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To Fight Climate Change, 4-H Conference Empowers Teens to Lead the Charge

Young people are not educated enough about climate change, and neither are adults.

This was the conclusion that a group of high schoolers from across the country (and one from Canada) presented during a 4-H briefing held at the United States Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA/USDA) on March 28.

NIFA/USDA is part of a larger group of other federal agencies that make up the Interagency Working Group on Youth Programs, composed of representatives from 19 federal agencies that support programs and services focusing on youth.

The National 4-H Conference provided young people an opportunity to have their voices heard and learn about careers in government. About 16 young people who had never met before worked together on specific issues and then presented their findings to corresponding agencies, such as discussing social equity with the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the opioid epidemic in front of the National Institute for Drug Awareness.

The group on climate change with NIFA representatives had been given eight hours to prepare a presentation that covered the potential impacts of climate change and come up with an educational campaign to raise awareness on the issue.

For many of the young people in the room, the impact of climate change was personal.

‘We’re not gonna call it climate change.’

From Alabama to Illinois, members of the 4-H program said they had seen the effects of climate change on their communities, including droughts, fires, and altered growing seasons, all of which resulted in the loss of key crops and impacted the local economy.

They also discussed solutions. One member said farmers could reduce water consumption by surveying the land to figure out the best minerals for the soil. But overall, the members concluded that the main problem was both a lack of knowledge and a lack of agency.

“We aren’t given a way to make a difference,” one participant commented.

4H
The National 4-H Conference let young people have their voices heard and learn about careers in government.

The 4-H youth recommended the creation of an Environmental Ambassador Program, in which young people would educate their local communities about climate change’s effects on food systems and what individuals and groups alike can do about it. Their goal is to make climate change as integral to core curriculum as math.

They also acknowledged a key roadblock to this plan—for many of their communities, climate change is a controversial topic. But they already had a strategy in place. They simply won’t call it climate change, and instead talk about a phenomenon that no one in their communities can deny: changing weather patterns.

Impact of Program: ‘Something Every High Schooler Needs’

Dr. Rodney Vance, program specialist for the Division of Environmental Systems, said the Environmental Ambassador Program was so well drawn out that Institute of Bioenergy, Climate, and Environment Deputy Director Dr. Luis Tupas told the young people that NIFA would be willing to help them make the necessary connections to get something like this started.

“We were truly blown away by their passion for agriculture and the environment and it showed in their presentation,” said Vance. He added that the program coordinator for University of New Hampshire Cooperative Extension said she plans to take their framework and propose it in her state.

As for the young people themselves, the experience helped them feel more motivated in school.

“I see how important school is if we hope to help future generations survive. Everyone we talked to or that talked to us talked about schooling,” said Jeremy Friend, 17, of Washington State. “That's something every high schooler needs.”

“Attending National 4-H Conference was one of the most eye-opening experiences I have ever

participated in my 4-H career,” said Joy Westercamp, 17, from Iowa. “Working alongside the other delegates gave me the opportunity to build youth voice on the national level, and it gave me insight into how youth can impact the world around them.”

The National 4-H Conference is the premier civic engagement opportunity for 4-H members (15-19 yrs.) who are actively engaged in 4-H programs across the U.S. and its territories. The conference is administered by 4-H National Headquarters of the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) within the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).