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Youth Activists Petition for 2020 Presidential Candidate Debate on Environmental Policy

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By Guest Blogger Sasha Jones

A student-led petition urging 2020 Democratic presidential candidates to debate on environmental policy has garnered over 51,000 signatures since its posting nearly two weeks ago.

The campaign, created by U.S. Youth Climate Strike activists, advocates for all candidates to commit to participating in a debate or forum on environmental issues.

"With the magnitude of the oncoming climate crisis, it's no longer sufficient to have a single token environmental question that 2020 candidates get to brush off with a sound bite. We need an entire debate on environmental policies," the petition says.

The petition is inspired by plans from the Human Rights Campaign and the University of California, Los Angeles, to co-host a forum for Democratic presidential candidates to discuss LGBTQ+ policy platforms.

So far, candidates Kirstin Gillibrand, Tim Ryan, Julián Castro, Mike Gravel, and Jay Inslee have expressed their support for a debate. Inslee additionally has a different petition on his website specifically encouraging the Democratic National Committee to host a climate debate.

"Right now, there's so many people running and it's getting hard to decide who you want to win, so before the primaries is an important [time] for this [debate] to be held," Karla Stephan, the Youth Climate Strike national finance director and petition co-author, said in an interview with Education Week

Youth Climate Strike is currently using social media to "flood" candidates. Most recently, they have used Twitter to target South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, although neither has responded to the campaign. 

The young activists' petition also received support from former Vice President  Al Gore, an environmental activist himself, who tweeted, "I support the calls for the DNC to hold a #ClimateDebate. Americans need to hear the candidates' ideas and policy proposals to confront the most important issue of this campaign and of our lives: how to urgently solve the climate crisis."

On Earth Day, former President Barack Obama also acknowledged the youth climate activists in a Twitter thread, including U.S. Youth Climate Strike co-founders Haven Coleman and Ira Hirsi, who are cited as other co-authors in the petition.

The recent petition is a part of a wave of student activism related to climate change.

In March, hundreds of students rallied at the U.S. Capitol building, along with thousands of others nationwide, to call on lawmakers to curb climate change. Prior to the protest, Education Week's Stephen Sawchuk interviewed three organizers, including Hirsi and Youth Climate Strike communications director Maddy Fernands.

"I said, 'Is anyone helping nationally?' and [Coleman] said 'No,' and that's how it started," Hirsi said in March.

Author of "Our Changing Earth: Why Climate Change Matters to Young People" Arjun Marwaha, an 11th grader at Fairmont Preparatory Academy in Anaheim, Calif., said that a debate is important because it would stimulate awareness and discussions about solutions to climate change. 

"If we get lost in the politics, we lose the essence of the movement and we lose our future along with it," Marwaha said. "We're the ones inheriting the earth ... we will be seeing the consequences."

Other youth environmental advocacy groups have made national headlines. The Sunrise Movement has organized walkouts and sit-ins in support of the Green New Deal. The group has most recently been organizing a national tour.

"I think people are really inspired right now by the new generation of politicians and the new generation of activists that are rising up that are saying we deserve clean air and we deserve clean water," said Garrett Blad, the Sunrise Movement's national press coordinator .

 According to Blad, Sunrise Movement and Youth Climate Strike have worked together to bring the issue of climate change to the forefront of the 2020 primaries. 

"We've seen that there is no age where it is impossible to change the world," Blad said.

Photo courtesy of Getty. 

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