By Julia Marsaglia
As a child, Sonia Lasher-Trapp had an intense fear of storms. She can still remember sitting through them alone in her basement in the middle of the night, sheltered from the bright lightning and pounding rain. Eventually, her dad began watching the storms with her, turning her fear into awe. “My parents had really good advice: What you’re afraid of, it’s often because you don’t understand it,” she recounts. This transformed her perspective, and Lasher-Trapp went on to study the phenomena that she once hid from. Today she’s a Professor of Atmospheric Sciences at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign researching the impacts of climate change on precipitation. “I know now when to be scared,” she said.
Similar to that change of heart, over the course of her career Lasher-Trapp has witnessed a transformation in society’s attitude toward climate change. For years, a strong, well-funded lobby questioned whether it was even real, with efforts by corporations to silence scientists on the facts of climate change. “That was really hard to take as a scientist because we’re looking at the data and we’re saying, ‘It’s a graph! It goes up! What are you debating?’” But now, inspired by the work of emerging young environmentalists, scientists are feeling much more hopeful.
Lasher-Trapp and other climate researchers at Illinois have seen firsthand the changing attitudes toward their field and the energy of student activists. While the University of Illinois is still far from being free from fossil fuels, it has been recognized for its work in sustainability in large part because of student efforts. Through two student-initiated fees — the Cleaner Energy Technologies Fee and the Sustainable Campus Environment Fee — the Student Sustainability Committee allocates one of the nation’s largest green funds toward environmental stewardship on campus. Since 2008, this committee has dedicated more than $15.5 million to projects that promote sustainability, including support of two solar farms, the addition of native and pollinator plants, and geothermal energy system installations across campus. On a broader level, students play a major role in drafting the Illinois Climate Action Plan (iCAP) — the university’s road map for reaching carbon neutrality by 2050 or sooner. Although the plan has been met with some criticism, it lays the groundwork for necessary change. One initiative that came out of the iCAP is a new sustainability-focused general education requirement that would require students to take a three-hour elective course exploring sustainability challenges and solutions.
“The U of I really prides itself in being a leader in sustainability,” says Creen Ahmad, a 2021 graduate who advocated for the sustainability gen-ed requirement in her role with Illinois Student Government. “It’s written in the iCAP … and the chancellor has signed off on the iCAP. It’s now a matter of technicality of how every college is going to do this.”
Madhu Khanna, Director of the U of I Institute for Sustainability, Energy, and Environment (iSEE) and a leading scholar in agricultural and environmental economics, has observed this evolution of the climate movement throughout her lifetime. She describes the phenomenon’s transformation from “something that people thought wasn’t going to affect us … something that’s going to happen in the future and (was) the responsibility of governments,” to an issue that cannot be left for future generations to solve. Nowadays, many people feel an urgent need to actively push governments toward sustainability. Millions of young activists around the world have taken to the streets for climate marches, demanding that governments eliminate the use of fossil fuels and reduce harmful greenhouse gas emissions. The #FridaysForFuture effort that grew out of Greta Thunberg’s 2018 protests in Sweden has engaged more than 14 million people around the world, with climate strikes, policy advocacy, and other actions.
Overall, the movement is “going in a positive direction,” says U of I student Hailie Collins, President of Illinois Solar Decathlon, a student organization that builds sustainable, solar-powered homes. But she doesn’t foresee huge shifts until her generation becomes a majority of the workforce “because a lot of sustainability initiatives do come from policy.” Although college students aren’t yet the dominant force in decision making — and may feel their youth makes it difficult to enact change — speaking up and being informed is still crucial.
Having witnessed students voice their concerns about climate change, “it’s very energizing to have younger people taking the reins of this movement,” says Wendy Yang, Associate Professor of Plant Biology and Geology at Illinois, who studies ecosystem ecology and greenhouse gas dynamics.
The question is not whether we move forward in combating climate change, but how to do it. “There are a number of great solutions that we already know can mitigate climate change,” notes Khanna, and what we need to do now is “create the institutions and the policies that can ensure that we act upon those solutions.” Young people are “placing a lot of expectations — as they should — on the leaders and administrators who are actually the ones who can enact that change” at the institutional and policy level, says iSEE Sustainability Programs Coordinator Meredith Moore. Using their voting power is one of the most impactful ways that individuals can influence change close to home.
As a Teaching Assistant Professor of Atmospheric Sciences, Alicia Klees teaches her students “not to trivialize the power of having a mayor or governor who’s really on board with green energy.” She does this by encouraging her students to vote for eco-friendly candidates, not just at the national level but also at the local level. Urbana Mayor Diane Marlin, for example, has committed to bettering her Illinois community’s environment by supporting programs like the Mahomet Aquifer Protection Task Force, which can identify existing and potential water contaminants.
We are no longer waiting around for change. When it comes to global warming, many young people realize that we can’t afford to wait — it’s time to act. It’s “probably the most important thing that’s happening in our lifetime,” says M.J. Oviatt, a 2018 graduate and former co-president of Students for Environmental Concerns. Because younger generations have learned about and experienced the consequences of climate change that come from inaction, an increasing number are getting involved.
