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Future Leaders Climate Summit

Addressing climate change has been the cornerstone of my academics at Duke, internships in Washington D.C., and volunteer experiences since high school. I’ve dedicated myself to learning about and advocating for innovative climate solutions ranging from clean energy and carbon pricing to habitat conservation and environmental peacebuilding. Yet, when faced with the question “Why does climate change matter to you,” I honestly didn’t know. I can certainly justify the importance of combating climate change: the problems which stem from inaction and the opportunities presented by forging a sustainable future. But, as I came across these words reading “Growing up in the Grassroots,” a book focused on finding unity in climate activism written by my friend Joy Reeves, I felt unsettled, confused, and desperate for clarity. How can I give my all to a cause and not even understand why I care about it in the first place?

Fortunately, the Future Leaders Climate Summit provided just the opportunity I needed to figure this out. In January, I was accepted to participate in a gathering of 100 top young climate leaders nationwide to generate new ideas and solutions to the climate crisis. Although the summit was scheduled to take place in Chicago in March, the Aspen Institute transitioned the event into a virtual format which took place last week. After spending many months looking for a job in the climate, clean energy, and conservation field, I was excited to take a step back from the search to learn from leaders in sustainability, connect with fellow advocates, and take action after developing a better grasp of why climate change matters so much to me.

The conference began with a warm welcome by staff at the Aspen Institute and a keynote address by an environmental justice advocate whom I was fortunate enough to connect with during my time at Duke. In the subsequent networking session, I felt a sense of comfort recognizing some names and reading “Durham, NC” as the home of multiple participants. The next day began with a session on “Intersectional Environmentalism,” bringing our identities to the forefront of our environmental advocacy. I enjoyed hearing about how my fellow participants felt inspired to protect their communities and the planet as a result of their race, gender, geographic origin, and socioeconomic background. Yet, as a white male who grew up in a middle class suburb of Washington D.C., I didn’t know how I fit into the conversation. The environmental movement has traditionally catered to people like myself, excluding many of the people who have most directly faced environmental injustice: polluted air, contaminated water, toxic land. As I contemplated the role I should play in a more inclusive environmentalism, I decided that I should seek to better understand the motivations and challenges faced by my peers. The speaker’s question, “if you can’t breathe, how can you thrive?” illustrated the human dimension of protecting the planet. Furthermore, I realized the importance of leveraging my own identity: as a Jew committed to “tikkun olam” (repairing the world), as an animal lover who became a vegetarian at the age of five, and an optimist who truly believes that anything is possible.

In the afternoon, I attended a session titled “Our Blue Marble,” highlighting the climate impacts and sustainable solutions within the world’s oceans. The speaker asked us to respond to three questions regarding this issue. First, what breaks your heart? After learning that plastic debris kills 1 million seabirds and 100,000 marine mammals annually, I wrote down animals choking on plastic, as well as those being killed by chemical runoff and resource extraction. Next, we brainstormed our ideal solutions which for me included reducing plastic waste, pesticide usage, offshore drilling, and coastal development. Finally, we were supposed to write down the unique skills and talents we can contribute. I began thinking about all the resources which I’m fortunate enough to have access to and how to mobilize them. This exercise helped me realize how many ecosystems can be protected through common-sense ocean policies, not to mention the billions of people who rely on the oceans as their primary source of protein. After hearing about the work of multiple ocean start-ups, I realized the key to addressing ocean issues was narrowing their scope to better recognize their impact in terms of animals saved, square miles protected, and water quality improvements.

