Frustrated by policy makers, Missoula high-school students launch action on climate future


Big Sky High School graduates Raines Baker, left, and Sarah Sriraman, each members of Free Us from Climate Chaos, listen in to one of the seminars during the week-long symposium. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

There’s a growing sense of frustration among a group of Missoula students who have come to believe that without money, they have no political voice, and without that voice, they have little influence on the future of their planet.

What’s more, they agree, their concerns over climate change and the world they stand to inherit have gone largely unheard by the nation’s elder lawmakers.

“As youth, we don’t have the money that often drives politics, and that’s frustrating for our generation,” said Big Sky High School graduate Brianna Canning. “I feel there’s nothing we can do right now because we don’t have the financial influence that politics are so focused on. It seems hard to convey an idea if we don’t have that backing.”

While Canning and a dozen other Big Sky High School graduates may stand frustrated at the political realities of their time, they remain undeterred in their belief that they can still make a difference.

For more than a year, members of their upstart organization, Free Us from Climate Chaos, have planned a week-long symposium to place capitalism under the microscope and explore its detrimental impacts on politics.

Along the way, they look to catalyze a global movement to end what the students see as the greatest threat facing their generation – a gradually warming planet that could be far less hospitable when they’re ready to have children of their own.

“We can’t expect policy makers who have benefited from an illegitimate system to think about our generation and our future,” said Big Sky graduate Everett Bayer. “From what we’ve seen and what we’ve learned, it’s very corrupt and it’s very illegitimate. There haven’t been any policies on climate change that have met the goals of what we should be doing.”

Big Sky graduate Everett Bayer prepares to introduce the first symposium guest during a live stream of the event. “We can’t expect policy makers who have benefited from an illegitimate system to think about our generation and our future,” Bayer said. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

In conjunction with the University of Montana, the students this week brought together some of the nation’s leading scholars on climate, culture, sociology and activism to explore ways to spread critical thinking and change the system they’re bound to inherit.

From Noble Peace Prize winner Steve Running at UM to Kate Raworth from Oxford University’s Institute of Environmental Change, the well-attended symposium added a sense of urgency to their cause.

But for many students, that urgency and sense of frustration was already there.

It grew earlier this month when President Donald Trump panned the warnings of the nation’s leading scientists and unilaterally withdrew the U.S. from the Paris Accord – a global pact to address climate change and hold planetary warming to 2 degrees Celsius.

Big Sky graduate Sarah Sriraman said the nation’s withdrawal from the agreement, signed by 195 nations, has reduced America’s standing in the world. Yet she remains optimistic in how 1,200 national business leaders, governors and mayors vowed to follow the agreement’s goals “in the absence of leadership from Washington.”

“A big thing that concerns me is the inequality that climate change creates throughout the world, and how developing nations and poor countries are suffering these huge effects while we just live our lives and drink Starbucks every day,” said Sriraman. “My hope is that the president’s decision spurs action to think about the effects of climate change, and sparks anger and revolution to make a bigger change.”

Jake Campbell and Alex Simmins, both recent Big Sky graduates and members of the group, believe it’s not fair to blame past generations for the current impacts of climate change, or the conditions it’s likely to create by the middle of the century if left unchecked.

Standing outside the symposium on an early weekday morning, they said that past efforts by activists have largely failed. There’s a growing sense of frustration among their peers, who now believe the situation they face is increasingly dire and more difficult than ever to solve.

“I’m not sure it’s fair to blame any particular generation, but obviously, there’s some cynicism that follows that with us being left with this situation,” said Campbell. “The fact stands that we’re in this situation right now. If nothing has changed by now, it’s pretty good proof that none of the movements beforehand have been effective.”

Simmins agreed.

“We think the current state of the environmental movement and activism hasn’t been very successful,” he said. “They’re just causing minor inconveniences but they’re not changing anything in the long run. We’re trying to express the idea of critical thinking in a way that can be replicated in other communities.”

Big Sky High School graduate Jake Campbell, who is a member of Free Us from Climate Chaos, said “If nothing has changed by now, it’s pretty good proof that none of the movements beforehand have been effective.” (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

The current lack of critical thinking may reach its way to Congress where, in theory, the nation’s elected leaders are entrusted to craft policies on behalf of the people they’re sent to represent.

But in the wake of Citizens United, dark money and corporate influence on political outcomes, the students have already come to believe that the system is flawed, if not outright broken. And while the students don’t go so far as to say they’ve given up hope, they do admit to being frustrated and pushed to take action.

“We’ve definitely considered the unjust and unethical way capitalism has played into how we go about our everyday lives,” said Bayer. “What we’re trying to focus on is how the system can change and make everything more equitable, just and fair.”

“Humans aren’t the only thing living on this planet,” he added. “We’re trying to look at solutions and ways to be less selfish and care about everything other than ourselves. If we want to make changes, it has to be now.”