A 2019 article published by the Pew Research Center found that in the United States, 71% of those aged 18 to 29 say climate change is a threat, compared with just half of Americans 50 and older. “Young people are gaining more of a voice, whereas before they were dismissed or shut down,” says 2020 U of I graduate and environmental activist Abigale Pstzroch.
While many are accused of being too radical, Ahmad disagrees. “We’re not radical,” she argues. “You have to care more.”
Today, not only are most people able to recognize climate change as a reality, but many also understand that “the climate change movement is also an environmental justice and social justice movement,” as Yang notes. Better yet, people are talking about it as an environmental justice issue.
“It doesn’t seem like people are as cautious about having difficult conversations” about climate change as they were a handful of years ago, Moore says.
So, let’s talk about it. In her environmental advocacy efforts, 2021 Illinois graduate and former iSEE intern Julija Sakutyte says her voice is prominent because of her privilege as a white cisgender woman. Given that privilege, “one of my priorities has been to uplift the voices of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color because those are the people who are impacted by climate change the most.”
Ahmad expresses a similar sentiment: “It’s very obvious now that certain parts of the world, and even in America certain communities … will face the brunt of environmental catastrophes.”
In Champaign-Urbana, the Fifth and Hill community’s residents, who are predominantly Black and low income, face environmental injustices at home. An old Ameren manufactured gas plant that closed in 1953 left coal tar and other wastes behind, turning the area into a toxic site. Benzene and other harmful compounds have contaminated the surrounding neighborhood’s soil and groundwater, and the site was never properly cleaned. Pstzroch, who is involved in the Fifth and Hill Community Rights Campaign, remarks how “there’s a lot of turnover in the community … so a lot of the people who move in don’t know that they’re living next to a toxic site.” The fact that people have had to live among hazardous chemicals for almost 70 years since the plant closed shows how crucial it is for all of us to be strong advocates for environmental justice.
Perhaps the most important thing about environmental justice is that it interconnects with other forms of justice. For Ahmad, coming to the University of Illinois allowed her to become an advocate for Palestine, and she realized that she “was always making this connection between being Palestinian and caring for our land, caring for the environment.” This has allowed her to understand the importance of centering Native and Indigenous communities in environmentalism and making sure environmentalism is rooted in anti-colonialism. Today, “different NGOs take land away from Native people to preserve it. That’s just a new form of colonization,” Oviatt says. The success of the environmental movement is inseparable from social justice, and that’s something that the new wave of environmental activists not only understand but emphasize.
These activists are also focused more on meaningful outcomes than anything else. “Young people in particular are so motivated to not even place the blame on other people, but act to do something about it,” Moore says.
As younger people grow and begin to understand the implications of climate change, they “are getting involved and saying, ‘It’s our future and we need to make sure we take action now to protect it.’ And that is very powerful,” Khanna says. “I’m hopeful again that we might actually see some action in the next decades.”
At this stage a certain amount of suffering from climate change is inevitable, and that can be a heavy burden for those who are most vulnerable. “It’s hard not to be pessimistic about the environmental movement because of the state of things at this moment,” Pstzroch acknowledges, but the demand for change is so great that the severity of those impacts can be minimized. Nevertheless, the emotional toll of fighting for your planet’s future is exhausting.
Sakutyte advocates for “more self-care and more acknowledgement of the burnout and the stress that is very real when you’re involved in something as heavy as climate change and environmental activism.”
Oviatt was one of those who suffered from burnout as a result of promoting environmental awareness on campus. “We failed so many times,” she recalls. “These campaigns take so long, and … you’re fighting against the status quo and that’s really hard to do.” But when she returned to campus in 2019, seeing “people who were still in it and wanting to be part of the movement and seeing people join even after I’d left … it was so worth it.” Oviatt gained a newfound sense of dedication to the climate movement and plans to stick with it this time. Her impact on campus continues to grow; more students have taken up the fight since she graduated, continuing to hold climate strikes similar to the one she once organized that brought out a large crowd of students and speakers to hold the University of Illinois accountable for its contribution to fossil fuel investments.
“The university tells you about the ‘Power of I,’ ” says Karla Sanabria-Véaz of the Graduate Employees’ Organization, who spoke at the 2021 Earth Day climate strike about the need to unite against environmental racism. “I believe in the power of us.”
The University of Illinois is a microcosm of the global environmental movement. Year after year, young visionaries learn from high-achieving, experienced professionals, and the values they impart matter. The worldwide reach of universities like the U of I makes it especially crucial for them to be leaders in groundbreaking, innovative change, despite challenging obstacles. Let’s make sure the push to mitigate climate change is something that current students will be able to reflect on decades from now with pride and enduring optimism.
About the Author …
Julia Marsaglia graduated in 2022 with a degree in Earth, Society, and Environmental Sustainability and minors in English and Chemistry. She’s originally from Normal, Ill., but has moved to Arizona to be a Watershed Technician for the Coconino National Forest through the American Conservation Experience’s Emerging Professionals in Conservation (EPIC) program.
This article was the At Illinois category winner in the 2021 Janelle Joseph Environmental Writing Contest.