In 2019, just days before a major climate summit in New York, Ember and Azalea Morgan got an idea: Greta Thunberg, then 16-years old, and now a household name, was sailing to New York across the Atlantic to raise awareness about climate change.
The Morgan sisters decided to pack up and bike all the way to New York from their home in Andover, New Hampshire, to be part of the moment.
“It certainly was empowering, especially having those girls peddling their little legs on these tiny bicycle wheels hundreds of miles,” says the sisters’ mother, Molly Morgan. “Really, it was phenomenal.”
Ember, age 10, and Azalea, age 9, remember where they were when they first realized what climate change was doing, and would continue to do, to their planet.
“We were at a friend's house for a party, dinner thing…and we were watching TV — National Geographic, I think — and I saw this video about, like, polar bears and global warming and how the ice is melting and they don't have a lot of ice left. And I got really sad,” Azalea says.
Molly Morgan remembers what happened at bedtime that night.
“[F]or me to have my own child be cognizant of these climate issues and mass extinction on our planet, it just really hit home to me.”
“I had a moment with Azalea in her bed when she was just sobbing uncontrollably, almost like I'd never heard her sob before,” she says. “And for me to have my own child be cognizant of these climate issues and mass extinction on our planet, it just really hit home to me.”
“And then my mom was like, ‘Ok, we will do something. I promise you. I don't know what, but we will do something,’” Azalea adds.
Azalea says it surprises some adults that she and her sister are so invested in the issue of climate change at such a young age. “Some people are like, 'Well, we're not going to be alive to see it,’” she says. “And we're like, ‘Well, it's my future. I should decide what's good for our future.’”
If adults don't take more action now, scientists say, when that future arrives, Azalea and Ember will live on a planet plagued by more extreme heat, floods, droughts, wildfires and storms, and all the inequality, health and social problems they’ll cause.
With that in mind, the sisters have kept up their climate activism — raising money for solar panels at their school, going vegetarian and encouraging classmates to recycle. Ember ran for New Hampshire Kid Governor on a climate platform.
They're part of a corps of youth climate activists that's growing exponentially across the state.
Like the Morgan sisters, Lydia Hansberry and Nikhil Chavda say they’ve been worried about the environment for a long time. Lydia remembers first learning about the hole in the Earth’s ozone when she was in fifth grade.
“[H]ow can we be so careless with our home and how can we just destroy it in this way?"
“I kind of thought, it's like — it sounds kind of childish — but it's not fair,” she says. “Like, how can we be so careless with our home and how can we just destroy it in this way?"
Last year, during a Zoom call about the launch of a new climate justice campaign in New Hampshire, a student organizer asked Lydia if she wanted to join a youth program with the activist group 350 New Hampshire, a chapter of the nonprofit started by Vermont environmentalist Bill McKibben. Groups like 350NH are giving more young activists like Lydia an outlet for their climate anxiety.
“It's kind of knowing what scares you, but also knowing that there is the potential to fix it,” Lydia says.
“It's hard to get taken seriously when you're 14. In terms of things like asking our representatives and senators to sign bills, they don't really think of us as voters of the future. They think of us as kids.”
Nikhil Chavda was recruited by a friend and classmate to join 350. He says being part of a group of other activists, mostly led by people in their 20s, has been vital while he's still too young to vote or drive himself to protests. “It's hard to get taken seriously when you're 14,” he says. “In terms of things like asking our representatives and senators to sign bills, they don't really think of us as voters of the future. They think of us as kids.”
But Nikhil has found that he and his peers can have an impact — through climate strikes, raising awareness on social media, and getting out the vote for progressive candidates who support strong climate action.
He says he has learned to emphasize New Hampshire's natural beauty when he talks climate policy with adults, including state legislators. He hopes to run for state office himself one day.
Other young climate activists in New Hampshire are already seeing policy results. The ECO Club at Portsmouth High School helped push for a city-wide ban on styrofoam and some other single-use plastics. But right before the ban was set to take effect in late 2020, the city council wanted to postpone it because of COVID-19.
“I was really angry,” says Abby Herrholz, a senior at Portsmouth High and the ECO Club co-president. “I was like, this is unacceptable. We need to figure something else out.”
So, in spite of the pandemic and remote school, Abby and her classmates mobilized.
“We went to the city council, we wrote letters…we brought the youth front to be like, ‘This is our future, not all about you,’” Abby says. “And we ended up changing the minds of three or four city council members, and now the ban is in effect.”
Portsmouth's plastics ban is the first local ordinance of its kind in the state.
All these young activists had the same advice for people their age on how to turn their fears about climate change into action. “Just do it,” says Ember Morgan. “You don't need anything. You've just got to start.”
We all have more power than we think, they say.
This article is written by Adam Wernick, based on a report by Annie Ropeik of New Hampshire Public Radio, courtesy of the By Degrees climate reporting project. Ropeik’s report aired on Living on Earth from PRX and may also be heard at NHPR.org/climate.