S4E5 The Future of Our Planet: Maine’s Youth Perspectives on Climate Change

In this episode, we talk with Edgelynn Venuti and Victoria Leavitt about their winning essays in the Margaret Chase Smith Library Essay Contest on the government’s role in combating climate change.

You can find the essays discussed in this episode in Volume 32, Issue 1 (2023) of Maine Policy Review.

[00:00:00] Eric Miller: Hello and welcome back to Maine Policy Matters, the official podcast of the Margaret Chase Smith Policy Center at the University of Maine, where we discuss the policy matters that are most important to Maine’s people and why Maine policy matters at the local, state, and national levels. My name is Eric Miller, and I’ll be your host.

Today we’ll be talking with Edgelynn Venuti and Victoria Leavitt about their winning essays in the Margaret Chase Smith Library Essay Contest on the topic of the government’s role in combating climate change. Edgelynn Venuti graduated from Washington Academy High School in East Machias, Maine. She participated in soccer, track and field, and was an active member of the Sustainability Club.

Edgelynn will continue to be an advocate for the environment and see climate justice as she continues her education at the University of Maine at Orono with a major in environmental science and ecology. Victoria Leavitt is a 2023 Wyndham High School graduate from Wyndham, Maine. In high school, she was the president of the Latin Honor Society, a dedicated member of the WHS Genders and Sexualities Alliance, and involved with multiple choral and instrumental ensembles, including the Wyndham Chamber Singers. She attends the University of Southern Maine, where she is majoring in Psychology with a minor in Linguistics.

2022 marked two very important anniversaries within the history of conservation and environmental protection. Interestingly, both have a Maine connection. It is the 60th anniversary since the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. Carson, a biologist who spent summers studying the sea at her home in Southport Island, Maine, wrote the influential book that warned of the declining bird populations and environmental harm caused by pesticides and synthetic substances. In fact, her book is credited with kickstarting the modern global environmental movement.

It is also the 50th anniversary of the Clean Water Act, introduced to Congress by Margaret Chase Smith’s colleague and fellow Maine Senator Edmund Muskie. The legislation helped set the framework to regulate pollutants and quality standards in our waters. These two landmark events inspired many environmental milestones, but we are at a crossroads.

It was reported that the years 2015 to 2022 are the eight warmest years on record. The consequences of this change in climate temperature include intense droughts, water scarcity, severe fires, rising sea levels, melting polar ice caps, catastrophic storms, and declining biodiversity. These trends are particularly concerning to younger generations.

This is why the Margaret Chase Smith Library invited Maine high school students to consider what the proper role of government should be in responding to the issues surrounding climate change.

Hi, Edgelynn and Victoria. Thank you for joining us today. Could you each give us a synopsis of what your essays were about? Edgelynn, we’ll start with you.

[00:03:01] Edgelynn Venuti: I put all my feelings into this essay. Many times when the climate crisis is discussed, statistics and scientific facts are often at the forefront.

These statistics and facts are often anxiety inducing and cause a lot of negative emotions to arise. The climate crisis is scary, especially for people in my generation. It’s hard to keep hope alive when the reality seems so grim. So I wrote this essay in hopes that someone in the government would read it. I didn’t really care about the prize or anything else. I just saw this as an opportunity to tell people about how I was feeling and what needed to be done.

And it’s that action needs to be taken now. There’s been so much time to get their act together, but it just isn’t happening fast enough. I’m not the only person that feels this way. Millions and billions of people know what has to be done, but we are essentially powerless to make true systemic change that power resides in the hands of the people on top, but they just need to open up their hearts and their minds and listen to us who are on the front lines.

[00:03:49] Eric Miller: Thank you, Victoria and your paper?

[00:03:52] Victoria Leavitt: I took a different approach. With my essay, I have been more like, clean and cut to the facts, in the way that I answered the question of what is the proper role of government in facing the issues surrounding climate change. I implored that governments must implement and enforce climate actions that reduce greenhouse gas emissions and mitigate the impacts of climate change. And I suggested that to achieve this, there are three essential steps that government must complete, and those are integration, regulation, and collaboration. The first step I suggested, which is integration, really just composes the action of actually developing and implementing these climate solutions.

That is anything like implementing a new act. I have emphasized that it is important to view our battle against climate change, not as a separate and exclusive thing, but rather as something that must be approached from like several different avenues of policymaking. It’s a lot more integrated into our life than just an exclusive thing.

The second step is regulation. Once these policies and climate solutions have been created and approved, regulation is the action of actually upkeeping these policies. As well as the action of holding large carbon polluters accountable. In other words, regulation is the step where these climate solutions are actually put into action.

The third step is collaboration, which really encompasses any international efforts made between foreign governments, as well as the efforts to work with independent climate and environmental organizations with the overarching goal of improving and making progress towards a cleaner carbon neutral world.

[00:05:31] Eric Miller: Thank you both for setting the stage for the rest of our conversation. Edgelynn, in your essay, you wrote that quote, the government should show all people that is not one party’s political agenda, but a global human issue. It would be highly beneficial to remove the political stigma and instead present it as a humanitarian crisis to break political barriers and clear a path toward unity.

What do you think would be an effective strategies that policymakers and community members can build and implement to create a path toward humanitarianism and unity?

[00:06:06] Edgelynn Venuti: So policymakers just need to push aside their personal economic agendas. I don’t think it’s any secret that many government officials stand to make a profit from the decisions they make and what they vote on and pass through.

It’s a very selfish and harmful way to use their power, but instead they should integrate diverse community members into their decision making. And those people will help provide important perspectives on how the climate crisis is affecting themselves and the people around them. So people just need to come to an understanding that it’s not just one person for themselves, but everyone has to truly come together to make real progress.

And it’s going to be frustrating and hard, but it’s the only way that’s going to happen. At the end of the day, policymakers, CEOs, and global leaders showing true human compassion is what will be the deciding factor on if this climate humanitarian crisis will actually get solved.

[00:06:56] Eric Miller: Victoria, do you have anything you’d like to add to the question or point of how folks can come together to address and create and implement climate related legislation?

[00:07:09] Victoria Leavitt: I do find a connection with that and my point of collaboration being an essential step because it really, it’s a, it’s something that affects all of us and we all have to be involved. So having collaboration and seeing the perspectives of different people and how they’re being affected and pooling ideas on how to make a difference and how to fix these issues is really important.

[00:07:36] Eric Miller: Victoria, in your section on regulation, you discuss Canada’s Greenhouse Gas Pollution Pricing Act as an example of effective government regulation. Why is it important that this be the standard for the United States in addressing industry and business related greenhouse gas emissions?

[00:07:53] Victoria Leavitt: First, just to provide some context for our listeners, Canada’s Greenhouse Gas Pollution Pricing Act, or also just known as like a carbon tax as many call it, it was an endeavor passed by Canadian Parliament in 2018 to reduce their carbon emissions to what they had promised in the Paris Agreement.

The initial tax in 2019 was around 20 Canadian dollars per ton, which has then since increased to 65 Canadian dollars per ton at the start of 2023. With the intention to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050, their government plans to increase this tax by 15 Canadian dollars per year starting this year and then stopping in 2030 once the taxes at 170 Canadian dollars per ton.

I know that’s a lot of numbers, but to put it in other words, they are slowly increasing the carbon tax to then reach their goal.

And this carbon tax, it applies to all consumers, both citizens and industries and companies. And that’s the important part because a lot of times many acts like the only focus on the individual and big companies kind of get away with things and this tax at least, it also affects those companies and it holds those big polluters accountable for their missions and that’s why I think it’s important for the US to also incorporate a similar thing.

Now I can’t say how effective a tax directly modeled from Canada would be for us, but I believe that something along those lines would be really good to regulate that industry. And one last thing. The cool thing about Canada’s carbon tax is that each Canadian province and territory has the freedom to enforce this act in any way that they seem fit as long as they comply with the minimum federal requirements, and that aligns with how a lot of US policy works, like you got the federal policies and requirements and then states have a lot of freedom and how they go about and enforce those things. So I can see that working for the US.

[00:10:06] Eric Miller: I see. Edgelynn, how do you see these environmental legislation and building support is very hard. How do you see ways that communities can come together and build support for certain environmental legislation that may seem less politically palatable.

[00:10:25] Edgelynn Venuti: On the front lines are often the ones that are going to get most affected. And I think people who are working not in high level jobs, but they have the sense to come together.

And oftentimes they’re able to just organize and people dedicate so much time to organizing together and spreading the word and they’re passionate about it because they know that it’s the only way forward is to make noise and get change on the ground. So they have the spirit in them, I suppose.

And that’s just, it’s powerful to see the people just coming together over something that they all feel is important to them.

[00:11:05] Eric Miller: Absolutely. It’s amazing how just a small group of energized folks can make waves in a conversation often when we hear of history repeating itself, it has a negative connotation, but you wrote that you hope history repeats itself when discussing the upcoming Pine Tree Power referendum and other environmental legislation and how they can emulate the Clean Water Act.

How do you think the Clean Water Act should be a model for future environmental legislation?

