Sept. 20 marks one year since millions of people took to the streets in what’s believed to be the largest-ever climate change protest. The global youth-led protests, started by 17-year-old Greta Thunberg, reached Philadelphia, where thousands of young people left school and work to demand action.

For this anniversary, The Inquirer asked teens in our region — plus one fielding unique issues in Western Pennsylvania — what got them to care about climate change, what scares them, and how they want to see leaders fight back in 2021.

Tilia Wongcini, 14, stands for a portrait in South Philadelphia on Wednesday, Sept. 16, 2020.
TIM TAI / Staff Photographer
Tilia Wongcini, 14, stands for a portrait in South Philadelphia on Wednesday, Sept. 16, 2020.

Climate change is a race we’re losing.

Tilia Wongcini, 14, is a freshman at Central High School and actions leader for Sunrise South Philly.

We are losing the fight against climate change. Heat waves are worsening, floods and droughts are happening more and more. People are dying, and it will only get worse.

I remember when I really became aware of what climate change was going to do. A few years ago when I was 9 or 10, wildfires were ravaging the West Coast, where most of my family lives. I heard my dad talking to relatives on the phone about how they weren’t leaving the house, and had to wear masks. That isn’t as bad as other things people have had to do to adapt to climate change, but it made me realize people were having to change their way of life.

Now today, I am hearing about wildfires again. Only this time they’re scarier. It makes me feel angry and hopeless. It makes it clear we are losing this fight. These fires are a preview for something worse.

This year I started a South Philly hub for the youth-led Sunrise Movement with a few of my classmates. We created this hub to fight issues specific to South Philly, such as the LNG plant and oil refinery. Many people who live in South Philly are working-class people of color, who are especially affected by pollution and related problems. Often, when we win against climate change, that helps in other issues too, like public health. We need leaders from the communities that are directly affected.

People seem to think climate change is really far away, but obviously it’s not. Some think we can put off dealing with it, but we clearly can’t. We need drastic change soon.

“People seem to think climate change is really far away, but obviously it’s not.”

Tilia Wongcini

For one thing, we need a Green New Deal — which is not just one bill or legislation, or just one fight. Its goals are to reach net zero emissions, and to create millions of good jobs. Important elements include securing the rights of workers while transitioning to more sustainable energy sources and trying to fix systemic oppression against marginalized groups. Governments also have to prepare for a lot of climate displacement, and make it easier for people in places severely affected by climate change to move someplace safer. Millions of people will be displaced from their homes.

To win the fight against climate change we need people to realize the urgency of our situation, and work toward solutions that may be inconvenient, or even radical — but are necessary for survival.

Steven Labalme at the upper observation platform of the Duquesne Incline in Pittsburgh on Friday, September 11, 2020.
Courtesy of Steven Labalme
Steven Labalme at the upper observation platform of the Duquesne Incline in Pittsburgh on Friday, September 11, 2020.

Climate change is why I’m leaving Pittsburgh.

Steven Labalme, 18, is a first-year at the University of Chicago.

Two generations of men in my family have come to Pittsburgh as healthy kids without trouble breathing and left the city with asthma. I’m one of them: the kid who’s had an inhaler in his hockey bag for years. I’m heading off to college, and while I’ll return to Pittsburgh over breaks, I can’t justify moving back to the city I’ve called home.

I suppose it’s no surprise I was diagnosed with asthma in fourth grade — Pennsylvania’s asthma rate recently ranked third highest in the nation. In some neighborhoods in Allegheny County, the asthma rate is nearly triple the national average.

Ozone smog is to blame for our sky-high asthma rates, with abnormally warm temperatures making things worse. As the climate crisis intensifies, we need strong action from Pennsylvania’s elected officials to protect our health and cut pollution.

A great place to start is with methane, a greenhouse gas 84 times more potent than carbon that’s responsible for 25% of man-made global warming.

“Absent real climate action, young people who value clear skies and healthy air will not want to move here.”

Steven Labalme

Although Gov. Tom Wolf has proposed a rule to tackle this pressing issue, it exempts low-producing wells, which are responsible for more than half of the methane emissions from oil and gas sources in Pennsylvania. To truly address the problem, the governor and the Department of Environmental Protection must close this loophole.

Additionally, since methane is natural gas, leaking methane is actually a salable product, a third of which can be captured and sold at no net cost to the industry. There is no reason to continue debating closing the low-producing-well loophole and enacting this cost-effective, impactful rulemaking. Let’s go.

Despite the importance of methane leaks, we can also ill afford to ignore carbon pollution. A common anti-regulatory rallying cry is “Regulations disrupt the free market.” But that talking point actually makes the case for Pennsylvania to join the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative. RGGI, which sets pollution caps for power plants and auctions emissions permits around those limits, creates a market force that incentivizes companies to find the most cost-effective ways to reduce pollution.

Pennsylvania has already begun tackling greenhouse gas emissions. I was happy to see Gov. Wolf take a first step by signing an executive order in January 2019 to reduce greenhouse gas pollution by 26% by 2025 and by 80% by 2050. But this is not nearly enough. Gov. Wolf must do more, and the rest of Pennsylvania’s elected officials are obliged to listen to the 79% of Pennsylvanians who support strict rules on carbon emissions.

Absent real climate action, young people who value clear skies and healthy air will not want to move here. Pennsylvania will face a “brain drain” of its own as natives like me follow suit.

There are a lot of reasons to move to Pittsburgh, including its culture, technology, and rapidly developing eds-and-meds sector. But I can’t afford to come back if Pennsylvania doesn’t fix its air-pollution problem. Two generations of men in my family have come to Pittsburgh as kids without asthma and left Pittsburgh with asthma. When starting my own family, I won’t make it three.

