'It's My Future': A New Generation Of Young Climate Activists Takes The Helm In New Hampshire
By the time today's teenagers turn 50, New England's climate will feel very different.
Under current warming trends, states like New Hampshire will have shorter winters with less snow. Some coastal areas will be underwater. And it will all be worse without swift action to stop fossil fuel emissions.
This possible future is calling more and more of New Hampshire's young people to act -- and they're getting results.
This story is part of special coverage for Earth Week from NHPR's By Degrees project, the New England News Collaborative and Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story. Click here to see more from around the region.
Ember and Azalea Morgan of Andover remember where they were when they first realized what climate change was doing -- and would do -- to their planet.
"We were at a friend's house for a party, dinner, thing, blah blah blah," says Azalea, age 9. "And we were watching TV, National Geographic, I think, and I saw this video about, like, polar bears and global warming and how the ice is melting and they don't have a lot of ice left. And I got really sad."
Scientists and the United Nations say the world has about until 2030 to prevent the worst effects of climate change. That's about when Azalea and her sister Ember, 10, will be in college.
Molly Morgan, the girls' mom, remembers what happened that night at bedtime.
"I had a moment with Azalea in her bed when she was just sobbing uncontrollably, like almost like I'd never heard her sob before," Molly says. "For me to have my own child be cognizant of these climate issues and mass extinction on our planet -- it just really hit home to me."
Azalea says she remembers her mom telling her, "OK, we will do something. I promise you. I don't know what, but we will do something."
This was in 2019, just days before a major climate summit in New York. Then-16-year-old Greta Thunberg, now a household name, was sailing there across the Atlantic to raise awareness about climate change.
It gave the Morgans an idea: to pack up and bike all the way to New York from their home in New Hampshire to be part of the moment.
"It certainly was empowering, especially having those girls peddling their little legs on these tiny bicycle wheels hundreds of miles," Molly Morgan says. "Really, it was phenomenal."
Azalea says it surprised some adults that she and her sister were so invested in this at such a young age.
"Some people are like, 'Well, we're not going to be alive to see it,'" she says. "And we're like, well, it's my future. I should decide what's good for our future."
When that future arrives, if adults don't take more action now, scientists say Azalea and Ember will live on a planet plagued by more extreme heat, floods, droughts, wildfires and storms, along with all the inequality, health and social problems that will cause.
With that in mind, the sisters have kept up their climate activism -- raising money for solar panels at their school through their group Kids Care 4 Polar Bears, going vegetarian and encouraging classmates to recycle. The attention on their bike ride got them involved in the release of a new American Girl doll, who's an environmentalist. And Ember ran for New Hampshire kid governor on a climate platform.
They're part of a corps of youth climate activists that's growing exponentially across the state.
Lydia Hansberry is 15 and lives in Hanover. Like the Morgan sisters, she says she's been worried about the environment for a long time. She remembers first learning about the ozone hole when she was in fifth grade.
"I kind of thought it's like -- it sounds kind of childish, but it's not fair," Hansberry says. "Like, how can we be so careless with our home ...and how can we just destroy it in this way?"
Last year, she was on a Zoom call to hear about the launch of a new climate justice campaign in New Hampshire. A student organizer sent her a chat, asking if she wanted to join a youth program with the activist group 350 New Hampshire -- a chapter of the left-leaning nonprofit started by Vermont environmentalist Bill McKibben.
Groups like 350NH are giving more young activists like Hansberry an outlet for their climate anxiety. In the future, she says she hopes to work on sustainable agriculture in impoverished countries and to push for more climate education in schools.
"It's kind of knowing what scares you… but also knowing that there is the potential to fix it," Hansberry says.
Fourteen-year-old Nikhil Chavda of Nottingham is a 350NH youth fellow. He says being part of a group of other activists -- mostly led by people in their late teens and 20s -- has been vital while he's still too young to vote, or drive himself to protests.
"It's hard to get taken seriously when you're 14," he says. "In terms of things like asking our representatives and senators to sign bills, they don't really think of us as voters of the future. They think of us as kids."
But Chavda has found he and his peers can have an impact -- through climate strikes, raising awareness on social media, and getting out the vote for progressive candidates who support strong climate action.
"New Hampshire is, in my opinion, one of the most beautiful states in the country, and I want to preserve that," Chavda says. "I want to keep temperatures down, I want to keep lakes full without drought, and I don't want sea level rise. I just want things to stay as perfect as it is right now."
He says he's learned to emphasize New Hampshire's beauty when he talks climate policy with adults, including state legislators. He hopes to run for state office himself one day, after studying to become a civil rights lawyer.
Chavda is not the only climate activist in the state with political ambitions. Bea Burack, a senior at Phillips Exeter Academy and the daughter of a former state environment commissioner, has been learning the art of climate lobbying and appearing at events with presidential candidates and members of Congress through her work with the League of Conservation Voters.
"There's definitely a lot of reasons to be cynical about government and politics in the way it's working right now, and I think that a lot of people in my generation kind of fall into that," Burack says. "But I do have a lot of hope for what we can do with government, and I think that I see it as a way to cement some lasting change that can create a better future for my generation."
Some young climate activists are already seeing policy results through their work in New Hampshire. The Environmental Change Organization, or ECO club, at Portsmouth High School helped push for a city-wide ban on Styrofoam and some other single-use plastics.
But right before it was set to take effect in late 2020, the city council sought to postpone it because of COVID-19.
"I was really angry," says ECO club co-president Abbey Herrholz, a senior at Portsmouth High. "I was like, this is unacceptable. … We need to figure something else out."
So in spite of the pandemic and remote school, Herrholz and her classmates mobilized.
"Again, we went to the city council, we wrote letters, we reached out," she says. "And again, we brought the youth front to be like, 'This is our future, not all about you.' And we ended up changing the minds of three or four city council members, and now the ban is in effect."
Portsmouth's plastics ban is the first local ordinance of its kind in the state.
All these young activists had the same advice for people their age on how to turn their fears about climate change into action:
"Just do it," says 10-year-old Ember Morgan. "You don't need anything. You've just got to start."
They say we all have more power than we think.
Read a how-to guide for youth climate activism, written by Portsmouth High School graduate and former ECO club member Connor Durkin in spring 2019: