a Youth Climate Strike to call attention to the climate crisis and demand policy solutions.

And over the last two months, as part of the “Class of 0000" movement, hundreds of college and high school valedictorians have used their graduation speeches to urge their peers and guests to pressure 2020 presidential candidates to address the crisis.

“I think the reason that the climate change issue has gained so much traction among people my age and younger is because, in reality, policies related to climate change are going to affect us more than anyone else,” said Rebecca Tone, an 18-year-old who just graduated from Morristown-Beard School in Morristown.

Tone, of Randolph, was valedictorian of her class and participated in the Class of Zero movement in June. The youth-led movement was organized to “build a coalition of first-time voters prioritizing climate,” according to its website.

Since the late 19th century, the Earth’s average surface temperature has risen about 1.62 degrees Fahrenheit, driven largely by increased carbon dioxide and greenhouse gases from human activity that trap heat in the atmosphere, according to NASA.

Climate scientists say instances of damaging, extreme weather driven by global warming will continue to occur at increasing rates.

“This is a generation that has grown up and gone to school in the era of lockdowns, and whether here in the United States or globally, they’ve seen the effects of climate change — so I think there’s a great realization that policy decisions made by office holders have a significant impact on these issues,” said Elizabeth Matto, director of the Center for Youth Political Participation at Rutgers University’s Eagleton Institute of Politics.

Generation Z, which encompasses those who are 14 to 22 years old, has grown up witnessing some of these catastrophic events — Superstorm Sandy in 2012, the record flooding that came from Hurricane Harvey in 2017 and the recent California drought that lasted seven years, for example.

“To top it off, this generation recognizes the potential for power they have — they will not be satisfied if certain topics remain off the agenda,” Matto said.

Like the March for Our Lives movement, which turned an online social media campaign into marches across communities and cities throughout the country, there have been rallies demanding policy changes to curb the climate crisis.

“There’s a structure and organization to these movements that allow them to be successful and to endure,” Matto said.

To cap off her four years, Tone decided to join the Class of Zero movement and speak to the Morristown-Beard graduation audience about working toward a zero-carbon-emissions future.

“How often does a high school student get a captive audience of more than a thousand people just sitting there to make your message heard?” Tone said. She plans to study environmental policy at Georgetown University this fall, a decision inspired by immersing herself in learning more about climate change in the past four years.

Graduation speakers like Tone who signed up for the movement delivered the same prewritten commencement speech posted on the Class of Zero website.

“Our diplomas may say Class of 2019, but marked in history, we are the Class of Zero. Zero emissions. Zero excuses. Zero time to waste . And in unity, we’re giving 2020 political candidates a choice: Have a plan to get to zero emissions — or get zero of our votes,” part of the speech read.

“Students were struggling for a while trying to understand what it was that they could do other than share something on Facebook or a hashtag on Twitter,” Matto said. “I think it’s really smart to lay out an agenda that gives really specific instructions of things you can be doing that can be meaningful.”

Tone said the speech drew positive and negative feedback. Negative comments came from guests who were from more traditional and conservative backgrounds, she said.

“I could tell a lot of people were pretty uncomfortable and didn’t agree with what I was saying, but if anything, I think that inspired me even more, because if you’re just talking to people that agree with you then that’s great, but how much is going to get done?” Tone said.

Generation Z and millennials — the two youngest generations and soon-to-be largest eligible voting generations — share similar views on climate change, racial equality and other key issues in the upcoming elections. Generally speaking, the two generations believe there’s a link between human activity and climate change, while older voters are more skeptical, according to a Pew Research Center report.

Monmouth University Polling Institute found in November 2018 that two-thirds of Americans ages 18 to 34 see climate change as a “very serious” problem, compared with less than half of Americans age 55 and older.

Younger Americans are also more optimistic about preventing the worst effects of climate change and more likely to support government action on climate change, according to the poll results.

“The fact that young adults are interested not only in voting and elections but about influencing policy issues really is another indication of a generation that is more tuned in, interested and active when it comes to politics, elections and public policy,” Matto said.



Information from: The Record (Woodland Park, N.J.),