Nia Peterson, 18, stands for a portrait in South Philadelphia on Wednesday, Sept. 16, 2020.
TIM TAI / Staff Photographer
Nia Peterson, 18, stands for a portrait in South Philadelphia on Wednesday, Sept. 16, 2020.

Climate change is violence against our future.

Nia Peterson, 18, is a freshman at the University of Pennsylvania and graduate of the Mighty Writers Teen Scholars program.

I learned from an early age that climate change is urgent. Throughout high school I surrounded myself with peers who used social media to debunk arguments against global warming and promote small changes people can make to protect our environment. I grew up seeing people limit their trash to tiny jars and use hashtags about saving turtles, learning from my scientific hero, Bill Nye, that how we treat our planet has dire consequences.

My first reaction was to accept this as fact and find ways to help. It seemed intuitive — how could fracking and air pollution and deforestation not bring this world one step closer to being uninhabitable? So I was upset to see wars waged over the legitimacy of something like climate change. I could not understand ignoring scientists, who dedicate their lives to evidence and research.

The divide among the public about who and what to believe has only strengthened my viewpoint, and convinced me more people need to change the way they understand and treat our land. The way I view it, I inherited this land from my ancestors, but it is not mine. While “owning” it, I am simultaneously borrowing it from the people who come after me. I want to provide for them what I wish I had received.

Due to ignorance and selfishness, my predecessors created the perfect environment for wildfires to spread and tropical storms to grow. Now when it rains, it pours, and does so for much longer bouts of time. We have the knowledge and resources we need to combat and prevent this violence from growing uncontrollably, but we are instead busy picking sides.

While humans are at war with each other, we forget that the planet is at war with us. The violence we create among ourselves thus receives a backdrop of natural disasters in the news, only adding to the chaos. My concern is that with this war against the Earth, the odds are not in our favor.

“I am not worried about the Earth itself...I am more worried that we are much less capable of overcoming the consequences of our own actions.”

Nia Peterson

To provide ourselves and our futures a fighting chance, we first need to acknowledge the situation. We need leaders ready and willing to speak on the matter, in every sector of society — brave enough to reevaluate systems, like transportation’s dependence on fossil fuels, that change our climate. We need more people who prioritize sustainability and preservation in their fields, because that ultimately equals prioritizing human life. We need more people in positions of power to have a conservation mind-set, and see the value in passing down our land in a better condition than how we received it. With the intellect, technology, and resources we have, I see no reason to expect anything less from the people meant to lead us. It is so important that they work on uniting our attention toward this common threat, because divided is how we fall.

I am not worried about the Earth itself; our planet will surely overcome the changes that we are inducing. I am more worried that we are much less capable of overcoming the consequences of our own actions.

Anna Wetzel at a public beach in Bariloche, Argentina in summer 2017.
Courtesy of Anna Wetzel
Anna Wetzel at a public beach in Bariloche, Argentina in summer 2017.

Climate change is more proof of local and global inequality.

Anna Wetzel, 16, is a junior at the Baldwin School in Bryn Mawr.

My first apocalyptic experience with climate change was in my country of origin, Argentina. Along the Andes and throughout the grasslands, unprecedented thunderstorms — linked by meteorologists to climate change — have ravaged small towns and the financial futures of those living on the Pampa [a province in central Argentina]. While industrial superpowers are responsible for the vast majority of greenhouse gas emissions, nations and communities who contribute the least to the acceleration of climate change, such as farmers of the Pampa, bear the devastating brunt.

The inequitable distribution of climate instability is not arbitrary, but a symptom of inequalities that permeate every level of society. One August afternoon, as I was walking back from a rally for Black Lives that ended in Philadelphia, I witnessed this inequality firsthand. As I made my urban trek from Bala Cynwyd to Overbrook, the landscape evolved from green, shaded suburbia to paved city blocks, and the temperature increased as well. Geographically, a mere three miles distances Overbrook from Bala Cynwyd; the true distance, however, is between the disparate experiences of those living in the predominantly Black neighborhood of Overbrook vs. the predominately white Bala Cynwyd.

Environmental racism follows a similar pattern as international climate instability. The communities that contribute the least to global warming — largely Black communities and other communities of color — have been intentionally placed in neighborhoods most vulnerable to its effects. Climate change exposes American habits of segregation: of race and of wealth. Further exacerbating these divisions, American consumerism’s appropriation of environmental sustainability has placed responsibility on individual lifestyle adaptations, rather than radical, systemic change. Instead of improving systems of public transportation, hybrid cars are manufactured and marketed to the well-off and supposedly well-intentioned.

“I fear the commercialization of climate justice has allowed the privileged to isolate themselves from the effects of climate disaster.”

Anna Wetzel

I fear the commercialization of climate justice has allowed the privileged to isolate themselves from the effects of climate disaster, rather than direct wealth toward inclusive, community-centered responses. Such responses have been central to marginalized communities for decades. Principles of frugality adopted by disenfranchised communities can in fact be radical examples of sustainability. The sharing of resources — such as neighborhood potlucks, hand-me-down clothing, multigenerational households — is also the conservation of resources, both financial and ecological.

Walking into my family’s own Hispanic household, you are greeted by “imposturous” storage: a used jar of Dulce de Leche moonlighting as a container of leftover rice, a collection of loose needles and threads disguised as a tin of cookies, shelves lined with glasses that used to hold quince marmalade. Environmental sustainability means sustaining heritage, sustaining culture, and sustaining community. We cannot be expected to heal our planet until we mend the inequalities that divide us.