Government & Politics

Vermont teens call on lawmakers to act on climate change and pass the Affordable Heat Act

Jenna Hirschman, an Essex High School junior and Youth Lobby activist, speaks in support of statewide climate legislation at the Statehouse in Montpelier on Friday, March 17, 2023. Photo by Natalie Williams/VTDigger

As legislators scrambled to meet crossover deadlines for policy bills at the Statehouse on Friday, youth climate activists spent the day calling on lawmakers to prioritize climate justice.

“I should be at school today,” said Miriam Serota-Winston, a 14-year-old member of the activist group Youth Lobby and first-year student at Montpelier High School. “But instead I'm here alongside my fellow students continuing to demand real, impactful climate action.” 

Activists from Youth Lobby, Sunrise Chittenden and the Sierra Club attended the Statehouse as part of Youth Lobby Day, speaking at a press conference and meeting with representatives, Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman and the Climate Solutions Caucus to express climate concerns and advocate for climate legislation. 

“We are on a path to our own demise,” said Kallen Fenster, a Youth Lobby member from Manchester who spoke at the press conference. “Humankind has a responsibility to preserve our planet for our future generations … but right now we are rapidly failing.” 

“We have the data and the science,” Serota-Winston said. “We know that the earth is warmer, that the sea is rising. We know that climate change disproportionately affects people of color, people in poverty, marginalized communities. We've said it so many times before and we will keep saying it until politicians stop putting profit and political maneuvering before our lives.”

Among youth activists’ priorities was the passage of S.5, a bill also known as the “Affordable Heat Act,” which would establish a clean heat standard in Vermont, using a credit system to incentivize and subsidize Vermonters’ transitions to heating and cooling systems with reduced carbon emissions. 

Although a similar bill was vetoed last session by Gov. Phil Scott, S.5 advanced in the Senate earlier this month and is projected to do well on the House floor, given the unprecedented supermajority of Democrats and Progressives in the Legislature this session.

A top recommendation of Vermont’s Climate Action Plan, which was adopted in 2021, the Affordable Heat Act would serve as an important legislative step for Vermont in meeting the legally binding emissions reductions requirements outlined in the Global Warming Solutions Act.

“The Affordable Heat Act is a big step toward (a safe) future. We needed this bill passed last year when our governor vetoed it, and we need it now, even more,” said Jenna Hirschman, a Youth Lobby activist and Essex High School junior. 

The student activists focused much of their messaging on the importance of justice in climate action, citing how the climate crisis disproportionately affects people of color, people in poverty and other marginalized communities. 

“While we all experience, collectively, the same effects of climate change, we will not be experiencing them equally,” said Earl Aguila, a student organizer of Sunrise Chittenden and a South Burlington High School student. “Black, Indigenous and communities of color and low-income communities already have limited access to education, jobs, housing, healthy food and transportation. A changing climate will exacerbate these crises.”

“We must actually have BIPOC and low-income people as integral and valued members and leaders” of movements for climate action, Aguila said.

As the activists stood before a small, dimly lit crowd, they spoke passionately while lawmakers passed casually in and out of the room.

“I remember having panic attacks over the state of the climate before I even left elementary school,” said Rowan Clough, a Duxbury resident and student activist with Harwood Union High School’s Youth Lobby Chapter. “I found (activism to be) very helpful for my own climate anxiety.”

While the youth activists were quick to admit the emotional toll the climate crisis has taken on them, referencing feelings of climate anxiety and doom that have at times felt insurmountable, they stood at the Statehouse calling for change.

“I've heard that some of my friends are like, ‘I don't have any reason to do anything with climate action. There's already a lot of other people doing it,’ but I guess what I would say to that is that the climate crisis is not just happening here,” Aguila said, who has family living in the Philippines. “It’s not just happening locally.”

“We all have a collective obligation to one another,” Aguila said.

Virginia Cobb, an Essex High School student and Westford resident, spoke about how young people are flooded with negative, but accurate, climate change news.

“I, along with my peers, want to be able to look back and say we did everything we could to help Vermonters and fight climate change,” Cobb said.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated which chamber S.5 is projected to do well in.

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Olivia Q. Pintair

About Olivia

Olivia Q. Pintair is a full-time intern. Olivia graduated from Middlebury College in 2023 after studying environmental studies, religion and education. Previously, Olivia interned for the New England Review and worked as a reporter and online editor for The Middlebury Campus. Her writing has been supported by Tin House and published in Tricycle Magazine.


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