three teens at table, one speaking“Youth all over the world are rising up and using their voices to call for cleaner air, climate action and environmental and climate justice. We need to follow their lead,” said Leyla Erk McCurdy, MPhil, Children's Environmental Health Network board member, moderating the Congressional briefing, “Clean Air, Climate Change and the Power of Youth,” on Capitol Hill October 23.

The event was held in conjunction with CEHN’s Children’s Environmental Health Day and the American Lung Association’s Year of Air Pollution & Health. Panelists included two prominent D.C. youth climate leaders and a clean air and climate policy expert discussing air pollution, climate change and generational and social justice. 

“There is tremendous climate anxiety for our generation about the immensity of the issue and how action has been delayed for so long,” said Lana Weidgenant, a 21-year-old environmental health sciences student from Brazil. 

Weidgenant balances her studies at Johns Hopkins University with a position as partnership director for National Children's Campaign and youth-led climate justice organization Zero Hour. Partnerships are a big part of the youth climate movement, as numerous groups come together to organize grassroots mass actions like the September 20 DC Climate Strike.

As one of the organizers of that strike and others, Weidgenant said, “The youth climate movement has helped change the narrative from polar bears and ice caps to what’s happening to our communities and the air we breathe and water we drink. The stories we’re telling of how climate affects us directly, they’re tangible. They make the conversation accessible to more people.”

Washington, D.C., high school student Jerome Foster II joined Zero Hour in 2018 and has led climate marches on Capitol Hill and as part of Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg’s global student climate strikes. At the briefing, Foster said youth “need to believe in the power of their voice and the impact of their vote. We need to make sure young people are active and engaged in our political system.”

Foster founded the nonprofit organization OneMillionOfUs to mobilize young people to register to vote. The 17-year-old worked with Citizens Climate Lobby on garnering support for the Climate Change Education Act in Congress to increase climate literacy for K-12 students nationwide. And he mobilized his school to testify before the DC City Council in favor of the aggressive Clean Energy DC Act, which passed this January. 

“This kind of legislation gives us hope, and we’re seeing more and more of our peers join the movement,” said Foster. “If climate change is not solved, it will exacerbate every single other issue---gun violence, immigration reform, gender equality, racial equality. It’s all interconnected. Our future isn’t something we can just push off on someone else. We have to act now to find viable solutions to climate change if we’re going to have a safe and sustainable future.”

Speaking on behalf of the American Lung Association, Laura Kate Bender, national assistant vice president of the Healthy Air Campaign, said, “Our mission is to save lives by improving lung health and preventing lung disease. For us, clean air and climate change are critical priorities. The amazing leadership we’re seeing from children, youth and teens in the climate movement is inspiring.”

“As we all build support for the urgent need for policies that address climate change, we need to keep health at the center of those policies. Health is one of the most powerful messages you can use to talk about climate change. We need to continue to elevate the voices of people whose health has been impacted---especially those who bear the biggest burden of air pollution.”

Briefing organizers screened two short documentary films, “Asthma Alley” produced by GroundTruth Films, and “Words Have Power,” by Young Voices for the Planet. Each profiles a different youth struggling with the problem of air pollution and climate change.

From poor air quality-induced asthma in the South Bronx, New York, to the health effects of a coal-fired power plant in Bridgeport, Connecticut, the films put a face on the intersection of climate, health and equity and show the impact that personal stories can have on finding solutions.

“The climate crisis is a public health emergency that intersects with and exacerbates so many other social justice issues,” said Weidgenant in the briefing. “We are full-time students. We need people in positions of power working alongside us. We shouldn’t be the only ones.”