From Urgency to Agency: Youth Leadership in the Age of Climate Awareness

By Jason Sandman

I’m grateful that our one year-old son received my wife’s good looks. He has her bright blue eyes and comforting smile. While our son Felix may be cute and charming, at 15 months, he’s also beginning to show a real aptitude for persistence. Particularly in the kitchen, baby proofing has only encouraged him to find a way to get in to spaces, climb up structures, and indirectly we’ve challenged him to create a space all his own.

He’s impatient. He’s demanding. He opens cupboards and climbs….In other words, he’s a toddler figuring out everyday life and the struggles that come with it. These soft skills will ultimately help him in life. But man, they are difficult to manage as a parent.

Still, these small trials — forced naps, not getting his way, not receiving immediate gratification — pale in comparison to what will be one of the greatest challenges of his generation: responding to a changed climate.

During his lifetime, he will bear witness to a disruption to crop production, increased air pollution, a longer and more intense allergy season, the spread of insect-borne diseases, more frequent and dangerous heat waves, and heavier rain-storms and flooding.

Like most parents, I want to know that I’m supporting my child and preparing him for his future. But I’ve realized that I struggle with the idea of how to prepare him for a future that I no little about. How can I possibly help him thrive in a world I know very little about?

Parenting, for me, is largely about action.

My son reminds me that young people, no matter what age, are capable of using their own curiosity, drive, and persistence in order to achieve what they want. I see it at home and I have become acutely aware of it over the last few weeks as I observe this younger generation commitment to solving perhaps the most urgent of all issues on our finite planet. Our youngest population is taking action to combat the climate crisis and honestly, I’m inspired.

For some young people, the neighborhood is their battlefield. For others, City Hall. And for a growing population, the streets of Washington DC.

I vividly recall observing the bravery, the courage, and the chutzpah of many young people — many whom are not legally allowed to vote — during the Climate March organized by Zero Hour as they trudged through a rainstorm in our political capital. Many of these young people arrived hours and days previous in order to get organized en masse. They advocated for their future and I was awestruck.

Observing this sense of purpose and drive, I was happily reminded of this amazing sense of agency and commitment to something larger than oneself. I don’t personally know any of these fierce advocates, but I sure was proud of them.

These young people didn’t create the climate crisis, but they aren’t letting that stop them. Little Warriors all over the United States, and indeed all over the world, will be quick to observe the environmental and biological feedback loops persistently challenging the systems we rely on for our needs. I know what I was doing during summer holidays in high school, and it wasn’t sacrificing them to convince leaders to act on climate.

This got me thinking about other critical populations who are strong, determined, and powerful forces. I’m an adult and I know I want to help.  Could I do more than send money? Could I use my greatest asset, my time, in order to really accelerate the outcomes we need to see? Will I live up to the goals I have set forth for myself as a parent? Can I also be a leader as our planet warms and climate changes? Besides our youth, who already appear to be strong leaders on this issue, what other groups and populations could be coalesced into a fierce, powerful, and competent force?

I believe a particular population, if brought together, organized, and supported while harnessing that same sense of agency as our youth, can then be a tremendous force in creating a thriving environment for our children. I helped co-create and launch Climate Dads because so many fathers, male caregivers, god-fathers and grandfathers like myself also want to give their children an environment where they can thrive, but may not know exactly what actionable steps they can take.

What if we created a space and platform for other fathers to help their children during the climate crisis? What would that look like exactly and how can it respond in a limited timeframe?

In what ways are you adapting, mitigating, or taking on a leadership role within your neighborhood or community in order to address climate change? Are you a father who wants to do more to help your child and/or children during the climate crisis?

Thankfully, if you take the time to look, you may be surprised at the profound sense of agency in our youngest generation. I’ve never felt more motivated to give my son a chance to thrive. Perhaps my wife and I don’t need to be so concerned by our sons behavior. What if these behaviors aren’t a problem. What if they are an opportunity? Is it likely the skills he is acquiring now will support him as he advocates, leads, and ultimately thrives in a rapidly changing climate?

Jason Sandman is always learning as a stay-at-home dad in Philadelphia, PA. He is also the Co-Founder of Climate Dads, a digital platform and movement that aims to support male caregivers during the climate transition.

He can be reached at Jason[at]ClimateDads[dot]org.

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