Climate Change and Student Activism

Hello! My name is Janina Troper and I’m a junior at Menlo School. (That’s me on the right!) This year I decided to take a GOA course called Climate Change and Global Inequalities, where I was inspired by my teacher, fellow students, and materials to do something to fight against climate change. Please keep reading if you’re interested in the ways I used student activism at my school to bring awareness to climate change and challenge my school to live in a more eco friendly manner. Thank you!

Let’s Get Started!

We hear the words “climate change” often: in articles, classes, conversations, documentaries, jokes, books…practically everywhere. But many people still don’t fully understand what climate change is and how it’s created.

If you don’t know a lot about climate change, you may be thinking:

Is it just the climate changing, like winter to fall? Is this why there are so many pictures of lonely polar bears on melting icebergs? Is the world getting hotter? How do electric cars come in the picture?

So then….what is Climate Change?

The world’s climate has been constantly changing since the beginning of time: no one year is the same as the next. Over years, global temperatures can rise and fall dramatically. However, the current period of warming is occurring at a significantly quicker rate than naturally expected. This increase in the natural global warming is what we call climate change.

How is Climate Change created?

This drastic heating has been proven by scientists to be directly related to humans. In its Fifth Assessment Report, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change concluded there’s a 95% probability that human activities over the past 50 years have warmed our planet. Scientists began noticing humans influencing the climate since the Industrial Revolution.

A brief history lesson on the Industrial Revolution: The industrial era began from around 1760 to sometime during the mid to late 19th century. During this time, the transcontinental railroad, the cotton gin, electricity, and other valuable inventions were created, turning agricultural societies more industrialized and urban.

The inventions created during the Industrial Revolution and the process of building them, marked the beginning of humans emitting greenhouse gases into the atmosphere by industrial means.

What are greenhouse gases?

Greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide and methane, when released into the atmosphere create an effect known as the Greenhouse Effect, which is the cause global warming. The Greenhouse Effect is when the greenhouse creates a “blanket” over Earth, trapping in Earth’s heat. As you can see in the diagram below, rays from the Sun travel down to the Earth where they are re-emitting to the atmosphere. The greenhouse gases in the atmosphere deflect these rays back down to the Earth, only letting a few of the rays back out into space. Essentially, the more greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, the harder it is for heat to escape the Earth, the warmer the world gets.

Electricity–one of the inventions of the Industrial Revolution that was used to power the other inventions–can be created with a process that involves burning fossil fuels (such as oil, coal, and natural gas). When fossil fuels are burned, greenhouse gases are released into the atmosphere. These gases add to the Greenhouse Effect, as previously explained.

Although we have found some cleaner alternatives (meaning they’re more environmentally friendly), we continue to rely on burning fossil fuels for electricity today. Electricity is necessary in today’s world: we use it for lighting, heating, cooling, refrigeration, industrial appliances, electronics, machinery, and transportation. I’m sure you can recognize at least four of those electricity appliances that you use on an everyday basis. Harnessing electricity has significantly developed our world into a more efficient and industrialized world; however, it has also been the cause of billions of tons of greenhouse gases that are currently in our atmosphere.

Climate change is not only created through the burning of fossil fuels, but it is also created with:

1.Gasses emitting from landfills,

2. Deforestation

3. Industrialized Farming of Animals

The Earth’s climate can also be affected by natural causes, such as changes in volcanic activity, solar output, and the Earth’s orbit around the Sun.

However, as you can see in the graph below from the United States Environmental Protection Agency, human influences on climate change account for a large amount of global warming.

How is climate change affecting our world today?

According to NASA, since the 1880s, the average global surface temperature has risen about 1º Celsius. This number doesn’t seem like a lot… but to put that in perspective, during the Ice Age, the Earth’s average temperature was about 4ºC colder than pre-industrial times. If 4ºC makes a pretty big climate difference, so will 1ºC.

