climate protest
Youth organizers led a Climate Strike in Portland, Maine, in September 2019. Credit: AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty

Five Maine activists share what motivated them to join the fight on climate change

For Sirohi Kumar, climate justice is intrinsically linked to racial justice. The effects of any widespread crisis are exacerbated in marginalized groups, she said, “and I think that holds true for every issue,” whether climate change, racism or public health.

Kumar, 16, is among a group of young people in Maine who are simultaneously pushing state leaders to move more aggressively on climate policy and educating adults, including some allies, about the disproportionate impact people of color face from climate change.

The Energy News Network recently spoke with Kumar and four of her peers about that mission. Maine can’t wait until 2050 to phase out fossil fuels and carbon emissions, they say, and too many adults aren’t listening to that message. Here are their stories.

Declaring an emergency

Sirohi Kumar (16, Bar Harbor)

Kumar began her climate work last summer during an internship with A Climate to Thrive. The nonprofit aims to help make Mount Desert Island, where Kumar lives, energy independent by 2030 by increasing renewable generation and relying less on its mainland power connection.

“I had to educate myself a lot because I didn’t know basically anything about climate,” Kumar said. She learned more, returning to Mount Desert Island High School in the fall to join the Eco Team there. Soon after, the group was approached by representatives from Earth in Brackets, an environmental group based at nearby College of the Atlantic, about pressing local officials to declare a climate emergency.

In November, Kumar was among the youth who presented an official climate resolution to the town council of Bar Harbor, one of four local governments on the island. Had the proposal been adopted, the town would have committed to “[ending] town-wide greenhouse gas emissions and [initiating] additional greenhouse gas drawdown efforts” by the end of 2030, according to the text. The proposal also had a commitment for the town to include youth and marginalized groups in its clean energy transition.

The council rejected the proposal, instead choosing to formally acknowledge the issue. Still, Kumar said it was a victory, “because after the declaration we sort of regrouped and drafted a charter for a climate emergency task force,” which the council created.

On race, Kumar said, “I’m a woman of color, so race has always been an issue that’s on my mind.” Like many peers, she’s joined the local protests that have sprouted up across the country since May. “The climate movement needs to be championed by BIPOC voices” — Black, Indigenous and people of color. Those individuals, who have been disproportionately affected by climate change, police violence and the pandemic, will be key to finding solutions, she said.

She also said that since the problems are linked, solutions will be too: Giving Indigenous people sovereignty over their land, she said, will not only help end racism but will also promote sustainable farming and other environmentally responsible practices that are often practiced in Indigenous communities.

As for the future, Kumar said, “the nihilist teenager part of myself” is not optimistic. The problems are so deeply rooted that “I don’t even think a million Gretas [Thunberg] or a million [of me] or a million of the most efficient teenagers on earth” could come up with a solution.

At the same time, she said, Generation Z will remember their experiences now, “and some of us are going to run for office.”

Bridging the generational divide

Cassie Cain (23, Saco)

Twenty-three-year-old Cassie Cain works between two worlds: As youth engagement coordinator at 350 Maine, a climate justice advocacy group, Cain works to connect members of the youth movement with older adult allies.

“It’s kind of an interesting role,” she said, “because depending on who you talk to, I’m considered the youth.” At the same time, since she’s graduated from college and is getting paid to do this work, she’s different from many of the younger activists she works with.

“I’ve noticed that youth and adults will be speaking different languages about the climate crisis,” she said. For example, while many young people would like to include Black Lives Matter demands in their climate action work, adults don’t always see the links, she said.

She made clear that it’s not all adults: “We definitely have plenty of volunteers at 350 Maine who get it and have been pointing this out forever.” But young people “connect the dots much quicker, because I think it’s just ingrained culturally into the younger generations now.”

