In this episode, five Pittsburgh high school students from Girl Scout Troop 55286 discuss the uncomfortable truths about climate change and environmental justice activism for teens — and how their peers and parents can help raise awareness.
Jourdan Hicks: They could be recycling your Christmas tree right now. Or perhaps researching the link between palm oil extraction and trefoil cookies. But on one recent wintry day, five Pittsburgh High School students who make up Troop 55286 sat with me to discuss the urgency of climate change in their teen lives and for their future. At the Carnegie Library-East Liberty Branch, Amalia, Lucy, Lilliana, Quill and Grace are environmental activists. They act in defense of the resources on planet Earth that impact your quality of life.
Jourdan: I’m Jourdan Hicks and this is From the Source. Most of these young people have had a close relationship with environmental concepts and climate justice conversations since they were kids.
Quill Boyle: I’m Quill. I go to Obama and I’m in 11th grade. Something that partially got me into it is just my dad. He’s a big environmental activist. Both my parents are big activists. I think he was like one of the people who started the CCL chapter, Citizen’s Climate Lobby. He just has talked about climate change a lot, so it’s just kind of like something that was partially there growing up. I think climate justice is like trying to keep our planet alive and making sure that everything that is in danger is safe.
Jourdan: Quill volunteers with two environmental justice groups, Pittsburgh Youth Climate Action and the Pittsburgh Youth Climate Coalition.
Quill: This year it’s definitely a lot more youth leading the group conversation and getting stuff happening a little bit more. It was made by students for students. It’s mainly like connecting each environmental club in high schools, mainly to like, kind of like work together and create a space to support each other in the things that we’re doing as schools. To create a protest in Pittsburgh, to make sure that we were holding those officials accountable and stuff.
Grace Glowczewski: I’m Grace. I go to CAPA and I’m a senior. I definitely got into environmental justice because of my parents, especially my mom. I’ve always been vegetarian not only because I’m sad about animals, but because it’s so bad for the environment.
Jourdan: Grace’s mom, Elizabeth, is the group’s leader.
Grace: So like every decision that my mom has made has been so conscious and good about being environmentalists on all fronts, like the personal front and the lobbying and everything about that. And also Girl Scouts, like we’ve been just taught to love our Earth so much. Like we go on hikes and, and like that has just been so ingrained into my childhood and like who I am. The Earth means a lot to me on a personal level. So that means like I will go to lengths to protect it. As youth, this is a particularly important issue because we are the most affected by it, but we have the least say in it. We are not able to go into Congress and make laws. We are not able to vote, most of us. We’re not able to buy our own groceries and make sure we’re getting organic foods. We’re not able to put solar panels on our bodies. Like we are only able to have conversations and educate ourselves. And I feel like as we get older, it’s our responsibility to educate younger people.
Lilliana Watling: I’m Lilliana. I go to City of Bridges and I’m in 12th grade. I guess in a nutshell, it’s just like you’re defending the environment because the people that are in charge of the laws that are being made in the world that we live in don’t really seem to think about the fact that if they make the mistakes or like the decisions that they continue to make and they act like basically like the world is this kind of like stress ball that they can just squeeze and squeeze and squeeze and squeeze and it will just go back to normal — that’s not how it works. Like the more that you kind of, I guess, squeeze the earth for its resources, those resources will not come back and there will be consequences that, like, we cannot come back from, and environmental justice is people just trying to make that known and trying to get people to listen to us, basically.
Amalia Glowczewski: I’m Amalia. I’m in ninth grade and I go to Pittsburgh CAPA. I think environmental justice is making decisions that are just not only for our own society, but for every society and our environment, other animals, other wildlife, the whole environment that we’re living in and have a better world for ourselves and also everything living in it.
Lucy Stewart: I’m Lucy. I’m in 11th grade and I go to City of Bridges high school. A big part of environmental justice is holding massive corporate polluters responsible. We have a history of that in Pittsburgh. It is possible just looking at Pittsburgh’s history. So yeah, a big point for me in environmental justice is that holding corporate polluters responsible.
Grace: As a Girl Scout troop, basically we decided that we felt uncomfortable selling Girl Scout cookies because they had palm oil in them that were from an unsustainable source. And palm oil is a huge reason why deforestation happens in the Amazon. And we were originally concerned about orangutan lives, but not only orangutans are being affected by it. So it seems like a huge issue. Like we went to Girl Scouts and we were like, this is something we are not comfortable supporting, but instead of just deciding not to sell, that would make a very small impact. But we went to Girl Scouts and we were like: This is the problem. Like this is the solution. And like, we want to see change.
And although nothing has actually happened yet, there are still people, like we mobilized Girl Scouts around the country and kind of got the issue out there, proposed a solution. So we’re creating sustainable change.