And that 1ºC already has made a difference: the warmer climate has caused ice caps to melt, sea levels rise, more extreme weather (longer droughts, more potent floods, more intense hurricanes etc.), more heat waves, more droughts. In turn, these effects have resulted in shifting wildlife populations and habitats, agricultural instability, wrecked towns and houses, and more. Here is a viral video of a starving polar bear scrounging for food on ice-free land, exposing the harsh impacts climate change has on wildlife.

Mother nature is screaming out in agony: her ice is melting, wildlife is dying, habitats are destroyed, food is limited. Yet, humans continues spewing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, as many countries and people refuse to take action on this crisis.

Even though our world may seem on the verge of collapse, there have some ingenious solutions to help fight against climate change.

What have people done to combat climate change?

There have been countless advances to help fight against global warming. From discovering new renewable energy sources to educating women, people from around the world have been working towards a creating cleaner world.

In December 2015, 195 countries signed the Paris Agreement Act, the first-ever universal, legally binding global climate deal. By signing this agreement, countries set out on pursuing national goals to reduce their contributions to climate change. These goals include promises to reduce emissions of critical greenhouse gases, and strategies to reach these goals can range from converting to renewable energy sources to planting forests. For example, one of Canada’s Paris targets is cutting emissions to 30% below 2005 levels by 2030. The agreement sets out a global action plan to limit global warming below 2ºC, and ultimately help the world reach a zero-emission state to avoid disastrous climate change effects.

Some popular renewable energy sources.

Since burning fossil fuels to harness energy is one of the greatest human contributors to global warming, people have explored, discovered, and implemented clean, renewable energy sources. Some of these successful sources include: solar power, wind power, hydropower, nuclear power, hydrogen and fuel cells, geothermal power, biomass, and more. Many of these sources are renewable, unlike fossil fuels, which means that they can be replenished in a lifetime.

Many solutions to climate change, like finding renewable energy sources and the Paris Agreement, seem too big for the average individual to help with. Many people, therefore, have a mindset that they’re too small to make a tangible difference, and feel helpless to this crisis. Now, this is where my project comes in.

How can an individual help with the fight against climate change?

As cliché as it sounds, I believe that everyone can make a difference in the fight against climate change. Specifically, I believe that teenagers can make a HUGE impact. Climate change isn’t going to greatly affect the people sitting in the government, it isn’t going to affect my parents, my teachers, my grandparents, or anyone above the age of 40. Global warming is going to affect the young people, my generation, my children’s generation. The youth are the ones who will see animals go extinct, trees die off, oceans get polluted, air get unhealthy, the arctic melt, not older generations. It’s up to us to take change, demand action, and live in the most eco-friendly manner we possibly can. And it’s time to start now.

In fact, the youth have already begun to voice their opinions and concerns. Youth-led efforts like the Sunrise Movement, the Youth Climate Strike and the lawsuit Juliana v. United States have pushed climate change into discussion for policy makers, and the rest of society. One of the most well known climate activists in the media today is 16-year-old Greta Thunberg. Thunberg gained media attention after the story of her protesting on the steps of the Swedish parliament in Stockholm during school hours every day for nearly three weeks.

Students from around the world have converged their efforts to make a statement on climate change and demand climate justice. Now the question is, how can you and I take part in this world wide fight?

What did I do to make a difference?

My Climate Change Awareness Club! (I am in the front with the turquoise T-shirt, looking overly excited) As you can see there is plastic on the table, which we used to make a collage of the Earth.

I set out to use student activism to educate my local community. I started small: I formed a club called Climate Change Awareness Club. The first meeting only had around 5 people attending, but after the fourth and fifth meeting, it grew to 10 and 15. What I started noticing with the increasing number of people coming to my meetings was that students wanted to make a difference. Students are interested in their future and their environment’s future!

In my club, I planned on educating my members, empowering them to make a difference in their lifestyle, and showing them what they can personally do to make a difference.

