Young organizers seek a seat at the table to help shape N.H.'s climate policies
This article was updated at 9:17 a.m. on April 13, 2022 to reflect that Ben Doyle is a student at Portsmouth High School.
When Loreley Godfrey testifies before the New Hampshire Legislature, she is the youngest person in the room by far.
Policies set today impact the climate Godfrey, 17, and other student organizers will inherit. But youth don’t believe they have much of a say in New Hampshire’s Legislature, whose average age (66 years old as of 2015) has landed it among the country’s oldest.
Godfrey, of Portsmouth, and young organizers started Seacoast Students for Sustainability in an effort to make their voices heard at the State House – and spur climate action across the state.
Member Ben Doyle, a junior at Portsmouth High School, likened their work to student activism during the Vietnam War. “If you can’t vote, you turn to other forms of activism,” he said. Doyle and Godfrey used the same phrase to describe the phenomenon they say is common among their generation: climate anxiety.
Legislation that has languished in years past without a youth advocate like Godfrey is now advancing, such as Senate Bill 263, which would create a New Hampshire Youth Environmental Education and Conservation Council. SB 263 passed the Senate unanimously in March, and the House Science, Technology, and Energy Committee took testimony on the bill Tuesday.
“Taking New Hampshire’s youth into account when making policy decisions is vital to preserving our ideal of a governing body that is truly representative of the governed,” Finn Graff, a student at Dover High School representing Seacoast Students for Sustainability, told lawmakers on the House committee Tuesday.
“The youth of this state, those who will inherit the consequences of the decisions made here, should be part of determining the future instead of watching it taken out of our hands,” he said.
For her part, Godfrey has also advocated for bills such as Senate Bill 440, addressing New Hampshire’s future involvement with offshore wind, and Senate Bill 448, which lays out a plan for converting the state’s fleet of vehicles to electric. She said she’s focused on renewable energy, electrification – moving away from fossil fuel dependence – and amplifying youth voices.
But advancing climate initiatives won’t be an easy task in a Republican-controlled Legislature where the validity of climate science has been challenged. The scientific consensus that humans are driving climate change has not translated into political consensus in the New Hampshire Legislature, and the issue remains strongly linked to party affiliation, according to scientific surveys and votes on climate bills.
In spite of the political challenges, Godfrey and student organizers like her say they are energized and believe they can bring change. It’s an issue they consider to be among the most urgent in the state and one lawmakers need to address.
“If we take measures now, we can reduce the harm and help more people in the long run,” she said. “And that just seemed like such a clear way to take action and help the upcoming generations and help the youth now.”
Seacoast Students for Sustainability was formed late last year, after a climate strike Godfrey had organized in Portsmouth in September. She met Doyle and Evy Ashburner, who were working on sustainability issues at their high school ecological clubs at Portsmouth and Oyster River, respectively, and the three decided to join efforts to amplify student voices. Together, they hoped, they would have more influence in schools, and local and state government.
Ashburner and Doyle are now co-executive directors, and Godfrey serves as policy director of the group, which is now applying for nonprofit status.
Doyle said the momentum and energy within the group is exciting. He described the members, who are between 15 and 18 years old, with words like “uplifting,” passionate,” and “engaged.”
Doyle can’t pinpoint a particular moment when he realized he wanted to tackle climate change, but said he was always aware of it growing up. “If you were to ask anybody from my generation, born in the last 20 years, I think they would probably say something similar – that it was this always, ever-present, in-the-back-of-your-mind thought that, yeah, change is taking place,” he said.
Grappling with the negative ways climate change is projected to impact the environment – more frequent flooding, drought, more extreme heat, and more extreme weather events – isn’t easy for young people contemplating the future.
“We all kind of know what’s coming, or we have a sense of that nebulous foreboding – knowing that big changes are taking place and bigger changes will very likely take place soon. And it’s frustrating, and it’s incredibly sad,” he said.
Instead of caving into feelings of despondency, he said, young people are taking action.
“We have to act now,” he said.
Young people take to the State House
Doyle and Godfrey agree that having student and youth voices in the State House matters, which is part of why they’re supporting SB 263.
That kind of a council can have an impact. It was on another legislative youth advisory council that Godfrey got involved with the Legislature in the first place and learned how to track bills and read the House and Senate calendars for upcoming public hearings. For Godfrey, having those tools made state government accessible. “Once you have the right tools and know how it works, you’re like, more people need to know about this,” she said.
Some lawmakers are taking note. The prime sponsor of SB 263, Sen. David Watters, a Durham Democrat, is pushing for another youth council – one that would be dedicated to addressing environmental issues since they are of “extraordinary importance to youth.”
Watters said his colleagues in the Senate pay attention when young people testify before them.
“I think that what happens in the Senate is that people are impressed by these students. They find them articulate and well-prepared,” he said.
Navigating a partisan divide
The partisan divide over climate is a challenge youth advocates have to face. Environmental issues have become politicized, Watters said.
Godfrey’s already experienced that firsthand. “Many people are automatically dismissive, saying maybe we’ve been brainwashed by liberal media,” she said. Others have dismissed Godfrey’s advocacy, calling it a “puppet tool” for the Democratic Party.
“Put in the context of greater political ideology, it often feels very easy for the youth to be ignored, and especially when decisions are made in the Legislature that we wholly disagree with,” she said. When state efforts fail, Godfrey said, her group turns to community efforts, like creating a curriculum around composting.
Regardless of partisanship, Watters said, it’s important for lawmakers to hear from constituents whose lives are impacted by legislation.
“I’m 71 so, OK, bury me above sea level – but for them, this is going to be a defining feature of their lives dealing with these issues,” he said.
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