Jourdan: Still, the challenge of climate change feels monumental when you are 16, 17, 18 years old and staring down a future of rising sea levels and extreme weather.
Lilliana: With environmental justice, it definitely feels like there’s not a lot you can do. And even with, like, letter-writing and protest, it still doesn’t feel like there’s a lot that you can do or like a lot that you can actually accomplish. Which isn’t fun for sure, but all you can do in trying to be an environmental activist is do your best. I think something that a lot of people end up focusing on is like, oh, if you do, if you stop littering and throw your trash away or if you start recycling and being conscious about that, then you’re going to make a big difference when it’s like, oh, that’s only one person, and we shouldn’t really be shaming people for choices that it might be their only choice in order to do that. Like. It’s definitely not an individual issue. But like companies, companies and policy-makers need to be better about what they’re doing. Something that we can do is try our best to influence those companies and lawmakers.
Jourdan: When teens think about climate change, they feel anxious, afraid and helpless. That’s according to an EdWeek Research Center survey published in December, where teens were presented with a list of 11 emotions ranging from angry to optimistic to uninterested and asked to select all the emotions they associate with climate change and the effects. Lilliana says with everything else going on in the world, teens have to compartmentalize.
Lilliana: So that you’re not thinking about it 24/7 because a lot of times what I think will happen is that people will hear about this issue and they’ll get so bogged down by it that they just won’t even try and look at all that. There’s nothing I can do, so why do anything at all. So it’s one of those things where it’s you have to able to think about it, but it cannot eat up all of your day because then you’ll just end up being, like, really sad and like, I don’t know, it’s like, it’s not productive. Your depression is not productive. So simply smile.
Amalia: I agree with Lilliana in saying that what people are saying is that a lot of the responsibility for where our environment is at now is like big companies and corporations. And then when you are an individual, it feels like you can’t do anything. But instead of just kind of leaving it up to them, unfortunately, it’s kind of you have to take matters into your own hands and not by yourself. Also, the greatest thing with the palm oil, we were able to start a group and talk to people around the world. And so, like changing your toothbrush might not be that big of a change personally, but it’s like if a lot of people do that or if a lot of people are aware of an alternative or choose an alternative, it makes a larger impact and then corporations will notice more.
Jourdan: I feel like we’re all complicit in something like, I don’t know where this T-shirt was made. I got it at Target. I feel like, I don’t know, Target. I don’t know if it was sourced sustainably or not. I have no clue.
Lucy: We all have, I think, big opinions on this topic specifically about fashion and what it is like. I think that I think the biggest thing is like not about, like, where you’re consuming from, but how much you are consuming. Like back to the thing where, like, people were buying from things like that that fit their lifestyle, it fits their budget. There’s a lot of classism, I think, in environmental justice and I think the thing to look at is like how much you’re consuming, I guess more where you’re buying from.
Amalia: I kind of disagree with you. I mean, I agree with the like how much you’re consuming and the amount is definitely an issue. But I think you’re right. It’s like a very classist issue. And people who can afford cheap high end if that’s where they can get a lot of clothing, that’s where they want to buy, right? And then rich people can buy from brands where they have clothing that lasts longer. See, they’re not throwing it away, but it’s not available to everyone. Then it seems like I can’t afford like a really nice, sustainable brand because the shirt is $200 and it’s just like a cycle. So I’m not really sure how.
Lilliana: And I think of people like Gwyneth Paltrow who are very like, oh, like I am this like hippie of the Earth, like I love crystals and like, I would never hurt the Earth when it’s like you’re literally charging like $60 for, like, products that, l don’t know how you source them, but like it’s a little bit like it’s good that there are these people who are like saying online, like, oh, I support this issue, but most of the time there isn’t any action behind that and they’re getting like a lot of credit and it’s good because like people are more aware of it, but it’s also like the people that should be at the head of this should be the people that are actually like doing things, making changes, and that are also showing other people how they can make change in a way that is more realistic for their lives, if that makes sense.
Amalia: The way we find our views is on our social media and through political ads. I think that’s a very skewed way of looking at it.
Amalia: And kind of you’re fed opinions. I think the way we should do it is that we learn these things and then create a community of it.
Lucy: I completely agree because I think social media and like TikTok and like other short-form content, it does not allow us to think critically enough about this stuff.
Lilliana: What Lucy and Amalia were saying, is TikTok and Instagram, like, they are good for raising awareness, but it’s not really the best for educating you about like certain issues because it is a lot of, ‘The world is going to end in like two years type of stuff.’ A lot of the stuff that is posted on TikTok and Instagram about climate change is definitely useful and I like follow accounts that talk about it, but I think it’s also one of those things where it is more base level and it’s for people who are just beginning. I think there’s like, as you continue going, you learn that like this is a very multifaceted issue. There are a lot of things going on. It’s one of those things where it’s very easy for brands and people like that to be like, oh yeah, we’re for environmental justice. They’ll say things, and it’s like oh, this is great. I can support them now, but you have to also like being in, like doing work and being in environmental justice. It does take quite a bit of time because you do have to do research on certain things and like where you’re getting like certain things from and like that is a hard thing to do and it takes a lot of time.
