Prodded by young people, cities take aggressive climate action

St. Louis Park High School iMatter members are interviewed on camera.
St. Louis Park High School iMatter members Sophia Skinner, left, Jayne Stevenson, center, and Lukas Wrede, right, are interviewed inside the school on Wednesday.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Spurred by residents not yet old enough to vote, two Minnesota cities have approved resolutions to reduce citywide greenhouse gas emissions to zero by 2040.

There's hope the idea will spread nationally in the absence of broader, federal-level action on climate change.

A year ago, students in St. Louis Park first urged the City Council to pass the "climate inheritance" resolution.

Their plea went like this: "Because we are going to have to live with the effects of climate change much longer than most of you here, we believe that what we have to say matters. And we know St. Louis Park has what it takes to be a leader in that worldwide movement."

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It took the group a couple months of prodding city officials to vote on the resolution. The City Council passed it last May, becoming the first in Minnesota to do so.

During a presentation earlier this month, the students learned where St. Louis Park's greenhouse gas emissions come from. The resolution passed by the council calls on city leaders to include young people as they come up with the plan to tackle emissions.

"It was really nice to have adults actually listen to you as a student and empower you," said Jayne Stevenson, a senior at the high school who has been on the city's environment and sustainability commission.

She said the city is only beginning to think about the big changes required to meet the emissions reduction target.

"I think it's going to be really hard, because it's hard to change business practices, but that's where we're hoping to come in and I think we'd be willing to go and talk to business people and stuff, because people tend to listen to youth sometimes," she said.

Young people "are the moral authority" on climate change, says Larry Kraft, executive director of iMatter, the national organization that came up with the climate inheritance resolution.

Larry Kraft speaks with two iMatter students.
Larry Kraft, center, chief mentor of iMatter, sits with St. Louis Park High School students. He became passionate about youth and climate change after leaving his job in corporate marketing and traveling with his family.
Evan Frost | MPR News

"If they're involved on an ongoing basis, they can keep it moving," Kraft said. While Kraft served as a mentor to the students, it's largely been driven by them. "This city council was certainly one that was receptive to the message, but it wasn't on their priority list to do a climate action plan. And it went from not on their priority list to the top of their priority list."

Kraft says students in the St. Louis Park group texted all their friends in other cities, and many more city council campaigns are in the works.

The campaigns aren't limited to high schoolers. Earlier this month, 11-year-old Olya Wright and several others asked the Grand Marais City Council to pass the resolution.

"We're not here to simply complain, but to come together to find direction," Wright told the council.

Alec Loorz sets up cameras before an interview.
Alec Loorz sets up cameras before an interview.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Alec Loorz was 13 and living in California when he and his mom founded iMatter, the group behind the local climate action campaigns. Now 22, Loorz said his past efforts, such as lobbying Congress, would likely be less effective right now.

"It seems like almost a waste of time to put energy into trying to change things at that level," he said. "The idea is that in the local communities, that's where people actually know the youth of their communities. They can actually see, wow, OK, these people are my neighbors."

Loorz said the campaigns aren't limited to cities where Democrats make up the majority. Last month the climate inheritance resolution passed unanimously in conservative Carmel, Indiana.

Corrections (March 21, 2017): A previous version of this story incorrectly stated when the St. Louis Park city council adopted its climate inheritance resolution and listed the incorrect age for Olya Wright.