One of the first thing I did in my club was challenge my fellow members to go an entire week without plastic. Plastic is a resource that is created with petroleum, a limited substance that is environmentally harmful to drill for, and ends up killing marine life and polluting our oceans. The winner of the challenge, the person who used the least amount of plastic, would win a bamboo toothbrush. The following video is members of my club “vlogging” about their plastic-free experience throughout the week.

After this experience, I decided to target a bigger audience: my entire school. I gave a presentation in front of the entire faculty and high school on the effects of climate change, and the role food waste has in it. This presentation allowed me to educate my community in solutions climate change, which in itself is one of the most effective solutions to global warming that I can personally do.

Here’s a quick summary of my presentation:

Almost 95% of all US food waste ends up in landfills. Landfills release tons and tons of methane (CH4) into the atmosphere, a chemical that is 30 times more potent than carbon dioxide (CO2), the chemical released from compost. Because landfills sit days after days without bioturbators such as worms, and microorganisms, landfills develop into anaerobic—oxygen free—environments. Anaerobic conditions are the perfect habitat for methane-producing microbes, causing landfills to become the third largest source of human-caused greenhouse gases in the US. Not only does food waste produce greenhouse gases as it decomposes, but all the producing, processing, packaging, shipping, storing, picking up and cooking that it takes to bring food to a table are all wasted when food is thrown away. Compost, on the other hand, has an aerobic environment—an environment with oxygen—because unlike landfills, compost contains bioturbators likes worms, and microorganisms that mix oxygen into the waste. With an aerobic process of decomposing, methane-producing microbes are not active, and hence, no methane is released. Instead, composting converts organic material into stable soil carbon, while retaining water and nutrients of the original waste matter. According to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, ⅓ of all food produced globally is wasted or lost. Many food suppliers, markets, and restaurants throw out the “ugly”—as in misshapen or blemished—food they grow or purchase.

Here are the slides I used for my presentation:

So what can be done about this problem at my school?

Instead of throwing everything–food, plastic water bottles, plastic forks, popsicle wrappers, mini peanut butter/jelly containers–away into the trash can, I asked my school to put out a compost bin, trash can, and recycling bin. I made a poster explicitly stating what materials in my school’s cafeteria can go into which bins (look at picture below).

Making sure every student is able to successfully identify which bin their waste can go into deters more matter from going into landfills and releasing methane. I reached out to the company that collects my school’s trash, Recology, to ask them about which plastic forks, popsicle wrappers, mini peanut butter/jelly containers–away into the trash can, I asked my school to put out a compost bin, trash can, and recycling bin. I made a poster explicitly stating what materials in my school’s cafeteria can go into which bins. Making sure every student is able to successfully identify which bin their waste can go into deters more matter from going into landfills and releasing methane. I reached out to the company that collects my school’s trash, Recology, to ask them about

  1. Can flimsy plastic (like a popsicle wrapper) go into the recycling bin?
  2. Can anything with food go into the recycling bin? (like a hard plastic container of peanut butter, with remnants of peanut butter in them.)
  3. Should liquids in plastic bottles be emptied before thrown in the recycling bin?
  4. Are plastic straws too small to be recycled?
  5. Can glass be thrown in a recycling bin?
  6. What fraction of the compost bin has to be valid compostable materials for Recology to accept it as compost? What happens to the contents of the bin if it surpasses that percentage? (Are all the contents thrown into the trash?)

The answer to the last question I asked shocked me. Here’s what they said:

“If there are visible contaminates, the whole container would have to be serviced as garbage along with a fee.”

This answer gave me even more motivation to educate students on throwing their waste in the right bin, since one student’s uneducated decision can impact the rest of the school’s, and ultimately our environment.

I also game-ified the food waste issue: I created the Clean Plate Challenge, which I introduced to my school during my presentation. In this challenge, every student from each grade has to throw their food waste into their designated grade’s bin. (There were four bins: one for 9th grade, 10th grade, 11th grade, and 12th grade) Everyday, I would mark where the food waste filled up to on the bin with duct tape, challenging each grade to lower their food waste below the line the next day. I also took pictures of each grade’s food waste one day and emailed these images to the rest of the school. This way, students can understand that small pieces or crust or the couple chicken tender on everyone’s plate truly does add up to a revolting amount of waste. Here are the pictures I took:

Freshman’s food waste
Sophomore’s food waste
Junior’s food waste
Senior’s food waste

Each student in the winning grade got tickets to a Climate Change conference, hosted by a organization called Planet Home, in September. The conference will have famous artists performing and technology such as VR that will show how climate change will affect our future. Here’s the link to Planet Home if this event interests you!

My Call to Action

Student activism works. If you have an idea, your voice will be heard. You don’t need to be a government official, or a scientist, or even an adult to make a difference. You just need to have an idea, and a motive to pursue it.

Image result for student activism

The time to fight against climate change is now, and I urge the other teenagers in the world to advocate for climate action in their community. I’m just an ordinary student at my school with no student body position or high statues, yet I used student activism to raise awareness and educate students on the world wide crisis of climate change. So I now challenge you: start a club, write a blog, put up posters, challenge your school, question the authority, do everything in your power to make a statement about climate change and disrupt habits.

According to Al Gore, an American politician and environmentalist who served as the 45th vice president of the United States, we’re in danger of losing 50% of all the living species on earth by the end of this century. If we don’t stand up and make some drastic changes now, our world is going to face irreversible, destructive events that will leave our Earth unfit for life. It’s time to change, and you can make that happen!

Thank you so much for reading my Catalyst Project. I hope you learned about climate change were motivated to make a difference in your community!

If you have a spare minute, please fill out this super quick google form to communicate your thoughts to me. 🙂

Works Cited link HERE

Share this project
  1. April 25, 2019 by Zoe Herlick

    Hi Janina! Wow, this is an awesome project. It was really interesting reading about your club, and the week without plastic challenge sounds very interesting. It is really inspiring that you got up in front of the entire school to talk about climate change and the little things they could do to help! I commend you for your efforts and passion, I can’t wait to see what you continue to do! (:

  2. April 28, 2019 by Vivian.Fong

    Janina, this is such an amazing project. I love your call to action, not only did you started a club but also educated your entire school about climate change and also set up recycling bins for waste at your school. This is so inspiring, especially since this is a topic i’m interested and passionate in as well. You mention that the younger generations can make a huge impact, but since it may be harder for younger children to understand, what are some simplified ways we can teach them about this issue?

  3. April 28, 2019 by Efrain.Andrade Cuellar

    Hi Janina!
    What I particularly liked about your project is that you took it beyond the presentation and raising awareness requirement, you actually did some work on the field that had an IMPACT (!!!), how crazy cool is that! I love innovative thinkers like you, we must revolutionize to evolve and what you did with this project is redefine what it means to make a Catalyst Conference presentation, truly admirable! I loved your trash poster in which you could effectively explain to and educate others about the types of trash that can / can not be composted, sometimes we don’t change our habits because we don’t know how to or why.

  4. April 30, 2019 by Sandeepa

    Hi Janina! Your presentation was so so so motivational for me. I really enjoyed how you went beyond what this presentation had asked for and already started an initiative with students in your high school who feel the same as you about climate change is an extremely important issue to raise awareness on. I think it’s so nice of you to really dive deep into different aspects of your life in school and at home, collecting trash and categorizing them or initiating a plastic-free week, this is so cool! I would love to know more about your future ideas on how you continue to raise awareness in your community!

  5. May 02, 2019 by Georgia.Farmer

    Hi Janina! Your presentation is very motivational and encouraging, but what I also appreciate is how you have demonstrated exactly what a student can do towards climate change. Personally, I often feel that I can’t have any impact on my environment, but seeing how you have impacted your school, shows just what I am able to do. I think your project took courage and dedication, taking on your school community and creating a fun and new initiative towards preventing further climate change! I would love to hear any ideas of yours which include a greater population in the fight against Climate Change!

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