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Youth climate action enthusiasts prepare to make their voices heard

Daniel Ramirez

Hawaiʻi representative Amy Perruso got her start in climate advocacy as a college student in California, going door-to-door to talk to community members about pollution.

Although the issues have changed, she says she sees that same sort of energy for climate action in young people today.

“There's this element of idealism that is only coming from the younger generation,” said Perruso. “And it's that note that we really need to listen for and kind of align ourselves with.”

Perruso is one of the lawmakers who will participate in the student-organized Climate Future Forum this Saturday at the Hawaiʻi State Capitol.

She’s no stranger to the political interests of young people — she taught high school social studies for decades before she became a representative.

“I've worked with young people my whole life. That has been my life,” said Perruso. “The moment of COVID was a break in what I saw working with young people in politics.

Audrey Lin, a sophomore at ʻIolani School and one of the organizers of Saturday’s Climate Future Forum knows that firsthand. Like many of her fellow students, she turned to activism to fight feelings of powerlessness during the pandemic.

From left to right: Student Chisato Tarui, Representative Amy Perruso, and student Audrey Lin
From left to right: Student Chisato Tarui, Representative Amy Perruso, and student Audrey Lin

“The pandemic… was a moment of realization for me,” said Lin. “When something so invisible, such as a disease like COVID-19, just forces you to change your entire lifestyle and change the way that you communicate with people, reaching out to outlets where we can make a difference is really important.”

Fellow ʻIolani sophomore and organizer Chisato Tarui is looking forward to digging into the nitty-gritty of climate policy with lawmakers during the forum. But she understands that might not be every student's idea of a laid-back Saturday.

“We're going to have legislators there in the workshops, and that may be intimidating for a lot of young people. I know I would be intimidated by that,” said Tarui.

The workshops will be student-led so that newcomers feel welcome in the conversation. Tarui and Lin along with other organizers will take the lead in introducing concepts like carbon pricing and intersectional justice to their peers.

“Having a young person teach something to another person of youth, I think that in itself is going to be an incredibly accessible way to reach out to them,” said Tarui.

Above all, Lin hopes the forum will encourage young people to participate in the legislative process. She remembers how nervous she was the first time she met with a lawmaker.

“And I walked in…and I was greeted with a person,” said Lin. “And I think that made me realize that these people who are, you know, our voices in the government, they are people too, and the only thing that we need to do to make our voices heard is just to talk to them.”

Tarui also hopes more students start to recognize they are an important political force.

“When it comes to climate change, as youth, we can't really vote right now, we're still like 16 years old… but we still very much have a voice,” said Tarui.

Perruso would like to see this effort go a step further. She’s been an advocate for the Vote16 movement, which would lower the voting age to 16-years-old, opening up the democratic process to students like Tarui and Lin.

“We've created a situation that has made it necessary for them to be fully participating citizens at an earlier age,” said Perruso. “So we have the responsibility, I think, to grant them that actual power.”

What can young people accomplish without the right to vote? HPR’s Savannah Harriman-Pote takes a closer look.
Extended segment on The Conversation - Dec. 1, 2022

Savannah Harriman-Pote is the energy and climate change reporter. She is also the lead producer of HPR's "This Is Our Hawaiʻi" podcast. Contact her at sharrimanpote@hawaiipublicradio.org.
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