Students and Lincoln community members protest outside of the State's Capitol, calling their representatives to take action against climate change.
Cameron Razler (left), Sushant Timalsina (middle) and Madison Zucco (right) protest with Embrace Lincoln and other climate organizations outside of the State Capitol. Photo by Lauren Penington/NNS

Students from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln joined Embrace Lincoln and Citizens’ Climate Lobby members to march from the University’s student union to the Nebraska State Capitol in the late afternoon of Sunday, Nov. 19, demanding statewide climate awareness and action.

The groups marched in support of a statewide climate action plan similar to the one currently in place in Lincoln, a switch to regenerative farming practices such as no-till farming and crop rotation, and the implementation of wind and solar renewable energy sources across the state. 

“Politicians have ignored the climate crisis or straight up ignored it for many years,” Colette Yellow Robe, a professor of Native American Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, told the crowd gathered at the steps of the Capitol. “Now the storm has brewed. We are going to respect the storm that we have all created together and we are going to change what’s going on together.”

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Colette Yellow Robe addresses the crowd of environmental activists gathered at the steps of the capitol. Photo by Lauren Penington/NNS.

According to Martha Shulski, director of the Nebraska State Climate Office, climate change is both a national and local issue. In a UNL-sponsored Brown Bag series talk, Shulski demonstrated the implications of climate change for Nebraska.

“It’s real and here now,” Shulski said. “It’s not something that’s happening only in a far off place way off into the future. It’s happening locally in Nebraska.”

Temperatures in Nebraska are increasingly rising, especially at night, and the weather is getting more unpredictable with worsening extremes, Shulski said. 

Nebraska’s temperature rose by about 1 degree over the past century. Climate models predict a temperature increase of 4 to 9 degrees by 2100, depending on how well the world can control greenhouse gases.

“I’ve talked to communities in the Sandhills and there are communities that are flooding from below because the groundwater is rising and because they’re getting more precipitation,” Shulksi said. “Overall, we’ve seen a ramping up of precipitation.”

According to Shulski, if policymakers and local residents fail to act, the rate of warming will increase at an unprecedented rate. In less than 40 years, Nebraska will look like present-day Southern Kansas, drastically affecting agriculture. 

Similar increases with precipitation and the winter season’s intensity could hurt agriculture from all sides, Shulski said. Although precipitation is expected to increase 15% during the winter and spring seasons, it is expected to decrease 5-10% during critical growing seasons.

“We know for a fact that we are the cause of this current climate change and, therefore, we also know that we are the solution to this,” Shulski said. 

As climate change increases across the globe, there has been a spike in the involvement of youth activists in the push for community awareness, personal and corporate accountability and federal legislation. 

The 2019 Yale Program on Climate Change Communication found that people born after 1961, such as Millennials and Gen Z, were more likely to identify global warming as an issue they found important and more likely to take action than older Americans.

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Younger generations are more willing to take political action around climate change. Graph and data provided by YPCCC, Yale University, New Haven, CT.

In Lincoln, students and student organizations, such as SustainUNL, have partnered with CCL’s Lincoln chapter to advocate for a tax on carbon and other environmentally conscious policies. 

“The primary policy that we support is a price on carbon called a carbon fee and dividend,” Bryan Hermsen, CCL’s national IT administration and applications developer and Lincoln chapter leader, said. 

Carbon taxes are proposed fees placed on businesses when fossil fuels enter the economy. The price would be based on the metric tons of carbon dioxide that the fuel would release, forcing companies to pay for polluting the air and encouraging them to switch to more economically-friendly practices and renewable energy sources. 

According to a 2014 study conducted by Regional Economic Models, Inc. and Synapse Energy Economics, Inc., implementing a tax on carbon would create 2.1 million jobs, reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 33% and prevent 13,000 premature deaths due to air quality by 2025.

The linearly increasing fee would go back to Americans as a monthly dividend that families can spend however they want, easing the possible financial stress of the transition to greener energy.

“Instead of the government keeping that money, you take the money and give it back to the people. That policy by itself could cut emissions nearly in half by 10 years by itself,” Hermsen said.

