Bridging the climate generation gap

Swedish student activist Greta Thunberg’s image on the cover of Time Magazine shows just how far today’s youth movement for climate action has come, and how quickly.

Kendra Hughes and Fred Krupp

May 24, 2019 — There are countless ‘seasoned’ activists in the environmental movement — and thousands of young people working at environmental organizations. But do they see eye to eye when it comes to the passionate activism of Greta and her generation?

To find out, we brought together EDF president Fred Krupp and a young EDF staffer named Kendra Hughes, whose passionate activism has brought her from Mount St. Mary’s University to Greenpeace to our organization (and we’re lucky to have her). In a wide-ranging conversation, both agreed that public urgency on climate has never been higher, and that we need to dramatically accelerate and scale up action. Here’s what they had to say about how that should happen.

EDF: Thank you both for joining this discussion. If we look at different approaches to activism, Kendra, what do you think Environmental Defense Fund should be doing to improve its approach?

Kendra: One thing youth in the environmental movement are really good at is getting communities involved at the onset of projects and movements. They reach out to the people who are most impacted, bring them onto campaigns early and make them the core part of it. This is something we need to make sure we’re doing at EDF. Also, we need to figure out the best ways to use the internet and get the right message out. We need to help people find the right information and to believe it, especially in today’s world of ‘fake news.’

Fred: We’re in the race of our lives against climate change, so I agree it’s long overdue that we should be taking bold action on this and other environmental issues, and yet there are vested interests blocking it. I think the people overwhelmingly support strong action, so I agree with Kendra’s idea that we need to engage people at the community level, earlier, and there are a lot of different ways to do that. One way is to find even better ways to harness the awesome power of the internet. I think Mom’s Clean Air Force, our advocacy organization with a million members, is one example of how EDF has been doing that. We have organizers on the ground around the country and many moms writing blogs and engaging other moms in the struggle to ensure that their children, and eventually grandchildren, are safe.

Listen and work with the younger generation. We are the ones who are going to be experiencing this the most.

Kendra Hughes, EDF field coordinator, national field operations

EDF: Kendra, when we say EDF does the work we do for future generations as well as generations we haven’t met yet, you represent that next generation. As a younger activist, what advice do you have for the current generation of environmental leaders, like Fred?

Kendra: Listen and work with the younger generation. We are the ones who are going to be experiencing this the most. People are already experiencing climate change the world over, especially poorer countries and minorities in the U.S. The rapid industrial and economic growth that came before us is what’s producing all the carbon emissions but those without the wealth are the ones facing its effects. So we just need to make sure we involve those people from the onset and work together to find solutions.

EDF: Fred, do you think your generation has a good connection with the new generation of activists?

Fred: I think the connections need to be better among a whole lot of stakeholders, and certainly with the new generation of activists. Part of EDF’s M.O. is to listen really well, to be able to transcend, step into the shoes of somebody else, whether it’s a company or a community group. I think we probably could do more of that with young activists and understand their point of view better because that would help us work together more seamlessly. And Kendra’s onto something important when she says we need to have a lot more people engaged in order to win. I’d say that’s what it’s going to take to overcome the vested interests.

Kendra Hughes and Fred Krupp

EDF: Every Friday there’s a new school climate strike reminding us of how powerful the youth voice can be. Fred, what do you think when you see the amount of exposure that these young activists are getting, and what they’re bringing to the conversation?

Fred: I think we absolutely need the new energy they’re bringing. The spotlight on this unconscionable situation needs to burn brighter, because only by making scientific reality and the damages that are being experienced — the loss of lives around the globe — more apparent, are we going to drive implementation of so many solutions we already have.

EDF: Kendra, what do you think when you see the youth movement grow and express itself like this?

Kendra: I think it’s very exciting. I feel like a late bloomer when it comes to activism. I didn’t get involved until college, but seeing all these young people so informed on the issues, deciding to take action now, not waiting till they get older and get a job, all volunteer, all based on their passion — I think it’s very hopeful.

EDF: You used to work at Greenpeace, Kendra, a very effective organization, and a little more confrontational than EDF. I’d love to hear your thoughts about these different approaches and why you decided to come work at EDF.

Kendra: I was a receptionist at Greenpeace, so the main reason I left was because I wanted to do more hands-on work, digging into specific issues. I heard about a job opening in EDF’s Political Affairs program, which was great since my major was political science. I loved what I learned about EDF, the Political Affairs program and that they involved businesses, economists and scientists to develop solutions in their approach.

Your question comparing the two types of organizations is my favorite. I think that groups like Greenpeace that do the exciting activist work are necessary in our environmental puzzle as well as groups like EDF. Without groups like Greenpeace hanging signs off of buildings and doing that work, fewer people would be aware of the issues facing us today. Those groups draw attention to the problem and encourage people to learn more about it. Then EDF plays the role of bringing people, politicians and business leaders together to solve the problems and move forward. So I think both are important. EDF is as effective and bipartisan as possible. That would be hard without the activist part.

...and if more young people are actively engaged, we can move faster on environmental issues.

Fred Krupp, EDF president

EDF: Do you agree, Fred?

