Hurricane Sandy Jan Ellen Spiegel

There is no shortage of metrics you can use to figure out the impact of climate change on our state. Here are just a few:

  • Using federal guidelines, which peg the sum of key negative global economic impacts due to rising Green House Gas emissions at $51 per metric ton of CO2, you’d find that the social cost of Connecticut’s carbon emissions in 2018 was $2.4 billion dollars, or about 0.9% of the state’s GDP;
  • Using data compiled by the Connecticut Department of Public Health, you’d find that the health care costs for asthma alone, exacerbated by persistent exposure to air pollutants, is $100 million each year statewide;
  • And using studies released by leading climate researchers this past May, you’d learn that roughly 13%, or $8 billion, of the $62.7 billion in damages reported across the tri-state area in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy are attributable to rising sea levels caused by climate change.
Matthew Plourd

These indicators and thousands like them are black and white, illustrating a clear and dire warning to a state and a world unprepared for, unwilling to acknowledge, and tormented by the future. They should be sufficient on their own in galvanizing leaders to take swift, bold climate action.

Just as important, though, are those deeply human impacts of the climate crisis and other issues that we cannot measure in dollars and cents — impacts that have done the most to invigorate ongoing movements for racial justice, sensible gun reform, and climate action, all led by youth; spur a record number of millennials and gen Z-ers to run for elected office, or move 53% of the youth electorate to cast a ballot in 2020. Taking these impacts into account acknowledges that this unprecedented level of youth engagement is far from coincidental.

I was 16 and a junior in high school when Hurricane Maria struck the island of Puerto Rico. My family and I vividly recall the kind of hell that followed. Unable to get hold of my grandmother for a week and left to numbly stare at images of destruction from afar, we spent every waking moment repressing the possibility that the home my mother had grown up in was no longer there, or that my grandmother was no longer alive. Though, thankfully, we were finally able to reach her and booked her on the first flight to Hartford, in our justifiable haste to move on, it would be some years later when I’d come to terms with what had happened: that, living in what some estimates call the most impacted place on Earth by the climate crisis, my grandmother, along with around 4% of the island’s population, had become a climate migrant. This colossal  issue, and the “once-in-a-lifetime/generation/century/millenia” storms that have become increasingly all too common these days had touched the people I love.

Just as my family and countless others have been impacted by climate-related disasters, including wildfires in the West, swirling derechos in the Midwest, disastrous flooding in the South, and more severe storms like Sandy and impending sea level rise in the Northeast, so too have even more young people and their friends already, in our short lives, found ourselves visited by: financial insecurity in two major recessions, the steepest inequality in a century, two major wars, the relentless tension to duck under our desks at the slightest noise in the school hallway, and now, a global pandemic.

In my conversations with other young activists, it has long been abundantly clear that we know and care — acutely, often painfully — about these issues, and that we’re actively seeking ways to change them. Yet despite all of our action and concern, we’re often unsure if elected officials, in their inaction, care nearly as much. It’s for this reason — not lack of caring, or ignorance, but quite the opposite — that I’ve witnessed the greatest shifts towards hopelessness in my few years as a young advocate. It comes from feeling like despite our megaphones, we’re speaking to a brick wall; it comes when we watch climate legislation like the Transportation Climate Initiative (TCI) used as take-it-or-leave-it bargaining chips or punted by leaders at the drop of a hat when the political stars no longer align, rather than built upon and improved as the critical climate measures we need. Plainly, it comes when young people exhaust their capacity to yell.

The people that decide whether this kind of apathy exists — whether our default youthful optimism disastrously gives way to disempowerment, or a brighter future — are ultimately not us young people; they are the elected officials who have the courage to choose whether climate change and environmental justice, among a host of other issues, are worth acting on despite political risk — those that decide if our future is worth fighting for.

I’ve heard it remarked recently, in a different context, that democracy is a trust exercise. As more and more young people make their political support contingent on action to ensure the very survival of our planet and generations to come, elected officials in Connecticut should know this: just because we came out to the polls in 2018, and in 2020, absolutely does not mean that we’ll do so again if we can no longer trust that those representing us will take swift action on climate and environmental justice across all levels of government. And the 2021 election autopsy should provide a sobering reference point: after having one of the nation’s highest voter turnout rates among young people in 2020, early estimates of turnout among Virginia voters 18-29 in last month’s gubernatorial election was the lowest since 2013, at just 25%.

On the backdrop of ISO-NE’s request to terminate the Killingly powerplant — itself a testament to the years-long, back-breaking effort of activists statewide — Connecticut residents, and this crisis, deserve and require action beyond executive orders, as welcome as they are; it’s up to leaders in the legislature to take cues from the world’s top scientists and ongoing discussions in Washington, stop stalling, and pass major climate legislation through the General Assembly immediately. The failure to do so would not only scar communities with a devastating, unlivable new normal for decades to come, but deprive our democracy and a generation of the trust in institutions and political processes that both so desperately need today.

Matthew Plourd is a Policy Intern for the  Connecticut League of Conservation Voters; and on the Leadership Team of the Sunrise Movement Connecticut.