Although less than 1% of CCL’s members were under the age of 25 in 2014, they constituted a quarter of the group’s 2020 membership. Additionally, during 2020, 25% of new supporters were under the age of 25. 

“Young people are the voice that needs to be heard the most because they’re going to be impacted the most,” Moni Usasz, another Lincoln chapter leader, said. “It’s up to them, and us, to create the political will.”

CCL has two national events in Washington, D.C., according to Hermsen. In the past, the Lincoln chapter has helped fundraise to send SustainUNL members with the group to speak to Congress members and get hands-on lobbying experience. 

“It holds a lot of power to see young people engaging in something because it’s not only that they’re here in the present, but that these are the voices that are going to be leading us into the future,” said Steffanie Munguía, CCL’s national student engagement manager. “Organizations that are serious about engaging young people have to provide programs and opportunities for students to have designated spaces in these organizations and to feel like they’re being invited in authentically, that their voices are being valued and that they belong in this movement.”

Munguía, 27, has been volunteering with environmental organizations and providing environmental education since the age of 11. After following CCL on social media for several years and seeing their success along the way, in terms of garnering support for concrete solutions instead of solely educating people on the problem, Munguía said she was called to join.

“There was a very clear direction of educating people on yes, there’s a problem, but it’s not hopeless, and here’s a really practical solution that we can all work towards in a nonpartisan way,” Munguía said. “It just really concretized that this was where I should be putting my energy and supporting more young people and more students as they get involved in climate action.”

According to Munguía, CCL offers several programs to empower college students across the United States to take action on climate change. The main three are internships, where students work directly with staff to get a sense of what it’s like working in a nonprofit; fellowships, where students mentor other campus leaders in their area about sustaining campus-specific chapters and bringing attention to climate issues on those campuses; and training programs.

“One of the things that I really like about CCL is that it’s not only trying to branch out and get a foothold in university campuses, we really work to make sure that there is a value add to students,” Munguía said. “If you’re putting in the time with CCL, you’re also going to get some concrete skills out of it.”

There are two main programs, according to Munguía. The Climate Advocacy Certificate program is a series of informational sessions that walk interested people through CCL’s work and history, as well as climate change and advocacy in a broader sense.

The certificate program teaches people how to engage with the media and how to engage with policymakers to advocate for the things they feel strongly about, Munguía said.

The Campus Leader Training Program requires students to participate in the certificate program but also provides them with the support and resources to start a campaign or a chapter on campus.

“It doesn’t always make sense to start a new student organization in every context,”  Munguía said. “But maybe there’s some particular aspects of climate advocacy that students seem to be interested in engaging around.”

Munguía said the focus of campus chapters depends on the specific university’s needs, but that they each try to engage students and get them interested in climate advocacy so they can move that interest beyond passive into active. 

According to Munguía, CCL connects students to tabling events, where they host an informational table at a local event, fair or farmer’s market to educate people or increase membership; lobbying teams, where members meet with congressional representatives to advocate for change; and other tools that they need to be active advocates.

26 campus chapters exist across the country. They function similarly to local chapters while also engaging on topics critical at specific locations. 

“Taking advantage of the fact that there are so many people in universities across the country and that these are also kind of hubs for innovation and for moving communities forward, we can leverage students at these colleges and universities to make a really big impact on climate,” Munguía said. 

Although UNL does not have a campus chapter, students and organizations like SustainUNL work with the local CCL chapter to advocate for state and national change.

According to Kat Woerner, a UNL senior majoring in economics, environmental studies and natural resource economics, CCL members helped her navigate how to call and write to her Congress members, what to say when meeting with them and other activism methods. 

Woerner has been active on UNL’s environmentalism front: piloting a recycling program on campus, lobbying at the Nebraska Unicameral and on Capitol Hill for climate action, organizing climate strikes and marches, working with UNL’s Student Organic Farm and educating students about sustainability on campus through mentorship and programs.

Most recently, Woerner authored a resolution to end the traditional balloon release after the first Husker touchdown during football games and worked with other SustainUNL members to advocate for its passing during an ASUN meeting. 