Cain started considering climate work as a possible career choice when she took an environmental science course in high school. She completed a double major at Brandeis University in environmental studies and women’s, gender and sexuality studies, with the latter prompting a shift in her climate work. She realized women have had less of a role in climate policy than men, and they’re disproportionately affected by the climate crisis depending on where they are in the world and their race and income level.

She also pointed out that things have changed even since she was in high school: “There wasn’t this narrative of ‘oh, climate justice,’ or ‘we need to divest from fossil fuels’ or anything like that when I was in high school. It was very ‘oh yeah, climate change probably exists,’ and we were questioning it.” Activism focused on composting and recycling, not systemic racism and inequity.

Going forward, Cain wants to see the Maine Climate Council prioritize 2030 timelines as it drafts the state’s four-year climate action plan. She wants to see environmental organizations highlight voices of people of color; the Climate Council lacks diversity, she said. And she said prominent groups can bring younger people into the fold by hiring them, even if they don’t yet have the same level of experience as their older peers.

“I find that I get so much energy working with… other young people,” she said. She added that she has a lot to learn from Gen Zers “that are on TikTok but know more about political theory than I do. … I think the youth voice is really what’s necessary in every sense of what the U.S. needs right now.”

Mobilizing (future) voters

Josh Wood (15, Sanford)

“I feel kind of lackluster confidence considering the state of the world right now and politically,” said Josh Wood, 15. He’s not completely hopeful that the future will bring improvement, but he gets hope from the people he works with.

Wood is a co-lead of Maine Youth Climate Strikes, a state chapter of the national progressive Youth Climate Strike group. The Maine chapter has moved from organizing school walkouts to political organizing, including a virtual Earth Day forum that Wood coordinated in April with U.S. Senate candidates.

Like Cain, Wood got his start in climate activism thanks to an environmental science class. “I learned that our environment is polluted,” he said, “and doing further research I realized that more so for people like me, and more so in areas that people like me live in. So I realized that, hey, I might not ever be able to get to see Puerto Rico where my family is from or see their beach in Puerto Rico because the ecosystems are going to be destroyed at the beach. Air is polluted. It’s going to be a crisis.”

He wants to see politicians — including Maine’s Democratic nominee for the U.S. Senate, Sarah Gideon, who’s challenging current Senator Susan Collins — support a Green New Deal. “A Green New Deal to me means reducing carbon emissions very ambitiously by 2035 — net zero actually — and really diminishing our reliance on fossil fuels, as well as taking money out of politics.

“A lot of the reason why we have fossil fuels is because we have money in politics, and that’s unfortunate to me,” he said.

The current Black Lives Matter protests, he said, “are amplifying our movement, because the way I look at it is we’ve identified racial justice as such a common denominator in police violence and in environmental and health inequities.”

Wood plans to do more Black Lives Matter organizing in the coming months, including trying to make Black history or a related subject part of the curriculum in the local school department. (He’s in an online school program and is about to begin his senior year.)

In the future, he wants to study international relations and eventually work for an organization like the United Nations. “I think that’s really the most effective way that—not all these issues can be solved, but some of them can be rectified, if we come together.”

Wood expressed a similar sentiment to other youth when illustrating the consequences of climate inaction: “Lobsters from Maine are migrating up north. That’s going to be us in a couple of years if we don’t solve this issue.”

An early awakening

Riley Stevenson (17, Waldoboro)

“All youth climate activists have to have their climate story,” said Riley Stevenson, 17. “I’ve had one, it’s down pat, and then I remembered a tiny detail from my childhood the other day that totally has changed my climate story.”

When Stevenson was younger, her family went each summer to SolarFest, a solar-powered music festival in Vermont. “It was like the highlight of my childhood,” Stevenson said. “We went every summer.

“And I remember so clearly once, they would have these signs up about different environmental issues and fun facts — but they were always sad facts. And so I remember once when I was maybe 7 or 8, I saw a fact that said that something like 50% of the glaciers in Glacier National Park would be gone by 2020, I think it was. And I remember seeing it, bursting into tears and running to my dad and saying, ‘This is awful Dad, we have to go to this place, I don’t even know what’s going on but this is so horrible.’”