[00:11:35] Edgelynn Venuti: I wrote about the Clean Water Act because I wanted to recall the positive side in history when progress was made in the right direction. This was a good thing that happened because it’s almost kind of ridiculous that it had to happen that we needed a written in law that people deserve clean water because it’s just kind of a basic human need.

What makes it more solidified gives more incentive to give people something that they deserve. So, just reflecting on that. There’s a lot of other environmental legislation that’s trying to be passed. For example, Pine Tree Power is on the Maine referendum election this fall, and that would shift Maine’s power grid into the hands of the people instead of foreign companies.

And this would give Mainers the option to focus more on implementing renewable clean energy for the state. Reflecting back on how the Clean Water Act was passed, it’s just a good thing to remember that this kind of stuff can go through even when a lot of people may stand in opposition to it and environmental laws will hopefully have the same big positive impact that the Clean Water Act had.

[00:12:36] Eric Miller: I really like your creative prose and I hope history repeats itself and flipping that on its head. I think that’s a really great way to take that phrase and reapply it in a different light.

So Victoria, in your essay, you discussed integration as a means to address climate change in all aspects of society. Can you explain for our listeners what this means and give an example of an effective model for integration that has worked successfully?

[00:13:03] Victoria Leavitt: So in my essay, I stated that integration is one of the three essential steps a government must take to combat climate change. And when I say integration, I’m referring to the process of developing and implementing climate change solutions and policies into the society that in a way that is controlled and effective.

I think I’d like to stress with this is the importance of implementing such changes in a way that is favorable for the public and not interruptive and drastic. Because while Society as a whole is generally very adverse to major changes, especially those that might limit a common convenience. It’s for example, it would be unethical and unrealistic to suddenly just, Oh, we’re done with gas powered cars. We can’t do that. Instead, the proper course of action is to slowly phase out such vehicles and then phase in zero emission vehicles like hybrids and electric vehicles. Actually, this is kind of what several states, including California and a couple others, I think there’s nine others, by, I believe it is 2035 working towards prohibiting the sale of new gas powered vehicles. And in the years upcoming to that, they’re slowly implementing that. How they’re implementing that, I’m not entirely sure. That’s something I would have to do more research into. But I think that is a good example of not suddenly making a huge change, but setting a goal for a change and then taking those steps to reach that goal.

And so for another example, in my essay, I gave the example of the Clean School Bus Program, which was spearheaded by EPA, the Environmental Protection Agency in 2022. This program uses funding from the 2021 Bipartisan Infrastructure Law to offer rebates for schools to replace existing school buses with electric zero emission ones. With this initiative, EPA states that even if half of all school buses in the country swapped from diesel to electric, about 2.1 million tons of carbon dioxide would be reduced annually. And according to World Resources Institute, as of June 2023 there are 2,277 electric school buses that are either being ordered, have been delivered, or are in operation. And that means in total there are now just under 6,000 committed electric school buses.

And I think that’s another really good example of a simple yet very effective climate solution that is being integrated.

[00:15:37] Eric Miller: Oh, that’s great news. All the electric school buses, I didn’t know that. Change is often scary to folks. Edgelynn, would you want to speak to how seemingly large legislation such as The Pine Tree Power is going to be, is a big question. And other environmental legislation, how big change may be not as scary as people may think. How can those changes be framed in a way that seem easier for people who don’t pay attention to this stuff all the time to understand.

[00:16:12] Edgelynn Venuti: I think what a lot of people are afraid of is having to give up something that makes their life easier or makes their life better.

Unfortunately, that’s just like a selfish way to think about this because when you live in a privileged country like the United States and you have certain things and you worked hard to get them. Of course, you wouldn’t want to have to sacrifice that. But when you look at the bigger picture, it’s not just about you.

There’s a lot of people here. And I think that everyone deserves a chance at a fair future and a good life. So if you have to sacrifice a few material goods to make sure that someone else gets to live a life, I think that can be scary, but I think that sacrifice would be worth it. And on the bigger picture, people have always been scared of change.

If you look at history, a big thing that scared a lot of people was maybe the Internet. And now it’s totally integrated into our lives. I think that what people are striving for to change here is not in any way to ruin what we have now or ruin the way that things are functioning now, but just to make it better, to make it better for everyone, to make it healthier and safer and cleaner for all the people.

This type of change, I don’t think that people should be too afraid of. And instead, they should try and embrace it and roll with it.

[00:17:26] Eric Miller: Of course, the United States is not alone. And how can international collaboration help, not just the United States, but other countries around the world, achieve goals set forth in the Paris Climate Accord?

Edgelynn, we’ll start with you.