This resolution was passed previously, but Woerner said the administration didn’t act on it because of the confusion of COVID-19.

“The university hasn’t publicly stated anything about when it will be or what the new tradition is, which is the issue,” Woerner said. “Traditions do have an important role at Nebraska, but no tradition should be given priority over our researchers who are worried about the rising cost of helium and shortages in the future.”

Caitlyn Croft, a political science junior and SustainUNL’s liaison to CCL, said CCL’s approach to activism is important because it focuses on creating change on a larger scale, where it will have a substantial impact. 

“Environmentalism is usually focused on thinking about your personal choices,” Croft said. “From where I’m coming from, I know the biggest part is getting politicians to put laws in place or put agreements in place that will actually force corporations to stop polluting. The personal level of sustainability is not as important or detrimental as companies themselves.”

Although it can be difficult to feel like individual actions can make a difference on such a large issue, those involved in the movement are building the necessary momentum to enact change. 

“I see big shifts at a time when it feels like the political system is broken,” Hermsen said. 

When Hermsen is engaged in a movement and talking to lawmakers, he sees more people engaged with the issue and creating policies than society believes. According to Hermsen, when working hands-on with an issue, it is easier to see the difference being made and to have hope.

Munguía, who was involved in environmental activism as early as middle school and continues to work for change at the same time as earning her doctorate degree in Earth Systems Science, urges students to not underestimate the power their voices hold.

“I think we have been taught, incorrectly in many cases over the years, that our voices aren’t [powerful],” Munguía said. “And certainly we can see the news and feel like we aren’t being heard in a lot of cases. Climate has been one of those spaces where we see young people really leading on and driving decision-makers to take action. I think those voices are being heard more and more now.” 

One of CCL’s core values is personal power. According to Munguía, CCL is a space to learn how to maximize that power and be heard. 

“I think all young people really do have some power here,” Munguía said. “And the biggest way that we lose that power is by opting not to use it because we don’t think it has any value.” 

Students’ voices have potential in perspective, but also in number.

“Millennials and Gen Z are now 51.4% of the U.S. population. Their votes could change the entire political landscape, not to mention move us forward on climate change,” former CCL student engagement director Clara Fang said in an open letter. “At CCL, we’ve observed members of Congress pay more attention when young people are in our lobby meetings, and they have the power to be persuasive in a way that older adults aren’t.”

Woerner shared a story illustrating this point. 

“There’s an old story of a little boy that my grandma used to tell me,” Woerner said. “He was walking on a beach and there were a bunch of starfish washed up. And so he’d walked by, he’d pick one up and he’d throw it back into the ocean. He’d walk by, pick one up and throw it into the ocean. Then someone came by and said ‘Why are you doing this? It doesn’t matter.’ and the boy responded ‘Well, it matters to this one, and it matters to this one and it matters to this one.’ Each individual thing that we do is helpful.”

Woerner said that seeing young activists and leaders come together to create accountability and protect the environment gives her hope. 

“We have been taught since elementary school that the best thing we can do is to recycle or turn off the lights or eat less meat, but what we really need to do is use our voice within our businesses/organizations and make changes with the millions they have rather than the thousands us as individuals have,” Woerner said. “I don’t want to look the next generation in the eyes and apologize for not doing more.”

CCL’s campus leaders program is currently recruiting and accepting applications until the next Legislative session begins in January. The training is open to all students, even if they were not previously engaged in CCL, and can be taken for academic credit. For more information, visit https://citizensclimatehighered.org/campus-leaders.

Lauren Penington is a sophomore at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln majoring in journalism and political science. In addition to writing at the Nebraska News Service, Lauren has worked as a marketing intern for Elitch Gardens Amusement and Water Park in Denver and a news intern at KLKN TV in Lincoln. She has been published in a variety of Nebraska newspapers, including: The Lincoln Journal Star, The Summerland Advocate-Messenger, The Reader, The Sidney Sun-Telegraph, The North Platte Bulletin, and more. Lauren has experience working with the majority of Adobe Suit programs. Although she has more experience with print and web journalism, she has also worked with photo and video to tell stories in unique ways.