Amalia: I think we have this kind of view on climate justice and climate change as a very opinionated and political thing where it has a [political] party or whatever. Media you consume, you get a certain view on climate change or whatever party you associate with or like city you live in, you have this view of climate change. I think educating is such an important thing when it comes to making people feel empathetic for other people. Even just having a class about how it affects other people would be so helpful because then you’re not forcing yourself to consume it, but you have to do that in an education curriculum. It teaches people about it instead of making them search it out for themselves.
Lilliana: Can I just say something really quickly? So, at Obama, I don’t want to name the teacher, so I’m not gonna. There is a science teacher at our school who does not believe in climate change. He’s a science teacher.
Grace: As we get older, it’s our responsibility to educate younger people and I’m seeing like my teachers are starting like they’re coming into the generation where they’re educated. Like my government teacher had us learn about the ways to sue the government. We watched a documentary on these 21 plaintiffs suing the government. We learn so much about the government, but we also learned so much about environmental justice. That wasn’t the point of the lesson, but everyone in that room walked away with a new, like, perspective. So any type of education and conversation that we can have with our peers or with our teachers or with our parents, that is the biggest impact we can currently have.
Lilliana: I know with my parents, like I talk with them and I have like conversations with them, and if they were just sitting me down like telling me like, you need to care about this… The adults need to be open to hearing what kids have to say because it’s this thing that happens a lot where it’s like the people will be like, oh, we’re like, if you’re like worried about this, you should be doing something to change it. But then when we bring it up and we talk about it, they’re like, oh, you’re young, you don’t know what you’re talking about. So it’s this like if you want to be able to talk to younger generations or just like your own kid about what’s going on, you have to treat them with respect and like it’s a discussion and it’s not a lecture.
Quill: I think with conversations between peers or like people maybe who are like older than you, but you’re talking to them about climate change, I think that it’s a very difficult conversation to have no matter who’s having it because it’s hard to convince someone. Oh, yeah. There’s unfortunately not a lot we can do, but you kind of have to try. It’s very hard to talk about climate change, like explaining it in, like, a personal way to someone when most of the personal ways are very discouraging. Like, it’s like if one way that you can connect with someone is that you know that they really like chocolate, for example, like this is a kind of a silly example, but also kind of not like because of climate change, I believe like chocolate might not be around Depending on like certain stages of climate change, I guess. So it’s just kind of like, oh yeah, chocolate won’t be around in a couple of years. Do you want to try to do something about it? It’s hard to connect with people when talking about climate change and they think like I don’t know the best way to talk to someone about it, but maybe just talking about the ways that you’re passionate about it. It’s hard to make it relevant to someone when the only relevant way is bad ways or like bad things that are going to happen.
Jourdan: After my interview with Troop 55286, I walked away with the following:
Climate change is going to climate change. As long as there’s corporate-level reliance on the extraction and burning off of fossil fuels, we’re going to continue to see long-term shifts in temperatures and weather patterns.
Having individual eco-friendly habits like recycling, turning off the lights when you’re not in a room, conserving energy, biking instead of driving — they’re helpful but not super impactful against the effects of global pollution, deforestation and CO2 production.
Jourdan: Environmental justice is a personal commitment to being woke about your personal contributions to climate change and facing the reality that people and companies not observing the needs of the environment are doing the most harm and making it harder for personal efforts to matter. It’s about sticking with it even in the face of future predictions for our planet.
There are countless organizations in our region who want to engage the public on issues of environmental justice, teens and adults. There’s Communitopia, Tree Pittsburgh, Green Building Alliance, Pittsburgh Youth Climate Action and Pittsburgh Youth Climate Coalition.
Parents can do their part by starting the conversation early. All the scouts were introduced to environmental justice at a young age and exposed as kids to what it meant to have a kind relationship with the planet and with the animals we share the planet with.
Doing so could set them up to be more conscious about environmentalism as they become adults.
Season four of From The Source Podcast is produced, reported and hosted by me, Jourdan Hicks. Halle Stockton is our editor-in-chief. Story editing, sound design and mixing by Liz Reid of Jeweltone Productions.
We continue to interview young people for the podcast as we speak. If you’re curious to learn how you can share your story with us, or nominate a young person, ages 13 to 18 to appear on an episode of From the Source, you can get in touch with me by sending me an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
PublicSource is an independent nonprofit newsroom in Pittsburgh, Pa. You can find all of our reporting and storytelling at Publicsource.org.
I’m Jourdan Hicks. Stay safe. Be well.
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