How a group of teenagers convinced the Utah legislature to recognize climate change

Posted at 11:44 PM, May 22, 2018

Students attended a ceremonial signing with Governor Herbert on May 16.

Piper Christian has yet to vote in her first election, but she’s already changing the political landscape in her state.

The 18-year-old from Utah spent two years spearheading a resolution for the state legislature to acknowledge climate change.

After a long journey through the House and Senate, Republican Gov. Gary Herbert officially signed theresolution in March and held a ceremonial signing with the students last week.

The resolution is not a law, but a statement “emphasizing that protection of our environment and investment in our community are not mutually exclusive,” in Christian’s own words.

The Logan High School senior says she and other students from her school started organizing in 2016 when they learned of an earlier state resolution urging the Environmental Protection Agency to stop regulating carbon emissions.

“Our little high school environmental club got wind of this, and we were really inspired to be more involved politically,” she told CNN, referring to the Logan Environmental Action Force.

Taking on the challenge

When the teenagers attempted to introduce their bill to the Senate in 2017, they were denied a hearing by the Natural Resources Committee.

But they didn’t give up. The students organized their own unofficial hearing and invited legislators and students of all ages to attend.

“We completely packed one of the biggest conference rooms in the (state) Capitol. It was standing room only,” Christian said. “Students from all over the state were able to testify about why climate change is important.”

Mishka Banuri, a junior at West High School, was one such student. She was inspired to see the diversity in backgrounds and beliefs of the young people who spoke, and explained to lawmakers why environmental conservation is important to her.

Republican Rep. Becky Edwards also attended. Edwards was so impressed with the students’ analysis of the issue that she decided to sponsor their bill.

Although it did not pass that year, she continued working with the teenagers to draft a bipartisan resolution that could pull through in the 2018 session.

Finding common ground

“We were not interested in fighting the battle of ‘do you believe in climate change?” Edwards told CNN. “That was less important to us than getting to the point of ‘can we all agree that changes are happening?”

Christian and Banuri, along with dozens of their peers, focused on breaking down the issue into how rising temperatures, snowfall and air quality affect Utah residents every day.

They listened to lawmakers who were initially opposed to the bill and added language to represent the concerns of their constituents.

This year, the committee that had rejected the first hearing unanimously passed the resolution.

“I’m hoping that other conservative states, people and students especially see that it is possible to work towards a healthy future and not lose hope,” said Banuri.

She believes that if they could find bipartisan solutions in a state like Utah — which has 86 Republicans and 18 Democrats in the legislature, according to their online rosters — then similar measures can be taken in other places.

Both Banuri and Christian will continue advocating for environmental progress in their state and around the country.

“What was critical was that we got the conversation started,” said Christian. “I would like to see further legislation, and I would love for young people to be a part of the conversation.”