Fred: I do agree. I think a lot of different environmental groups play an important role in solving problems. I also think that EDF can and should do more on educating people — Moms Clean Air Force is one example of that — so it’s not that our only role is to come in with solutions after others have highlighted the problem, but we’ll continue to be involved in both parts of it. I appreciate that there are a lot of different roles to play in the environmental community and at the same time I think we all need to figure out ways to go faster quicker, because this is such an immense, urgent problem that needs a lot more action than we’ve seen to date.

Kendra: I agree that EDF has been out there on the forefront educating people as well. Moms Clean Air Force does a great job and they have a unique approach, which I think is important.

EDF: Here’s a tough one, Kendra. Do you think that the baby boomer generation has let your generation down, because we’re now in such a state of urgency?

Kendra: That is a tough one! I don’t know that I’d say “let us down.” They haven’t done the greatest job, but there are so many factors that I can’t point to just one generation letting us down. I do think at this point with all the facts, figures and knowledge we have, that if we proceed to go at the same rate we’re going now, then yes, they’re letting us down, and Millennials are in the mix too now.

Fred: I would like to take Kendra off the hook on that one. She’s being very nice and diplomatic. I think the baby boomer generation as a whole has let Kendra’s generation down so far, and that’s one of the reasons I’m hoping we can all work a lot harder to get this problem addressed.

EDF: Fred, over the course of your lifetime, how have you seen activism around environmentalism change?

Fred: Before I started working in this field, there was Earth Day, 1970, where there was a surge of enthusiasm from youth, including student strikes and teach-ins, and I think that surge helped pass some of the biggest environmental laws in the 1970s when I was still in school. There was a focus on legal solutions at the time, and later when I came to EDF, I’d like to think EDF added a focus — not “instead of” the legal approach — the importance of market solutions that Kendra mentioned before. But a lot of the energy and activism that were present in the 1970s quieted down as the movement professionalized and more people were employed in groups like EDF.

We haven’t been making progress nearly as fast as we need to, so I welcome the new energy with open arms and fully embrace the idea that we’re returning to a time when people feel so passionately about this issue that they're willing to spend their own time and energy to speak out. What we’re just beginning to see is climate change activism moving young people to vote on the basis of this issue, and I think that’s the most important development that we all need to work on, to get out the vote. This is a democracy and if more young people are actively engaged, we can move faster on environmental issues.

EDF: Kendra, how much do you think moving from activism to voting is on the minds of this generation?

Kendra: I think it’s improving. After the 2016 election, everyone realized that voting matters, and now more people see that voting on this issue matters, too. We’re seeing more and more people make that connection, putting the people who can make a difference on a policy level into office. I don’t remember anybody coming to me and making those arguments when I was younger. Now I see it everywhere. It’s exciting, but we need to do more, engaging everyone, not just the people who have access to the internet or who are in college. We need to spread the message far and wide.

Kendra Hughes and Fred Krupp

EDF: Any ideas on how we can do a better job getting the message out there?

Kendra: I keep coming back to the idea that we need to provide community leaders with the tools they need and make sure they’re as educated on these issues and ready to vote as possible. We need to engage more with people who don’t have the resources we do.

EDF: Fred, what tools do you think we should be providing these communities?

Fred: A lot comes to mind, but one thing is the mechanism to know what pollution they’re being exposed to, ways of making the invisible threats visible. I’m proud that after Hurricane Harvey, we went into Houston and did what the government was unwilling to do — measure toxic chemicals in the air.

As people learn the facts of what’s being put into the air, and therefore their lungs, we can expect more people to demand action. In West Oakland, we created the highest resolution maps that have ever been created, mapping pollution block by block, and we were able to work with a major health insurer, California Kaiser, to learn that people who live on parts of the streets that are more polluted are getting sick more often. That sort of information is one of the most powerful tools we can make available to disproportionately impacted communities.

EDF: One last question. Kendra, what gives you hope for a future with a stable climate?

Kendra: The young people, definitely. So many leaders at such a young age. It boggles the mind. When I think about what I was doing at 15 compared with so many people in the spotlight now. They’re starting so young that hopefully they’ll be forces to be reckoned with when they’re older, and have so much more reach. That’s really exciting and gives me hope.

The new Congress is inspiring, too. It’s the most diverse, with so many new leaders, new voices. It gives me hope that they’ll try to break us out of the ‘do-nothing’ pattern and shake things up, that they’ll do it right now.

Fred: I’m glad you used the word hope in your question, not optimism, because I think optimism is a prediction that it’s going to be all right, but hope is a verb with its sleeves rolled up. So as long as people have their sleeves rolled up and are working on this, that gives me hope. We haven’t yet seen what will happen with advances like lower cost sensors, all the information we’re learning about pollution in our air, water and products. I think as that information becomes available and transparency grows, it will motivate change.

We still need to put a price on pollution, to make it more expensive to pollute than to be clean, but market mechanisms have proven powerful when we’ve used them — like on acid rain in the 1990s or to combat climate change in a few states where they’ve worked really well. All those things give me a lot of hope.

Kendra: I agree. Once we start utilizing all of this new innovation, we should be able to make a much bigger difference. If not, then I’ll really blame the baby boomers!

EDF: Many thanks to you both.

This important conversation is part of our ongoing effort to bring together the enthusiasm and intelligence of the growing youth climate movement with the day-to-day work of finding and implementing solutions to the world’s toughest environmental problems. If you enjoyed reading it and would like to stay informed of upcoming actions, sign up below.

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