“This is so deeply upsetting to me. This place that — I had no interest in going to Glacier National Park before that moment. But something about that sudden knowledge, [that] this world is changing rapidly and isn’t going to look the way that it looks now when I’m an adult, was so overwhelming and shocking to 7-year-old me that I think that that planted a seed which then grew when I moved to Maine.”

Stevenson moved from Princeton, New Jersey, when she was 10. Since then, her focus has evolved: She realized that the climate crisis will likely affect other people more drastically than herself. “I go to a school that is filled with many fifth, sixth generation lobstermen who are seeing the fish moving north and are seeing that they’re not able to catch what they’re used to.” Realizing how drastically Maine’s economy could be changed “was really shocking to me and made me realize I really needed to be involved.”

She started the Coastal Youth Climate Coalition, which works near Mount Desert Island. She’s not only focused on making sure people of color are part of climate action discussions, but also working Mainers like fishermen and loggers. Speaking for herself, she said, “I think we’ve done not a great job of including those voices and making those people feel as if they have a say in the solutions we’re coming up with at the table.”

Stevenson is also helping middle schoolers organize. “And it’s been so cool because they are so excited about this and they also really love where they live. And they have not yet learned how many emails one has to send in order to be a climate activist. So that’s been a lot of fun.”

On the research front

Abby Hargreaves (22, former Orono resident)

Abby Hargreaves, 22, just graduated from the University of Maine with a degree in ecology and environmental sciences. Originally from the Bay Area of California, she’s now on her way to Idaho State University to get a second bachelor’s degree in nuclear engineering.

She’s also planning to continue her work as the youth representative on the energy working group that’s helping the Maine Climate Council draft the state’s four-year climate plan.

“If we’re looking at all this efficiency, why are we still looking at fossil fuels as the only option when nuclear is cleaner than it ever has been and we have more people willing to innovate than we ever have before?” she said.

Hargreaves believes there’s also a place for renewables in the energy mix, and equity is important to her. Part of her senior thesis was a benefit-cost analysis of community solar for low- to moderate- income individuals on Mount Desert Island.

At the same time, she said, renewables are intermittent, and she sees nuclear as a reliable and clean alternative to large fossil fuel-based generators. While she spent much of the last four years studying policy, she feels she’ll be able to contribute more doing lab work to develop efficient nuclear technology.

Regarding her work with the Climate Council, she said she was glad the energy working group discussed equity. And while they didn’t explicitly recommend a consumer-owned utility—the group had many viewpoints, and they couldn’t agree on the specifics—she was glad that the recommendations at least set the stage for that. (Other youth also believe a consumer-owned utility would help ensure a more equitable energy transition in the state.)

Like her peers, she believes there’s a gap between her generation and older generations in how they think about climate and activism. But “there needs to be a gap,” she said, “because we’ve learned way more stuff in the time that my generation has existed than, I think, in the last several generations” because of innovation and technology.

“People are always excited to hear what the youth are saying until it’s different from what they think,” she said. She also pointed out that her generation is “old enough that we can’t be ignored anymore”: They can run for political office.

“I try to be a really cynical optimist,” she said: cynical on her own but optimistic around others. “I think that if we don’t keep trying to have hope—even if we’re just feigning hope at this point—then I don’t think that we can do everything that we want to accomplish. Because we have a ticking clock. We need to do something before it strikes 12.”

Correction: Riley Stevenson lives in Waldoboro, Maine. A previous version of this story misreported her city.

David has written on health, science and the environment for various outlets, including World Wildlife Fund and the Chicago newspaper Windy City Times. He has reported on topics including the city’s opioid epidemic, bird research at the Field Museum, and LGBT youth in foster care, and was a Chicago correspondent for the Energy News Network. Now based in New York, David covers northern New England.