In March of 2018, an unlikely group of high schoolers persuaded Utah state lawmakers to pass a resolution acknowledging the risks of climate change.
House Concurrent Resolution 7 recognizes “that we need to take state measures to address climate change,” according to Piper Christian, a lead student organizer.
At the time, Piper was a senior at my high school. She wasn’t a policy expert or climate scientist. Yet she led a bipartisan movement to recognize climate change, overturning an earlier 2010 Utah resolution. In today’s atmosphere of political polarization and skepticism, where there is little middle ground between “climate crisis” and “climate hoax,” such collaboration on environmental policy is rare.
How could teenagers do it? When I interviewed Piper in 2018, I heard “insider tips” on lobbying and raising support. But I came away with a relatively simple concept. Piper’s true work was not convincing legislators; it was building trust.
Trust is defined by the Merriam-Webster Dictionary as “reliance on character, ability, strength, or truth.” Trust is a social glue. If political parties don’t trust each other, they can’t utilize resources and collaborate towards joint legislation. If climate scientists aren’t trusted, we can’t identify the most effective solutions. And if the public doesn’t trust government, democracy is seriously impaired.
The most significant challenge we face in addressing climate change is the need to build trust among groups with contrasting values, beliefs and attitudes. There are no easy solutions, especially when attacks and mistruths pervade the broader political system.
Yet, through examining the work of H.C.R. 7 students, we can identify key “trust-building mechanisms.” First, highlight shared goals and establish open, non-partisan dialogue. Second, engage personal narratives to create humanizing connections. Finally, translate discussion into concrete legislative action.
A shared goal of all citizens is to protect their health and their homes. Republicans and Democrats alike can agree that polluted air is unhealthy for our bodies. Through emphasizing widely backed strategies like boosting energy efficiency, supporting renewable energy and expanding public transportation, policymakers can identify spots of unity as first steps to addressing climate change’s local impacts.
These pockets of unity not only create greater collaboration, but also create a ripple effect through encouraging more respectful dialogue. For example, individuals who share a common interest in skiing are more likely to cooperate to address low snowpack. Nature photography lovers are more likely to encourage landscape protection. Rather than relying on personal attacks and ideological extremes, citizens and legislators need to engage in conversations that emphasize commonalities.
Personal narratives can also help communities connect more directly to emotional aspects of climate change. The students who backed HCR7, for example, wrote and presented testimonies detailing climate change’s implications on their lives and their hopes for future generations. They made phone calls to legislators and attended town hall meetings. Because scientific facts about climate change didn’t change minds, they turned towards creative and personal stories, which created empathy and built trust. Sound science then played a significant role in the creation of policy.
To make reasonable, evidence-based conversations the norm, we must involve young people, artists and scientists alike. We must voice diverse perspectives, and actively counter mistruths and vilification in media. We must come together over shared priorities to combat climate change in local, state and national governments.
HRC7 was written with the belief that political and ideological division can be bridged. As Piper puts it, “It succeeded because of perseverance and optimism.”
The work of building trust is slow and easy to overlook. But a trusting foundation is critical to tackling the greatest challenges of climate change. Succeeding is crucial — for our world, homes and future.
Taylor Fang is a senior at Logan High School. She’s the 2019-20 National Student Poet of the West, and is conducting a series of free youth poetry workshops centered around using poetry to engage creatively with nature. This essay was the winner of the Third Annual Statewide High School Essay Contest administered by the Honors College at Westminster College.