The following day began with my favorite session: “The Business of Sustainability.” The speaker provided a comprehensive overview of sustainable finance from her work at a premier financial services company. In communicating with corporate leaders, she frames climate issues in terms of risks, efficiencies, and opportunities. This underscored the importance of catering to your audience. She explained how markets and policy must work together to promote the climate transition and inclusive growth. As countries commit to net zero emissions, companies which operate there must comply, a driving force behind ¼ of Fortune 500 corporations setting ambitious climate targets. She highlighted that climate-driven losses continue to accelerate, creating a financial incentive to act now. This sentiment reminded me of a part of the climate book I referenced earlier. It compared climate change to falling from building, accelerating as you get closer to the ground. The person may break their wrist or arm trying to latch onto a windowsill, but this is certainly the preferred outcome to falling flat on the pavement. Climate change will continue to worsen, and although there are costs associated with taking action, refusing to do so will cause irreparable harm with a significantly higher price tag. The session attempted to illustrate this reality with a map of southern Vietnam expected to be near completely underwater at high tide in the year 2050. If that’s difficult to visualize, then just imagine your favorite East Coast beach boardwalks disappearing. Rising sea levels and torrential flooding will cause countless people their homes and lives, putting economic development and national security in jeopardy. That’s why sustainable issuance debt such as green bonds have reached $1 trillion, as they are economically sensible investments.

After engaging intellectually in sustainability over the previous days, I decided to go experience the environment firsthand by going on a hike with Joy, the author of Growing Up in the Grassroots. As we trekked up Sugarloaf Mountain near Frederick, Maryland, we discussed many of the insights in her book. These included strategic lessons such as “argue to resolve, don’t argue to win,” “sometimes activism is about knowing when not to talk,” and “know what makes your challengers tick.” We also discussed the chapter on “protecting your patch.” As I read this section, I thought it made perfect sense; people are most equipped to preserve the places they feel most connected to. Once again, I began to examine my own motives, considering where really is “my patch” and what should I do to safeguard it.

The final day of the summit began with a session titled “The Entrepreneur in You.” The speaker posed to us a set of three questions to consider as we work on our particular cause. 1) Why is this important, right now? 2) Why is this important to me, right now? 3) Why am I the right person to be doing this work, right now? I thought through this line of questioning for a variety of environmental issues, ranging from forest conservation to bipartisan carbon dividend legislation. To inspire us as future entrepreneurs and intrapreneurs (innovating from within), the speaker stated that “all change started with one voice in one room.” As people expressed concern with making their “ask” for someone’s time, money or vote, we were advised with the following: “don’t let anxiety about asking prevent you from creating a more just and equitable world.” Put in those terms, the benefits clearly outweigh the risks. In the final session, we were each asked “Recognizing that there are many challenges that your community may be facing, what specific challenge resonates most with you and why?” 

This question brought back the uncertainty with which I began the conference because I no longer know where or what “my community” is. Throughout the past four years, Duke University and the North Carolina Triangle region had been my community. From opposing a new natural gas plant and supporting the Durham-Chapel Hill Light Rail, to becoming a leader in Duke Environmental Alliance and Citizens’ Climate Lobby, I had a strong connection to the place which my advocacy was geared towards. Hiking at Eno River State Park, biking on the American Tobacco Trail, or walking in the Duke Gardens was all I needed to remember why I was so dedicated to protecting the environment, because it was my home. Now that I’ve graduated college and am preparing for the next stage, I’m realizing the importance of embracing the process of discovering my new “patch,” enabling my environmental interests to grow and evolve.

It is with these thoughts that I submitted my conference Pledge Card: “I pledge to do my best to help save lives. While climate change can sometimes feel abstract, distant, and overwhelming, I will utilize my knowledge and resources to make a positive impact on the planet and its inhabitants. I plan to further explore the “why” of my engagement and activism. As my interests continue to evolve, I will remain committed to the environmental movement as a whole and support fellow environmentalists in their endeavors.” I’m often reminded that “it’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey.” Rather than yearning for a singular “aha” moment about why climate change matters so much to me, I’ve realized there are countless important reasons to act, and I should instead focus on following my passions wherever they may lead.

Thank you to the Aspen Institute’s Energy and Environment Program and each of its staff members for their hard work in putting together the Future Leaders Climate Summit. I’m very grateful to have participated in this inaugural event and look forward to staying connected with this diverse, dedicated, and ambitious community.