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ClimateYou talks to Victoria Barrett

When Victoria Barrett was 14 she visited her mother’s family in Honduras. The family home was in a coastal town and her mother remembered how large the beach used to be. But when Victoria and her mother were there three years ago, they could see how the ocean had encroached on the land, making the beach significantly smaller. For Victoria, it instilled a strong message about the impacts of climate change on coastal towns and cities. In May, Victoria was featured in the New York Times article “In Novel Tactic on Climate Change, Citizens Sue Their Governments” about 21 young plaintiffs represented by Our Children’s Trust, an environmental law nonprofit group who won a major court battle that will allow the plaintiffs to sue the federal government for being lax about climate change. ClimateYou talked to Ms. Barrett who is 17 and lives in White Plains, NY. She attends Notre Dame School, a high school in Manhattan. We wanted to know how she became active in climate change issues and what she expects her involvement to be in the future.

CY: How did you get started?  What inspired you to take on climate change as an issue?

VB:  I was inspired when the non-profit group Global Kids sent recruiters to my high school. They taught me that human rights was a social justice issue here in New York. Those mentors and trainers focused on climate change and at first I didn’t understand the connection between human rights, social justice and climate change. But I did make that connection after Hurricane Sandy in 2012, when I saw how mostly low income communities were affected by the damage and in the aftermath. That’s when realized I wanted to become more involved. I’ve been focusing on social activism and climate change for about three and a half years.

CY: What has being involved with the federal lawsuit been like?

VB:  In my legal complaint I speak mostly how climate change affects my quality of life, especially when it comes to being able to go outdoors when the heat is oppressive. I definitely see the connection between public health and climate change especially in New York City areas like Queens and Brooklyn where the asthma rates are sky-rocketing

CY: Have you had other experiences being in court or giving testimony?

VB:  Yes. Just recently there was a hearing on the clean energy standard in New York State where people testified to a committee. Their decision will ultimately impact the state’s future and it will affect people from all over the world. I felt a lot of hope and heard several testimonies. Those different voices telling their personal stories was easy to hear, especially when you see people get emotional while the government committee is just staring without reacting. The only thing the committee tells people during the hearing is how much time they have left to speak.

CY: You went to Paris for COP21 last December as part of a youth contingent from Global Kids.  What was that like?

VB:   Very exciting. When we went to COP21 in Paris we saw a lot of different nations pushing for climate change. Seeing it in that scope and being there as someone from a country that is a big greenhouse gas emitter put it into context on the global scale. When you get to see it on that level and you can talk to folks from places like the Marshall Islands, you realize that every single action you take impacts everyone and means something to the rest of the world.

CY:   What other youth organizations are you involved with?

VB:   I have been an Action Fellow with the Alliance for Climate Education (ACE) since 2014. I am a huge proponent of organizations like ACE because it allows my generation to be accepted when we want to openly discuss and learn about climate change. It’s how we learn how to work against the issue. When a portion of the population is hugely affected by a problem and there is a lack of communication, how can someone fight it if you don’t understand it? ACE has made understanding climate change much easier for young people.

CY:   Are there groups at school concerned with climate change?

VB:   Yes. Me and my friend run a small environmental group with about 15 to 20 students. We do this during the school year and we try to develop workshops that would interest other students in getting involved. What I’ve seen are a lot of students who are apathetic to climate change and they don’t really know or care about it. Some of us were taught about these types of issues at a young age and because I’ve also learned about these issues in school,  I feel we need to bring it into school and to the students. When I started an environmental club at my school, it wasn’t easy. When you have SAT tests and finals, not everyone has the time. I always try to stress how being a part of this movement is amazing because it’s one of the few things that’s less about you and more about everybody. My friends at school always say “There goes Victoria off again saving the world.” It’s nice, but at the same time an incredible experience just  to know that you get to be part of history. We haven’t given up and we’re here and  we’ve been here fighting; the fight started before I was even an idea. The beauty in the climate change movement is letting people get involved in a way that’s important to them, and that can be their music, poetry, art, and to use it some way to spread the message about the climate change movement, even if to just  a few family members.  Even if you send your song or poem to an elected official, every little thing means a lot.

CY:   How do you handle climate deniers?

VB:   In New York City I run into  a lot of folks who don’t believe the climate is changing. I also see it on the internet as well. I figure why waste my time if they don’t believe in climate change? What am I really going to do about that? The policy with climate deniers is that they have such negative ideas that I would rather focus on the people that have the potential to be my allies and can be changed. I focus on people who care instead of  those I have to convince that we need to make a change.

CY: How has social media helped you?

VB: Social media has been huge in discussing and planning climate action.  When I was in Paris I met a lot of youth activists from colleges and I’ve been able to keep in touch with them and know what they’re doing because of social media. It’s important to have these connections because it keeps you involved with the climate movement. If I message one activist friend who is in college and also planning some action event, I can also ask for college advice, since next year I apply to college. Social media fosters a great interconnection for friendships and knowing that these friends are fighting for our future. We know that we are doing it together.

CY:   What are you ultimately expecting from the federal lawsuit?

VB:    By being a part of the lawsuit we have realized that we face so many powers that tell us what to do while seeing how wrong the federal government is in allowing fossil fuels to be used. We also have seen how wrong they are when they tell us we don’t have a right to a clean future. Facing those realities is preparing me to become more involved. I definitely respect the idea of government and democracy and what we have here in the United States. And because of that respect, I want to exercise my right to speak out about decisions made and their consequences. I really have a lot of faith in the lawsuit and the power  to facilitate legislative change. It’s hard to see all these processes, many of them get shut down because of the bureaucracy. But I appreciate the government and its ability to make change. I stress the fact that government officials are lucky primarily because they have the ability and moral obligation to make changes and that we are appealing to their sense of ethics. If we gave up on the government’s process that wouldn’t work. After all, our representatives are the ones who pass the laws and make the policies. We need to go through it with them.

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