[00:17:42] Edgelynn Venuti: I think Tori and I have talked a lot about how collaboration is one of the most important steps. Combating climate change, it’s kind of really the only way that anything is going to get done. I think everybody knows that humans aren’t always the best on getting everybody together on the same page very easily.

And if they do, it still takes a long time to get anything done. Real international collaboration would just be, that’d be great. And I think in the past, we’ve become a global leader, perhaps maybe unintentionally, but I feel as though a lot of countries kind of look to us as the golden West.

And following our footsteps for some reason, and if we could set the example of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, implementing clean energy and helping people in other countries who are facing the brunt of big tropical storms and forest fires and making sure that kind of natural disaster aid is also applied here in our country.

I think a lot of positive change would come from that.

[00:18:42] Eric Miller: Victoria, do you have anything you’d like to add to building international collaboration?

[00:18:48] Victoria Leavitt: Edgelynn makes a great point. And I’d like to mention about America being an example, because it is true. We are kind of a global leader, whether we really should be or not.

We are an example. And I think if we start setting the motions towards strengthening collaboration and working towards these goals that we have, like that, and that we set in the Paris agreement, that’s going to influence other countries to also do that. And when we work with other countries that are also doing that, it’s just, teamwork makes the dream work, as they say, and I think we’ll achieve things that probably wouldn’t have thought were possible.

And it’s also important, like us kind of world leaders collaborated together, and we can help less affluent countries in also implementing like climate initiatives and strategies and just solutions and all of that and making it more widespread, because oftentimes it’s those less affluent countries that get the most impacted by climate change and by all the changes that have been happening.

And so working with them and putting down our grudges, at least in terms of helping our planet is just very important.

[00:20:07] Eric Miller: Thank you both very much. Is there anything else you all would like to say or touch on that we haven’t talked about yet as we close out? Victoria, would you like to go first?

[00:20:17] Victoria Leavitt: So I kind of wanted to highlight some more positive things and like progress that we’ve been seeing around the world and kind of spread some good news because too often we as consumers and media focus way too much on the negative and the saddening news and what Edgelynn had mentioned in the introduction there’s so much negative facts and figures and it can almost make it seem hopeless, and so for example I had heard recently that there are several countries I think in London and I believe also Turkey that are implementing like roadside turbines, which are non obstructive way to harness the energy made by passing vehicles on long stretches of highway so as a vehicle drives by these turbines, which is kind of like in the center islands between lanes, the turbines spin and they are used to power streetlights and minor things around there, which will dramatically reduce the need for carbon based fuels to power those things. And so it’s a, it’s another kind of small step that we are making that makes a big difference.

[00:21:24] Eric Miller: Many creative, cool innovations that never thought you’d see out there and all these places you overlooked that are just opportunities for implementing technology or change.

Edgelynn, we’ll finish with you. Any closing remarks you have?

[00:21:41] Edgelynn Venuti: Since this is a Maine based podcast I just wanted to plug all the amazing youth organizations that are working. I’m striving for climate justice right now. That’s Maine Youth for Climate Justice, JustME for JustUS, Sierra Club Maine, and Maine Youth Power.

I’ve worked with a lot of these people, and I know that everyone there really cares and are trying to find ways and are finding ways to implement climate justice in their daily lives and their community. And they’re all working really hard every day for as much as they can. So if you have the means, I think showing them your support and just letting them know, thank you for all they do, I think would make their day.

[00:22:21] Eric Miller: That’s excellent. Thank you both so much for submitting essays, taking on these very challenging questions at high school age and now continuing on your education in Maine, and we’re very much looking forward to seeing what you all decide to do as you continue on with school and afterwards. And we really appreciate you taking the time to speak with us today.

And with that, we conclude today’s episode. We really appreciate everyone who chatted with us, and thank you, listener, for joining us. I’m Eric Miller, and I’ll see you next time on Maine Policy Matters, where we’ll be interviewing Anna Keller about the League of Women Voters of Maine. Our team is made up of Barbara Harrity and Joyce Rumery, coeditors of Maine Policy Review.

Jonathan Rubin directs the Policy Center. Thanks to faculty, associate, and staff Katie Swacha, professional writing consultant, Maine Policy Matters intern, Nicole LeBlanc, and podcast producer and writer, Jayson Heim. Our website can be found in the description of this episode, along with all materials referenced in this episode, a full transcript, and social media links.

Remember to follow the Margaret Chase Smith Policy Center on Facebook, Instagram, and Threads, and drop us a direct message to express your support, provide feedback, or let us know what Maine policy matters to you. Check out mcslibrary.org to learn more about Margaret Chase Smith, the library and museum, and education and public policy.

See you next time.