On September 20th, 2019, thousands of Vermonters of all ages walked out of class and walked out of work to protest inaction of our global leaders in the face of climate change. This day sparked something in Vermont’s youth—it was the beginning of a new movement.
Inspired by the Youth Climate Strike, 171 young Vermonters convened at the Statehouse for the first ever Vermont Youth Climate Congress. These student delegates hailed from 43 middle schools, high schools, colleges, and one law school (Vermont Law, of course). The idea to hold Vermont’s first Youth Climate Congress grew from a desire to do something more than protest – a desire to create that which students felt Vermont’s Legislators have thus far failed to do. Thus, on November 17th, 2019, Vermont’s next generation of voters and leaders drafted, amended, and unanimously passed the Young Vermonters United Climate Declaration.
The Congress was organized by Vermont Youth Lobby, and spearheaded by two incredible young women who are currently high school seniors. Planning for the Congress had been underway for weeks – the Environmental Law Society (ELS) at Vermont Law became involved a month before the Congress took place. Representatives from ELS joined Youth Lobby members as well as staff from VPIRG at planning meetings every two weeks leading up to the Congress, were up late into the night on conference calls with the organizers the week of the event, and drafted much of the language of the Declaration, as well as multiple memos on Climate Justice, Resilience, and Infrastructure.
As organizers of a brand new event that had never been experimented with before—gathering almost 200 students of ages 11 to 25 in a statehouse to pass a complicated declaration on the climate emergency—participants had no idea what to expect from the Congress. The day opened with inspiring remarks from you young organizers, followed by a roll call of the schools, and a statement acknowledging the that the land upon which the Statehouse sits belongs to the Abenaki tribe.
Participants then broke into small committee sessions to discuss, consider and amend the language of the Declaration. The topics of the Committees were Transportation, Energy, Climate Justice, Just Transition to a Green Resilient Economy, and Agriculture. The expectation was for Committee Chairs to discuss the relevant solutions in the Declaration and to answer any questions that the younger delegates might have – what actually happened was incredible. Every single Committee discussed the content of the solutions and the issues Vermont needs to tackle, and every Committee amended the language of document with precision and attention to detail. For example, the Agriculture Committee payed specific attention to the economic struggle Vermont farmers face in tackling climate change, and thus amended the language to provide “economic incentives and educational support” for farmers as they respond to climate change. To see a sixth grader in heated debate with a college junior over the use of the term “regenerative agriculture” instead of “sustainability” was to find hope that the next generation of leaders is prepared for the issues they—we—face.
The day ended, unexpectedly, on the steps of the Statehouse after the building had to be evacuated. Students cried a resounding, unanimous “Aye!” to pass the Young Vermonters United Climate Declaration as amended in committee.
The Congress was more than a cry for action; it was a celebration of empowerment. Young students acknowledged the impact that they can have upon a system that often labels them as too young or too inexperienced to participate. Students were angry, but hopeful; frustrated but inspired. This inspiration caught the attention of many Vermonters: Senator Bernie Sanders said of the event:
Young people understand all too well that they will be the generation most affected by the devastating consequences of climate change . . . . I am especially proud of young Vermonters for keeping up the fight . . . [and] I am enormously pleased to see the tremendous leadership from young people in Vermont and beyond.
The Youth Climate Congress marks the beginning of a new wave of youth organizing and action in response to climate change. The delegates will convene again in early January to present the Young Vermonters United Climate Declaration to the Legislature and to demand action. Vermont’s youth are a model for the rest of the country. They are taking a stand and demanding action: the Declaration sets forth that “the people who have the power to make these decisions will not be around to face the consequences of inaction, and that is why we, the youth, demand to be heard.” These inspiring, intelligent, and resilient leaders will fight until our state and nation act. As the Declaration concludes: “we are facing an urgent and unprecedented global emergency. Vermont must play a role in the fight to end climate injustice, and as its youth we are demanding that our government do their part.”