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India Currents gave me a voice in days I was very lost. Having my articles selected for publishing was very validating – Shailaja Dixit, Executive Director, Narika, Fremont

At the Front Door –  a column on climate change in our lives

Nearly two years ago, Greta Thunberg declared that “our house is on fire” at the World Economic Forum. She wasn’t the only one who saw that fire.

Here in California, we could see the flames quite literally. As wildfires tore through the state, many teenagers felt a fire light in ourselves as well. We decided that it was time to stand up for our futures, just as Greta had done a continent and an ocean away from us. We began to show our fire wherever we went—in our homes, on the streets, in front of the offices of legislatures.

But some of us wanted to take things one step further: we wanted to put the fire right in front of elected officials’ eyes.

Kaushik Tota at a school assembly

For the past two years, this is exactly what I’ve done as an environmental policy advocate. My team and I draft and support sustainable legislation from the local to state level, pushing elected officials to opt for the most aggressive and far-reaching policy solutions. 

Being a teenager in the advocacy space has its upsides and its downsides. As youth, we get significantly more attention than our adult counterparts for participating in the political process, and our presence is noted. On the other hand, we’re sometimes written off as just “kids” who don’t understand the full scope of the issues at hand. This happened a lot during our earlier efforts. But we kept attending meetings and applying pressure.

Over time, fellow teenagers and young adults joined our cause, increasing our numbers at meetings. Our advocacy groups became larger and more robust, and we gained new perspectives and ideas through the diversity of our members. Thanks to the guidance of gracious mentors and elected officials, we became more knowledgeable on pertinent topics, conducting intra-organization workshops and study sessions to become more effective advocates.

Building credibility takes time, but after nearly two years of vocal involvement in policy advocacy, I’m proud to say that many more elected officials are taking the opinions of youth seriously as a result of the influx of students into the climate policy advocacy movement.

Since we began our efforts, we’ve successfully advocated for sustainable policies from the local to the state level, encouraging the adoption of legislation ranging from building electrification codes (“reach codes,” as they’re often called) in Cupertino, Mountain View, and Sunnyvale, to state policies such as AB 841, which has deployed vital resources for accelerating the development of electric vehicle charging infrastructure in the state of California. 

Our advocacy process involves multiple steps aimed to help educate advocates and enable them to create an impact in their communities. Rather than forcing advocates to trudge through endless pages of policy lingo and close-to-meaningless tables and figures, we find resources such as PowerPoint presentations, videos, and brochures that provide a high-level overview of what a certain policy entails. Then, we parse the language of specific parts of the policy to find weak points which we would like to see improved.

Based on the weaknesses we find, we draft a counterproposal, which we then cross-reference with other local advocacy organizations such as the Sierra Club and to ensure that our interpretations of the policy are correct. After constructing this “game plan” of asks, we begin drafting advocacy letters and public comments, which we send to city councils and present at official city meetings, respectively. Through well-informed and reasonable policy recommendations, repeated involvement in the political process, and strength in numbers, our advocacy teams are able to affect meaningful change in the final legislation which is passed.

For example, with regards to the aforementioned building electrification codes (which I helped advocate for in Sunnyvale), our advocacy team focused on two major asks: increasing electric vehicle readiness in Sunnyvale and eliminating exceptions allowing the installation of natural gas-powered appliances in certain types of buildings. By speaking at three different city meetings—the Planning Commission (which handles land use and development), the Sustainability Commission (which deals with matters pertaining to the environment and Sunnyvale’s Climate Action Plan), and the City Council—we were able to influence city staff to integrate our recommendations into the final language of the reach codes.

Now, EV readiness standards in Sunnyvale surpass that of calGREEN (California’s statewide building codes) and exceptions that once existed for nonresidential kitchens have been converted to a case-by-case system (meaning that no restaurants can simply use a gas-powered stove because they feel like it). The increased rigor of these components of Sunnyvale’s reach codes will go a long way in improving EV adoption rates and reducing the city’s greenhouse gas emissions over the long term.

The task of addressing climate change is daunting at first glance, but with so many passionate youths involved, what seems like an insurmountable challenge suddenly becomes feasible. The support of like-minded peers pushes us to keep attending meetings, writing advocacy letters, and taking a stand for our planet.

If you are interested in joining a youth-led environmental initiative, options run the gamut from community engagement to policy advocacy. The Climate Youth Ambassador Program is a youth-led environmental education organization that aims to equip individuals (especially children) with resources and knowledge to lead sustainable lifestyles. Organizations such as Silicon Valley Youth Climate Action and the Youth Public Policy Institute (both of which I’m a member of) are working on all sorts of climate policies with varying scopes—you can join an existing city team or advocacy team, or start a new team if one doesn’t exist yet.

And if none of these suit your interests, no worries! Find some friends or classmates who have similar interests to you and start your own initiative. In today’s climate, there are more outlets than ever for youth to share their voices, and what’s most important is finding your niche and leveraging your passions to enact impactful climate action.

We know that we have once chance to put out this fire, so we want to make sure we do it right. 

P.S. Here’s a cool video you can watch to learn more about pursuing climate activism, especially from a policy advocacy perspective:

Kaushik Tota, a senior at Saint Francis High School in Mountain View uses a three-pronged approach of innovative technology, community awareness, and sustainable policy, to help solve the planet’s most pressing sustainability challenges.

Edited by  Meera Kymal, Contributing Editor at India Currents.