‘It’s not just us’: Local students call on politicians after environmental conference | TribLIVE.com
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Megan Tomasic

Small changes can make a big difference.

That’s one lesson Laurel Highland High School physics teacher Chris Mikolowsky hopes his students learned from a conference that taught 17 sustainable development goals established by the United Nations — a somewhat daunting task for students, Mikolowsky said, with goals like ending world hunger and poverty.

“I think the big concern is, ‘How can I help with a goal that sounds so unbelievable,’” Mikolowsky said of his eight students who attended a conference this week hosted by Covestro, a German-based polymer supplier with Pittsburgh ties.

Students and community members across the world have been working to tackle those issues for the past year through conferences and walkouts, and, now, one of the biggest Global Climate Strikes is slated for Friday. Over 150 countries are set to participate, with over 700 locations in the United States — including Greensburg and Pittsburgh — to call on politicians to make a change.

“It’s not just us (students) that can do something about it, but those who have the resources and the opportunities to make a difference about whatever’s going on,” said Greensburg Salem senior Rebecca Handke.

Friday’s event, along with recent movements, stem from 16-year-old Greta Thunberg, a climate activist who sat outside the Swedish Parliament last year holding a sign that read “School Strike for Climate,” The Washington Post reported. Thunberg has taken her message to rallies, marches, and most recently to Washington D.C. where she called on politicians to “Listen to scientists.”

President Trump and others inside his administration and elsewhere have publicly questioned whether climate change is real and whether carbon dioxide has as disastrous an impact on the planet as scientists and advocates claim. Trump once called climate change a hoax. In 2017, he withdrew the United States from the Paris Climate Agreement to control and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Thunberg is slated to speak during the U.N. Climate Action Summit in New York City next week. She has been in the United States since August after sailing across the Atlantic Ocean in order to avoid high emissions from airplane fuel, The New York Times reported.

Now, Western Pennsylvania students — from Springdale Senior, Baldwin, Beaver Area, Blackhawk, Butler Area, Carlynton, City Charter, Cornell, Deer Lakes, Imani Christian Academy and Woodland Hills high schools — are getting a piece of the action by working on projects that could improve their schools and local communities.

And that was part of the goal of the Thinc30 conference, also known as Youthquake 2030, said Rebecca Lucore, head of sustainability and corporate social responsibility at Covestro.

“High school kids are just in such a great place and so right for this information because they’re thinking about college and, ‘What do I want to do for the rest of my life?’ And they think about careers, so it’s a great time to get the information in front of them and open their eyes and hopefully inspire them to find something in themselves they’re passionate about and pursue it,” Lucore said.

Younger generation

For 17-year-old Handke, who became interested in the environment during her freshman year, working to solve the climate crisis will not only help the planet, but future generations.

“If we don’t learn about it or do something now then we could be making our lives later on harder,” she said. “We need to do something.”

On Tuesday, about 120 students from 13 area schools watched a video showing Thunberg’s call for action and heard from local entrepreneurs who focus on sustainability.

By introducing students to local sustainable companies — like 412 Food Rescue, a non-profit aimed at eliminating food waste — and hearing speakers from local colleges and universities, students were able to see that change can be made on the local level, Mikolowsky said.

“That’s really how you make movement on these goals. It’s one community, one city at a time,” Lucore said.

For Mikolowsky, the conference was a way to broaden the horizons of his students, showing them that even if they do not want to pursue a career in environmental science, there is still a way to make an impact.

“You may not be in an environmental class or major … but if you’re just at the university, at that level alone, and you look around and you see things that are changing in favor of more sustainable things … You (can find) a passion or (something) you have an interest in,” he said.

And students, Testa said, will hopefully go on to realize how they “are a part of the issues and not a part from the issues,” eventually making impacts on the Greensburg community as a whole.

Leaving the conference tasked with creating a plan focused on the United Nation’s 17 goals, students are now working to make changes in their schools and communities.

“I’m hoping to get our ecology club behind these goals and apply them to the local community,” Testa said. “Start in Greensburg and where problems are existing. Is there anything we could do as a club?”

Plans and ideas that can be implemented through 2030 will be presented during a November Thinc30 event.

“My expectations for them are really that when they’re done with it they see something they can say is a tangible change, even if it’s small,” Mikolowsky said. “That they get some kind of a worth out of it. If nothing else they tried it, they put some effort in, they researched it and really put something out.”

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