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Jelena Collins Addresses the Climate Action Assembly

Jelena Collins addresses the Climate Action Assembly I at the 2023 Parliament of the World’s Religions in Chicago, USA.

My name is Jelena Collins, and I’m so excited to be with you all this afternoon. I’ve been involved in environmentalism since I was a kid, and I feel like I’ve been really lucky to sort of grow up alongside the movement.

I’m 18 years old now, and I’m starting my second year studying climate science at McGill University in just a few days, but it was really my experiences out in nature as a little kid, plus a mom who exposed me early to environmental activism that got me here today. At age 14, I had my first exposure to more hands-on style sustainability work when I volunteered with my mom at a green film festival here in Chicago. Since then, I’ve become exponentially more involved with the movement, and I’ve been lucky enough to be able to pursue my passion for climate science while advocating for and shaping policies on international, federal, statewide, and local levels. 

At UN Climate Conferences at both Glasgow and Montreal, I was able to watch environmental policies be debated and written firsthand while trying to make sure that the voices of young people were incorporated into every decision that was made. I worked with the youth-led Sunrise Movement to advocate for the Green New Deal in the U.S. and to teach other young people the power that they hold. 

I’ve organized strikes and conferences to support the Climate and Equitable Jobs Act here in Illinois, and I was the only high school student on the team that produced Chicago’s Climate Action Plan with the mayor’s office. I’ve been incredibly lucky to work with such a wonderful variety of people and to learn about sustainability in so many contexts, and I’ve come out of it with a good understanding of how I feel the best progress is made.

Although my experiences have taken me from Scotland to small businesses on the northwest side of Chicago, they all had a common theme. In each, I encountered diverse groups of people with a shared goal of fighting the climate crisis. Oftentimes, I’ve found that the inherent diversity of these groups is what allows them to make impactful change. Whether that’s a diversity of educational backgrounds, ages, fields, or even religions, the best ideas come about when everyone is thinking uniquely and collaborating. 

In my case, when I’ve done more official work in sustainability, I’ve almost always been given the role of what I like to call the “token young person.” This has meant that in nearly all of my policy experiences, although I’m grateful to have been included, I’ve been the only person under the age of 30 in a room of adults who don’t necessarily value my opinion. This is frustrating, of course, because I feel like I have a lot to offer and more experience than I may look like I have, but it’s even more frustrating when I’ve seen and understood the value of cooperation in fighting for the climate. I understand the importance of diversity in this field, and I want everyone else to understand it too.

When I was at my first UN Climate Conference in Glasgow, I met a man named Uli Lucy. He was the only delegate at the conference from the Kingdom of Tonga, which is located in the western Pacific, and he was one of the first people I had ever met whose community was actively experiencing the effects of sea level rise. In the face of this incredible loss, rather than letting his circumstances weigh him down, Uli harnessed his greatest ingenuity and partnered with an architect from New Zealand. With funding from New Zealand and a young team generating creative ideas, the two were able to develop a construction plan to physically elevate the island on top of itself to preserve the Tongan people and the culture as best they could. This type of climate mitigation was a completely novel suggestion, and it only came about thanks to the diversity of the crew who developed it, which included the Tongans and New Zealanders of all ages and backgrounds, and it’s exactly the sort of innovation that we need in this field.

Young people are the ones who provide that innovation. People my age have been born into an unfortunate situation. We have the weight of a dying planet on our shoulders, and yet we aren’t the ones who caused this problem. We’re so much less listened to and less respected than the adults who got us here in the first place, but we also have so much to offer. Young people are creative, we’re good with technology, and we aren’t stuck in doing things the way that they’ve always been done. We’re the perfect people to combat the climate crisis, a problem the likes of which humanity has never had to face. But we also can’t do it alone.

It takes a combination of backgrounds, of skills, and of people to tackle an obstacle as large and as urgent as this one. Young people need to be valued, but progress can really only be made through diversity. By coming together as we are today, as a group of people from every belief system and every corner of the world, we continue to fight to save the one thing that we all share which is this planet. Thank you.

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