A call to action: My experience at the inaugural Harvard Chan C-Change Youth Climate Summit

The latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, released on August 9, is a stark and drastic call to action, providing eye-opening data and a “verdict” on the future of humanity. From California to Ipswich, our climate stories of dedication, perseverance, and perception differ.

My newly found friend told me she was the voice for climate change in her Montana town of 300 people. Her school system lacked a climate change unit, or even an acknowledgment of the crisis. Educating herself on the subject, she registered her community for a climate strike on Fridays For Future, but only two people showed up. At 15 years old, she continues to fight an uphill battle. 

My experience has been different, growing up in a community that places an emphasis on the importance of the environment. Ipswich has encouraged my involvement in environmental affairs since middle school. It’s a community where a foundation for climate action has been created, a climate resiliency committee is present, and dedicated youth tend to advocate for their own futures.

I have lived in Ipswich for four years now and have dedicated myself to becoming an engaged community member with an acute focus on environmental issues and our climate. With Crane Beach, the Ipswich River, and the Great Marsh (an area of critical environmental concern) located within our town border, I have been subject to vast ecosystems and, consequently, the responsibility and environmental concerns that come with them from a very young age. 

Looking to protect these natural habitats, I joined the Green Team and Environmental Club. Soon after, in the midst of a pandemic, I felt a desire to accomplish more. I started to write for this paper and began using my platform to inform and unify my community, amplifying the youth perspective on various topics.

Youth summit

In March of 2021, I heard of an opportunity. Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health would be joining forces with Putney Student Travel to host a week-long summit focused on climate change for a small, select group of students. I immediately applied, and I was soon accepted into the program.

From July 18 through 24, I attended the inaugural Harvard Chan C-Change Youth Climate Summit, where I joined 63 high school students from over 25 states in a joint mission for our future. 

I had to choose an action focus group for my summit experience from several categories: science and technology, community, industry, policy, or press and media. Looking to connect my passions for the environment and journalism, I chose the press and media group, along with eight others I would soon meet, to be led by our committed and driven group leader, Alex Basaraba, a climate adaptation and resilience specialist.

Each day of the summit was jam-packed. From 7 a.m. to 10 p.m., my group worked and took off on off-campus excursions. In small groups, we learned about the basics of the crisis, how to effectively confront it, and how to target different audiences in the media. My group shared a joint passion for the environment, community, and the power of the pen. 

We would spend large portions of each day hearing from two to three guest speakers. These speakers included the Weather Channel’s Mark Elliot and Carl Parker, The Boston Globe’s Sabrina Shankman and Janelle Nanos, the executive director of Climate Nexus Jeff Nesbit, Dr. Gaurab Basu (MD, MPH), Dr. Aaron Bernstein (MD, MPH), climate journalist and fossil fuel divestment activist at Harvard University Ilana Cohen, Secretary of the Massachusetts Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs Kathleen A. Theoharides, climate resilience and youth empowerment advocate Salvador Gómez-Colón, co-founder of Zero Hour Nadia Nazar, and Dr. Howard Koh (MD, MPH), President Obama’s Assistant Secretary for Health for the U.S. Department of Health and Health Services. 

Different backgrounds

Not only did I have the opportunity to hear from these influential scientists, politicians, and activists, but I also had the chance to meet, befriend, and interview some. I look forward to reporting on these interviews and discussions.

Dr. Gaurab Basu MD, MPH, Health Equity Fellow at the Harvard T.H. Chan School for Public Health (photo by Ella Niederhelman)

Everyone came there with the same focus; however, we came from a variety of backgrounds with differing beliefs, political standings, and support systems. Like my friend from Montana, more than half of us came from states where climate change is ignored, brushed aside, and not placed within the curriculum. Where they represent the minority of their community.

Each evening ended with solitary work in my dorm room, where I would create and sculpt a final, individual “capstone” project to present on the last day of the conference.

The exhaustion was worth it.

I learned the core principles of effective climate communication and the responsibilities associated with them — how to portray the urgency of the topic to different audiences in one or two chances. I learned that one must always have a parking lot/elevator pitch prepared — something to quickly capture the attention, persuade, and educate someone of the cascading crisis in just a matter of minutes.

I was no longer a student, simply a part of the audience. I was voicing my opinions with others who share my mindset, from people my age to adults who have been advocating for change for years. I was having sit-down talks with them all, bringing my own ideas. I realized quickly that my platform was not solely limited to Ipswich, or even just Massachusetts. I brought my unique interests and strengths, focusing on the importance of press, the media, and individual communities’ power in combating climate change, and dozens of others brought theirs. I was finally a part of the conversation reaching beyond our town.

Represent Ipswich

Not only was I able to represent this community in both small- and large-group discussions, but I was able to represent our town in my final project and presentation. Touching upon our everlasting drought, erosion of our marshes and beaches, our endangered river, and harmful, looming development projects, I connected with students from adaptable California to indifferent Texas, as well as speakers and leaders involved in similar situations. I told my story — our story — and found a role in the bigger picture.

I know, like me, my peers are now returning to their communities of all sizes and calling their friends, family, classmates, community members, and more, to action. 

As a rising sophomore, I represent the youth who cannot yet vote. Who are often overlooked as unaware and naive by society. Who are already frightened about the future of our planet and our own futures upon it. However, we cannot let fear discourage us. We are fortunate to be free from the constraints of past ideologies, concepts, views, and guilt. As youth, we will provide the groundbreaking steps in a positive direction.

Ella Niederhelman on left, Nadia Nazar, co-founder, co-executive director, and art director of Zero Hour, a youth led climate organization, on right.

Individual and systemic change needs to occur quickly to halt the rise in temperature and consequent damage to our Earth. We are in the determining decade.

This is our future ahead of us. This will be our story. Ultimately, this responsibility falls upon our shoulders.

While it is the youth’s future that will be negatively impacted, it is all of our efforts now that can enforce change for the better.

Affects everyone

It is crucial to understand this issue does not just impact the younger generations. It impacts everyone. Climate change misinformation, disinformation, ignorance, denial, indifference, and nonobservance has lasted for years and has spanned generations. It is time to put the arguments, blame, and disbelief behind us. Whether for yourself, your children, or your grandchildren, we all should care.

We need to join forces for a shared vision for the future.

This is my call to action. Do your own research from credible sources, including the 2021 IPCC report. Get involved and support local organizations, school environmental and climate-focused clubs, and support mitigation and necessary adaptation efforts. Meet friends and family where they are at, and educate those around you. Consider what companies you support in the products you purchase and how you, as a consumer, spend your money. Contact representatives, politicians, and others that hold the power to make immediate, broader scale change.

We need each and every one of us. We must all demand change.

Ella Niederhelman is a rising sophomore at Ipswich High School and summer intern at the Ipswich Local News.