Jen Kretser is featured as the “Trailblazer” in the September/October edition of the Adirondack Explorer. Read more about Jen in the issue, which you can get through the Adirondack Explorer app. Download it from iTunes or Google Play.
Work on climate change is hard. And emotional, says Jen Kretser, director of programs for the Wild Center and project director for the Youth Climate Program run through the science museum.
It’s devastating, for example, to watch a community in Sri Lanka affected by “crazy flooding” when they themselves produce no carbon emissions at all, she said.
But then she has a day like this one: Kretser had two different projects connected to the Youth Climate Program coming together simultaneously, demonstrating the hope that can come from seeing youth intent on making the world a better place succeed. She was in Albany with three student climate leaders presenting to the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority and the New York State Office of Climate Change about how they all might work together. After leaving the meeting “elated that the students could be in this space and have a voice at the table,” she looked at her phone to see photos from another student presenting the film about the Adirondacks and climate change A Matter of Degrees in Sri Lanka.
“I had a student sending photographs on the other side of the world, and I was here in the U.S. with students working on the same thing. It was incredible,” Kretser said. “The grief that comes with this work is real. Sometimes it’s curl-up-in-a-ball real. Then I have a day like that one.”
The work of the Youth Climate Program, which began in 2008, has been recognized widely and repeatedly — by the White House under President Obama, by the United Nations with invitations to the U.N. conference of the parties (COP 21) in Paris, and the Environmental Protection Agency (in 2015, Kretser received the agency’s Environmental Champion Award). The program produces an annual summit organized by youth climate leaders to bring more young people together to explore and implement climate solutions while encouraging others around the world to do the same.
Ask Kretser how the Wild Center found itself at the forefront of this initiative, and she’ll tell you this: “Because we were asked — by a sixteen-year-old student.”
In 2008, the Wild Center held an invitation-only national climate conference, with science leaders from all over. They also invited some local students. After the summit, they got an email from one of the students, Zach Berger, asking “why everyone [at the summit] was so old.” From that, the Youth Climate Program was started.
“It’s gone from an email in the middle of the night to a program that’s gone global,” Kretser said. “For us, it was the perfect vehicle to convene dialogue and empower students to take action on it.”
The Wild Center provides the structure for students to get involved and supports them. They can participate in the annual Adirondack Youth Climate Summit at the Wild Center (the 2017 summit will be in November). Or they can download a toolkit to host a summit in their own community or school. Summits are happening around the state, the country, and the world. But the advocacy comes from the students.“They define it,” Kretser said.
If food is their concern, they might plant a school garden. It might be that they care aboutsolar and, as one school did, create a solar-charging station for cellphones. The students themselves had to go to the school board for approval and then figure out the logistics.
“They feel a sense of accomplishment once it’s done,” Kretser said.
And the program is creating a movement among the young people to effect change. At least two alumni from the program have gone on to create youth summits at their colleges. And from that comes more hope.
“This is the most-connected, most socially aware, environmentally conscious generation,” Kretser said. “They recognize there is a problem, but they are ready to take it on. They are the next generation of innovators and entrepreneurs.”