Zimmerman: Generation Z pushes for climate action through education in Santa Clara County
Youth stand with signs at a climate strike in 2019. File photo.

Elected officials or political pundits often refer to “future generations” when debating the negative social, political and economic consequences of climate change. This completely ignores the fact that climate change has been impacting us for years. And we know it.

Levels of eco- or climate anxiety have risen sharply in all age ranges, but most especially among youth. Their anxiety is warranted. Their future is being dictated, in large part, by the greed and inaction of generations past.

Peri Plantenberg is a student in the Fremont Union High School District. Three years ago, she read a news article about the report from the 2018 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. She told me that, “My only thought, rebounding over and over in my head was, ‘I’m just a kid. I can’t do anything. But the world isn’t doing anything either.’ I felt hopeless and scared.”

Plantenberg and other youth in the area have since channeled their anxiety into action. Plantenberg is now a youth leader with the Silicon Valley Youth Climate Action (SVYCA).

The SVYCA was founded in 2019 and presently has over 30 active youth leaders and hundreds of participants across the Silicon Valley region. According to co-founder and advisor Hoi Poon, the SVYCA empowers youth by “letting them make decisions with power and then supporting them with resources and guidance. This is the only way to create systematic change.” The approach is working, and the SVYCA has enjoyed several local successes.

Their state advocacy team led regional efforts to pass AB 841 which was signed into law in 2020. This law directs state energy efficiency funding up to $800 million to upgrade heating, air conditioning and ventilation systems in public schools, prioritizing schools in underserved communities.

This year, the team is working on supporting about 30 state bills related to climate/environment. Youth team co-leads presented and got endorsements of the bills from both the Silicon Valley Democratic Club (25 bills) and Santa Clara County Democratic Club (12 bills).

Members of the SVYCA have now turned their focus towards peer education. According to Plantenberg, “We didn’t feel that there was enough emphasis on what we can do about climate change. Schools didn’t universally cover the impacts on humans nor the urgency of the solution.”

Radhika Goel, one of the five curriculum coordinators with Plantenberg, noted that most students want to reduce the impacts of climate change, but don’t know how. Thus, the goal was to create a curriculum that appealed to their peers and then provide resources so that students felt empowered moving forward.

With the support of local school principals, SVYCA students created two one-hour videos that covered climate science, impact, urgency, solutions, careers, civic education and actions. These videos have already been seen by approximately 8,000 students, and SVYCA hope to share the videos with other school districts in the future.

Cupertino biology and AP environmental science teacher Andrew Goldenkranz, an advisor for the videos, said that they wanted to accomplished two things: “The first thing we want is to establish what the scientific data actually tells us. So, we have to ground ourselves in understanding the science and the world of data that leads to the climate models and phenomena we see.” The second and equally important thing was, “We need to build curriculum to train students to engage with decision makers, in government and business.” The climate crisis cannot be solved without building bridges across groups and interests.

The efforts and success of the SVYCA shows that the youth voice is powerful and that they are no longer willing to wait for elected officials and businesses to catch up to science. I consider their success an invitation for other members of the community to step up.

Climate change won’t be solved with individual actions such as recycling or taking the bus (though these don’t hurt). Instead, we must push for the systemic changes necessary to address the root causes of climate change.

Plantenberg had this advice for students (or anyone) motivated to act: “Ask for help. I promise, the climate movement is more powerful and multi-faceted than you know. Ask someone to introduce you to the climate sphere, and opportunities will surround you like oxygen.”

If you are interested in getting involved in the SVYCA, check out their website. If you are interested in learning how to get the educational materials created by SVYCA for your school district, please contact [email protected]

San José Spotlight columnist Erin Zimmerman is a Climate Reality Leader with the Climate Reality Project’s Silicon Valley Chapter. Erin, a long-time environmental and political activist, holds a PhD in political science. Her column appears every third Wednesday of the month. Contact Erin at [email protected].

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