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Young Americans seek climate protection now

Helena KaschelMay 27, 2016

It's been 15 years since the United States famously refused to ratify the Kyoto protocol. The country is gradually reconsidering its attitude toward climate policy - with young Americans at the forefront of change.

An activist holds a banner as she takes part in a global climate march outside the City Hall on November 29, 2015 in New York City (Photo: Getty Images/K. Betancur)
Image: Getty Images/K. Betancur

Erin Schrode's charisma is almost intimidating. Her language is rhythmic and comes out of her mouth ready for publication, and her dark eyes light up when she says things like "I believe young people are better equipped to lead our state's future."

For the 25-year-old Californian, the sky's the limit: Schrode wants to go down in US history as the youngest woman ever to be elected to Congress - with climate change as one of her main campaign issues.

Only a few minutes ago, she's left the stage at the One Young World Environment Summit in Arizona after making an electrifying speech to hundreds of young international delegates.

Now, sitting down for an interview while briefly demonstrating that she's a committed Snapchatter, she moves closer to the microphone to answer the first question with that same fierce, radiant on-stage energy.

"We're dealing with the worst drought we've seen in decades - that's affecting all of us and our economy. In California, we cannot ignore climate change because it's changing our lives - and also our jobs and prosperity," Schrode says.

One Young World Environment Summit 2016 - Erin Schrode
Erin Schrode wants to bring progressive ideas to CongressImage: Josh LaCuna

According to a study from August 2015, the probability of California suffering droughts like the current one, which started in 2012, has roughly doubled over the last century. When asked to explain the challenges of implementing climate change policy solutions in the United States, Schrode can't help but laugh cynically.

"A large portion of our elected officials will not even accept that climate change is real, despite the overwhelming majority of research scientists saying it is. How can you change something when you don't even accept that it's real?"

Obama's David vs. Goliath climate mission

Since refusing to ratify the Kyoto protocol in 2001, the United States - being the world's largest industrialized nation, with the highest rates of carbon emissions - has reevaluated its political approach to climate change.

There's a reason foreign media often refer to Barack Obama as "the climate president": Not long after taking office, he introduced a bill to reduce carbon emissions. In 2011, he subsidized solar energy, causing controversy. Today, renewable energy sources generate roughly 13 percent of electricity in the US.

And in 2014, Obama managed to cut a bilateral climate policy deal with China, the second largest producer of carbon emissions. In 2015, he also introduced - through the regulatory framework - the Clean Power Plan, intended as the keystone of making his 2013 Climate Action Plan a reality.

US President Barack Obama views Bear Glacier on a boat tour of Kenai Fjords National Park in Seward, Alaska September 1, 2015 (Photo: REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst)
Obama visited Alaska in 2015 to underline his climate legacyImage: Reuters/J. Ernst

The Republican-lead Congress has largely blocked the Climate Action Plan, while the conservative-dominated US Supreme Court has placed a hold on the Clean Power Plan.

The long-running clash between conservatives and climate protection has also become visible during the 2016 Presidential race to the White House, with Republican candidates, among them Donald Trump, outing themselves as climate change deniers.

Environmentalists continue to accuse Washington of having too close ties to an overly powerful fossil fuel lobby.

Climate protection - antithesis of the American Dream?

"The Obama administration has faced incredibly tough circumstances," says Parker Liautaud, a 21-year-old student at Yale. He's participated in expeditions to the North Pole three times, the first when he was 15. At 19, he was the youngest (and fastest) person ever to trek to the South Pole without being resupplied. Being half-French, Liautaud understands both the European and the American perspectives on climate change.

He feels the difficult relationship the US has with the issue is deeply connected with the nation's history. The United States was built on the notion of independence, and of freedom from government tyranny, Liautaud points out.

"And there are a lot of very conservative people who feel that addressing climate change allows the government to reach more into their lives," Liautaud tells DW. "These suspicions also make people much more wary of accepting the science."

Parker Liautaud One Young World Environment Summit 2016
Parker Liautaud wants more discussion about the economic effects of climate changeImage: Martin Hartley

In Gina Fiorile's opinion, many of her fellow citizen's aversion toward climate protection contradicts a deeply held American ideal. The White House honored the 22-year-old environmental studies major as a "champion of change" in recognition of her commitment to climate education.

But she doesn't think climate protection and the American Dream are mutually exclusive: "In America, we always have a vision of innovation, and American values are to always be at the top and doing the best," Fiorile says.

"So it's a bit ironic that we're not quite leading in sustainability initiatives." However, both Liautaud and Fiorile both feel that in general, public awareness about climate change has increased.

'Climate change will happen within my lifetime'

Today, mainly young Americans are the ones demanding more progressive climate policy. Liautaud says the economic dimension is often overlooked: "What we think about is economic opportunity - we are the people that are going to actually live in this world that is the consequence of the decisions we make today."

When it comes to their future, Parker Liautaud and Erin Schrode are on the same page. To Schrode, climate protection is not just a campaign issue, but in fact very personal. "We now see sea levels rising at twice the rate we thought - [climate change] will probably happen within my lifetime, in the very near future."

"We cannot afford to ignore climate change for literally a day longer," Schrode says.

Environmentally minded US youth like Schrode, Liautaud and Fiorile are hoping for a Democrat in the White House. But what policies, specifically, would they themselves change if they were in charge?

One Young World Environment Summit 2016 Gina Fiorile Umweltaktivistin
Gina Fiorile wants climate change and its effects to be taught in schoolsImage: Sally McCay

Schrode would cut subsidies for chemical agriculture. Liautaud would fund research and renewable energy sources. And Fiorile would make sure schoolchildren are educated about climate change and its effects.

All three of them would probably face the same political pushback as Obama. But maybe they would be more persistent. After all, it's their future at stake.