Anna Siegel, a 13-year-old climate activist who attends the Friends School of Portland, organized a climate change rally in March and is one of the organizers of one being held in Portland on Friday. She is photographed in the woods behind the school in Cumberland Foreside on Wednesday. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

This story is part of Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 220 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate story.

Last winter, Anna Siegel, then a seventh-grader, was looking for information about any local, student-led rallies demanding action on climate change when she discovered “a big empty space” in the state of Maine.

“So I gave them a call to ask about how to put Maine ‘on the map,’ so to speak, and by the end of the call they said, ‘OK, you’re going to be the lead coordinator for Maine,'” Siegel recalled of her conversation with students coordinating youth climate strikes around the nation.

Six months after her efforts led hundreds of elementary- to college-age students to rally at Portland City Hall as part of a global protest, Siegel is helping organize another “climate strike” in Portland on Friday with bigger goals and more follow-up actions, including a formal climate emergency petition for Portland and South Portland leaders.

“The goal is to instill the sense of urgency in them,” she said.

The 13-year-old from Yarmouth is part of a growing movement, in Maine and globally, of young people frustrated with inaction and political roadblocks on an issue they regard as critical to their futures. Inspired by Sweden’s Greta Thunberg and other youth activists, they are educating themselves and their classmates, speaking up publicly and sometimes bringing about changes at the state and local levels.

On Friday afternoon, student-led actions will be held in at least six communities around Maine – Portland, Bangor, Farmington, Norway, Bar Harbor and Machias – as part of an international day of action on what participants regard as a clear climate crisis.

A recent poll conducted by The Washington Post and Kaiser Family Foundation found that more than seven in 10 teenagers believe climate change will cause moderate or a great deal of harm to people in their generation. And one in four surveyed teens said they had taken action on the issue by participating in walkouts and rallies or writing to officials.

Today’s youth rallies come as world leaders prepare to gather in New York next week for the 2019 United Nations Climate Action Summit.

Cassie Cain, 22, graduated from college last year and works as a youth engagement coordinator for 350 Maine, an organization that advocates for solutions to combat climate change. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

“I am seeing that younger people – in middle school and elementary school – are aware of these issues,” said Cassie Cain, 22, the youth engagement coordinator at the group 350 Maine, which is connecting student rally leaders with other organizations. “I’m glad youth are taking control of their futures and that there is a movement that people are listening to them. But I’m concerned about how much the climate anxiety will take a toll on my generation.”

The events Friday are paying homage to the one-person school strike that then-15-year-old Thunberg waged outside of the Swedish Parliament last year to demand action on the changing climate. The teenager has since become a global climate ambassador, of sorts, as she takes her message around the world and inspires similar actions.

“I don’t want you to listen to me. I want you to listen to the scientists,” Thunberg told a congressional committee in Washington, D.C., on Thursday as she submitted an International Panel on Climate Change report on global warming as her official testimony. “I want you to unite behind the science. And then I want you to take real action.”

A DESIRE FOR CHANGE

Young people have been an integral part of the modern environmental movement since its inception more than a half century ago. Yet there’s a sense even among veteran environmental activists that the current youth movement is different, as the scientific community increasingly warns that time is running out to avoid catastrophic changes.

“There is just something in the air,” said Doreen Stabinsky, a professor of global environmental politics at the College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor.

Stabinsky has been working with students on climate issues since 2008 through such classes as “Land and Climate” and “Practicing International Diplomacy.” But this semester, enrollment in her “Climate Justice” course is more than double what she typically sees, which Stabinsky interprets as another indication of the anger, frustration and desire for change undergirding today’s protest rallies.

“There is definitely a shift, which is really exciting because there is a lot of work to be done,” Stabinsky said.

Since 2008, Stabinsky has accompanied a group of COA students to every annual United Nations conference on climate issues held across the globe. Hundreds of leaders from around the world gather at these meetings to assess progress on addressing climate change and to decide paths forward on the major international agreements, such as the Kyoto Protocol and the more recent Paris Climate Accord.

Ania Wright, left, and Katrine Osterby, College of the Atlantic students, were part of the student delegation to the 24th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in Katowice, Poland, in December. Wright met and worked with Swedish activist Greta Thunberg while there. Photo by Sara Lšwgren/College of the Atlantic

COA senior Ania Wright said attending last year’s U.N. climate conference in Poland changed her perspective on the United States’ role on climate issues because she saw American representatives blocking progress or making negotiations more difficult. But Wright also had the chance to work one-on-one with Thunberg during that meeting, which she said was an “eye-opening experience” for her.

