Youth show initiative on climate change

With forest fires creating a thick, hazy smoke on the horizon, a group of Yukon youth got together over the weekend to discuss climate change issues. It wasn't your average climate change conference; participants slept in tents.

With forest fires creating a thick, hazy smoke on the horizon, a group of Yukon youth got together over the weekend to discuss climate change issues.

It wasn’t your average climate change conference; participants slept in tents, went to the bathroom in an outhouse and waded up to their knees in the Takhini River to talk about alternative forms of energy.

In its third year, the Yukon Youth Outside the Box forum attracted almost 30 youth to the Vista Outdoor Learning Centre, half an hour north of Whitehorse, to brainstorm ways of engaging other youth in climate change issues.

“It seems fitting to be talking about climate change with all the fires and really hot weather we’ve been having,” said conference co-ordinator Jessica Thiessen.

“The last two years we had this conference out in Marsh Lake and we saw all the flooding going on out there.”

The conference, funded by the territory’s climate change secretariat, was initially created in 2006 to bring forth recommendations for the Yukon’s climate change action plan.

With the action plan now complete, the conference has become a venue for youth to discuss ways of reaching out to the wider public on environmental issues.

“Rather than focus on a government minister, the youth decided they wanted to reach out to a 19-year-old girl who is interested in the issues but doesn’t have the social networks or know-how to get involved,” said Thiessen.

Dubbing this prototypical girl “Joey,” the youth, who were themselves between the ages of 16 and 26, listed off reasons why people their age don’t get involved in climate change issues.

Twenty-three-year-old Jamie Wintemute chalks it up to complacency.

“We’ve grown up with cars, cellphones and lots of waste and now we’ve just come to enjoy these luxuries,” said Wintemute.

“If you don’t sit down to think about the issues, why would you care?”

One reason that Yukon youth in particular may be less involved in climate change work is that they’re not learning about these issues until they leave the territory, said Sonia Forton, a facilitator at the conference.

“With most people I know, they learn about these issues at university, not at high school,” said Forton.

And if these youth choose not to come back to the Yukon then there is a lack of action on the issues locally, she said.

Talking about climate change in a way that impacts youth personally is also important, she said.

“A lot of times the conversation is focused on conservation – protecting caribou, the Peel Watershed, etc. – but lots of people can’t connect with that. They care about things on a more personal level so you need to connect with them both ways.”

Over the weekend, the youth divided themselves into four groups, with some youth opting to get their hands dirty while others chose to just talk about the facts.

Using rope, corrugated plastic sheets and a black marker, one of the groups set out to build a waterwheel with which they tried powering a light bulb.

“We want to prove that if in two hours you can make something out of Coroplast then people should be trying harder to work on alternate forms of energy,” said 16-year-old Cheylsea Mitchell.

All the decision-making over the weekend was made either through consensus or via “rockmocracy”- voting with rocks, said Thiessen.

One of the concrete initiatives to came out of the conference was an idea to make and distribute “buffs,” a multifunctional piece of clothing that can be worn as a headband, scarf, tube top, wristband or face mask.

“It’s a product that can be used in a multitude of ways and is sourced from environmentally friendly fabric,” said Thiessen, who explained that the buffs would carry climate change slogans directed at youth.

Their other two ideas, to use condom wrappers or magnets to spread their message, got canned for creating too much of a “kerfuffle,” said Thiessen.

The group set out detailed action plans and made social commitments to one another as a way to move beyond the idea stage in the fall.

“Last year we tried really hard but weren’t successful in keeping up the momentum,” said Thiessen.

“This year I feel like we’ll have a better chance.”

Contact Vivian Belik at