Pulitzer Prize winner Elizabeth Rush to give Q&A at local Climate Summit

By Sarah Swenson, Assistant News Editor

The Nantucket Youth Climate Committee (NYCC) is closing in on it’s biggest event of the year, a climate summit featuring Pulitzer Prize winning author Elizabeth Rush. The NYCC is a small group of students from the high school working in coordination with Mass Audubon to spread awareness about climate change and its effects on our island community, offer a youth perspective, and inspire change. The group currently consists of one sophomore, Sarah Swenson, and three seniors: Maisie Cocker, Brian Nolasco-Ramirez, and JohnCarl McGrady, organized by Mass Audubon’s Nantucket Sanctuaries Director, Sam Kefferstan.

This relatively new climate group has only had two events so far, but it looks forward to its next one on Wednesday, May 19th, at 1pm. Their first climate event, ‘Sustainability and NHS: How We Move Forward’, was a virtual panel broadcasted by NCTV18 this past September, bringing Emma Young, a NHS graduate who participated in a climate activism group during her years in high school; Ashley Erisman, NHS science teacher and head of the environmental club; and Posie Constable, managing director as Sustainable Nantucket, as panelists to discuss the history of climate activism at the high school, its present state, and actions for the future. Their second event was a small panel, on April 10th. Members of the NYCC presented on the Nantucket Coastal Resilience Plan, a comprehensive plan to help Nantucket increase resilience against climate change and the effects of sea level rise that has been underway for years, and will begin implementation this May.

They are also working with many climate organizations including ReMain Nantucket, ACKlimate, Sustainable Nantucket, and the Town’s Coastal Resilience Advisory Committee. Earlier this month, members of the NYCC participated in an eel-grass planting day at Millie’s beach, part of a restoration project that hopes to reinvigorate Nantucket’s natural habitats.

The event on May 19th will be the climate committee’s biggest project to date. The panel will be a virtual, three and half hour event, hosted by the NYCC and its sister group on Martha’s Vineyard. Students will lead breakout sessions and all participants will have the opportunity to ask questions and engage on the topics. The climate panel will also have a special guest speaker, Elizabeth Rush, author of “Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shore” and “Still Lifes from a Vanishing City: Essays and Photographs from Yangon, Myanmar”.

“The number one thing I’m excited about is Elizabeth Rush. Elizabeth Rush won the Pulitzer Prize… for general nonfiction. That is the number one award you can win as a nonfiction author, you can’t get bigger than that,” McGrady said. “She’s going to give us a forty minute talk, and then you guys get to ask her questions for twenty minutes, so if you show up, you will have the chance to ask a question of a Pulitzer Prize winning author, and she’ll answer you.”

“It doesn’t have to be climate related,” he added. “Maybe you want to ask her, how do you get published as a nonfiction author? Maybe you want to ask her, how do you get people to talk to you, when you’re doing interviews?” Whatever it is you want to ask, he emphasized, you will get the chance to ask it. Bring a question, and you will get a personal response from Rush.

At the panel, attendees will hear information from professionals, as well as from the students, who offer a unique perspective that group organizer, Sam Kefferstan, says is often underrepresented in climate activism: “The youth climate committee is important to represent the group that is going to be most by the threat climate change poses, and often are the least represented in talking about the solutions and how we move forward.” Members of the climate committee agree.

“I may not be in high school, but I still consider myself a young person,” Kefferstan added. “A lot of those timestamps with climate change are going to impact me… and my ability to live the life I want to live.”

At 25, Kefferstan was in high school himself not that long ago, where he participated in a local youth climate activism group in his hometown of Andover, Massachusetts. A series of gas explosions in Merrimack Valley that greatly affected Andover, forcing the immediate evacuation of 30,000 people in Andover and neighboring towns, was the kickstarter for his serious engagement with climate work. 

“Hundreds of homes were without power and fuel for a long time. Some homes and neighborhoods even months without it. One man, Leonel Rondon, lost his life. It really activated me as a climate activist, to see the dangers of depending on fossil fuel infrastructure, that it poses those dangers inherently.” After the Merrimack Valley explosions, Kefferstan began his activism with an op-ed in the paper, which is what led him to the youth climate group in his town.

Every member in the NYCC has their own origin story, be it an easily defined event, or a lifetime of seeing the effects of climate change, that motivated them to start trying to make a change. For Maisie Cocker, growing up on Nantucket and seeing the way our environment is damaged by sea level rise and increased storms was inspiration to join the group. For Brian Nolasco-Ramirez, the motivation to join came from global school strikes organized by 18 year old climate activist Greta Thunberg. Thunberg offers the appeal of a teen voice the same way the NYCC does, giving more motivation to young people than an adult could.

“[I kept] hearing about how it was happening in our lifetime… no one was doing anything to really get anything done, that just really made me feel powerless, so I wanted to feel like I was doing something towards change,” explained Nolasco-Ramirez.

McGrady had been paying attention to climate change for a while, but his drive to pursue activism was truly ignited in 2018:  “the IPCC… put out a report that was summarizing the effects of climate change and projected temperature rise, and what that was going to mean, and I remember just being totally broken down that day… I was just crying, and I went for a two hour walk, and I just couldn’t stop thinking about these numbers, and how absurd the situation was, and I knew at that point that I had to do something.”

Since then, he has organized a school strike, pursued activism with local advocates such as Tobias Glidden, and of course, participated in the NYCC. He was the founder of the group. McGrady and Cocker are also representatives of the NYCC in a state-wide climate group. Every member of the climate group intends to pursue climate activism after they leave the high school as well, be it in their careers, or as a personal passion. The climate committee is a group that ties together teens who are already passionate about climate change, and fosters that energy.

This past year, the climate committee has been finding its feet as a brand new group, and of course, their pilot year was made more difficult by COVID. They hope to increase their advocacy work in the years to come. The threat for this burgeoning group is that with just one member from the already small group left after this year’s graduation, continuation of the group could be difficult. More students will have to join. However, members of the NYCC are not discouraged.

“It really only takes one person…when other students learn about what we’re doing, there’s a lot of appeal for them, whether they’re passionate about climate change, and raising awareness…or they need to get community service hours in order to graduate, or they’re looking just to connect with their community. There’s really a place for everybody on the Youth Climate Committee,” said Kefferstan. “I think we’re here to stay.”

Students who join the Youth Climate Committee will get the chance to create change, make connections with the leaders of the climate movement on island, and they will get community service hours for all time spent at meetings or events for the group.

Nolasco-Ramirez added that this year, the group has been trying to make sure things are set up so that in the future, students will have an easier time organizing panels. The committee has gotten a foothold in the local climate activism community, and spent much of its time networking and making connections with other groups and activists. In following years, students will be able to work towards their goals with less leg work.

There is plenty of incentive for taking action, the problem is the level of awareness.

“We just need to get the word out there,” he commented. That seems to be the conclusion from YCC members.

The issue of climate change looms over everyone, especially youth, who will see the effects of climate change even more strongly in their lifetime than adults. “As kids are taking environmental classes and are seeing these steps get more intense every year, it’s hard to not want to do something,” Cocker explained.

“[E]verything is at stake,” McGrady stressed. “This is the only existential threat that humanity has ever faced… the fate of humanity hangs in the balance in a way it never has before… I have to try. We have to try.”

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