After returning from the U.N. conference, the Falmouth native helped organize last March’s climate strike in Bar Harbor and is the lead coordinator for Friday’s event.

“I think youth are recognizing that their futures are going to be dictated by this crisis and that scientists have told us we have 11 years to act on this climate crisis before we have cataclysmic impacts,” Wright said. “I think it is working. The pace is picking up and the debate is shifting.”

Next week, Wright will join Gov. Janet Mills’ Maine Climate Council as one of the youth representatives. The nearly 30-member task force – which delighted climate activists after eight years of former Republican Gov. Paul LePage, a climate change skeptic – will recommend ways to help Maine achieve the ambitious greenhouse gas emissions and renewable energy goals set by the Mills administration.

ACTION ON MOUNT DESERT ISLAND

Other young people have had success changing policies at the local level.

Four middle school students from Mount Desert Island, for instance, helped to lead the campaign to ban single-use plastic bags and foam food/beverage containers throughout the island.

The four students – Charlotte Partin, Caroline Musson, Ella Izenour and Logan Wilbur – began their campaign as a service learning project in 2017 for an eighth-grade class. With strong encouragement from their teacher and help from the MDI group A Climate to Thrive and local activists familiar with ordinances, the students took their presentation to the Southwest Harbor Town Council — and then Northeast Harbor, Bar Harbor and finally Tremont.

They looked at what other towns in Maine had done and visited local businesses, tweaking their proposed ordinances based on feedback about potential impacts. And less than two years after their project began, all four municipalities on MDI had adopted bans on plastic bags and polystyrene food or beverage containers.

The success caught the four – all now 15-year-old sophomores at Mount Desert Island High School – by surprise and has inspired them to look at future endeavors or collaborations with other groups.

“When we were younger, we were taught this (climate crisis) is not going to be in our lifetime, … and now we can see the changes – the changes in the seasons and weather patterns – in our lifetime,” Musson said. “Even in the past few years, we can see changes, … and I think all of the young people around here recognize that this is our responsibility.”

“More and more young people are realizing how much power they have,” Partin added.

STUDENT ‘STRIKES’ AS FIELD TRIPS

Schools nationwide are handling the student “strikes” in different ways. While New York City public schools will be closed Friday to allow students to participate, others are taking a less-hospitable approach to what they regard as unexcused absences.

At Portland Public Schools, teachers can organize field trips (with parental permission and notification) as long as they align with an instructional unit within that class or program. Such trips would be considered school-sanctioned participation, according to guidance from school officials.

Students who are not part of one of those trips, however, would be required to bring a note from a parent or guardian allowing them to participate in the rally as an excused absence.

Siegel, the 13-year-old lead organizer of the event, said she was unsure how many people to expect at the rally at City Hall on Friday. But she said this time the group is inviting the mayors of both Portland and South Portland, as well as other municipal officials.

Anna Seigel, a 13-year-old climate activist who attends the Friends School of Portland, organized a climate change rally in March and an organizer of one in Portland on Friday. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

The students plan to present resolutions calling on the two cities to officially acknowledge the “climate emergency” and commit to “a bold set of policies” to move toward a fossil fuel-free world in a decade. The resolutions also ask the cities to “commit to take immediate actions to safeguard against the current, inevitable and potential consequences of the climate crisis” through specific policy goals, emergency funding and education.

Siegel, now an eighth-grader at the Friends School of Portland, said the idea behind the resolutions is to help keep the momentum and dialogue going after the rally. But it is also intended to serve “almost like having a banner in the office” reminding officials to consider any future policy or action in the context of a climate emergency.

Between organizing the climate strike and her other climate advocacy, the 13-year-old said she is so busy she sometimes has to schedule activities with friends in between calls. The busy schedule means less time for other things she enjoys – such as rock-climbing, sketching or her true passion, birding.

“It’s worth it,” Siegel said. “There is a satisfaction and almost a reassurance about doing this. Before I was anxious about wanting to do something, and now I am doing something. … And there’s a sense that this is the start of something, not the end.”

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