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Science and Innovations

Upcoming Climate Summit In Flagstaff Centers On Youth Voices

Ryan Heinsius

Teenage climate activists have gained global attention this year. Sixteen-year-old Greta Thunberg from Sweden inspired widespread school strikes in September, and indigenous hip-hop artist Xiuhtezcatl Martinez is part of youth-led lawsuit against the U.S. government to secure the right to a stable climate. Youth voices will be at the center of this week’s Climate Summit in Flagstaff. It will bring together scientists from all three state universities as well as a diverse group of health professionals, environmentalists, tribal members, writers, and artists. KNAU’s Melissa Sevigny spoke with two of the organizers, Kate Petersen and Bruce Hungate.

Melissa Sevigny: One of those diverse voices that you’re bringing to the table is the young people that are involved, and you’ve got a good amount of time blocked out for this Youth Town Hall. Will you tell me about that, why do you think that’s important?

Kate Petersen: Greta Thunberg has said it better than anyone else can I think: that her generation will be left holding the bag… and we just wanted to be sure that we centered youth voices and that they led the conversation they wanted to hear. We’ve done that in a couple of ways. Xiuhtezcatl Martinez is providing the keynote. We have this Youth Town Hall on Saturday that I’m really excited about, and that’s free for all middle school and high school students. That’s built around the question: how do I get involved on climate if I want to? We have some seasoned youth climate leaders that will be offering a how-to, and then breakout sessions that are oriented around coming up with a collective and consensus action out of the town hall.  

Bruce Hungate: I think it’s really important to include and invite youth to a conversation like this, where you’re looking at a global scale phenomenon that’s unfolding at a rate where the impacts are most strongly felt by them. They have to be part of it. They have to not just be a part of it, they have to be invited to a leadership role. Just like Kate said, we have to set it up so that we’re listening and they’re speaking.

Melissa Sevigny: Over the past year we’ve seen this upsurge of activism from young people. We’ve had here in Flagstaff and around the world strikes and walkouts dealing with climate change. Is that your sense as well? I’m curious whether when you went looking for youth activists, was it hard to find them?  

Bruce Hungate: Not at all. I still have pictures in my head of all those kids so inspired, motivated and empowered to speak—so, not hard at all.

Kate Petersen: Just the real sense of celebration. Xiuhtezcatl has this PBS interview that I saw, he said I really believe we’re the last generation that has the chance to sway the future in a positive light. Positive light really struck with me, because that’s what I felt and saw and experienced when I witnessed the climate strike in September. 

Melissa Sevigny: What is your goal with this summit? What do you hope will come out of these two days?

Bruce Hungate: I hope the summit will start to change the conversation that we’re having around climate change.  I think this is true from the microcosm of person-to-person conversations, to the community, to the state, and honestly to the entire nation. How we talk about climate change now isn’t always very productive, to understate it a little bit. I hope that this will be a productive step in a direction that starts to change that, starts to invite more people to say what they think and what they feel and what they imagine as productive steps toward addressing this grand challenge.

Kate Petersen: I think that microcosm that Bruce mentioned is really important. Just from my own anecdotal experience, this has really elevated the issue among friends and family that don’t necessarily talk about this at the dinner table. I have friends whose kids participated in the climate strike, who wouldn’t have except we were doing this summit so I was talking about climate all the time. I think simply making it a topic of conversation, and making it an inviting, inclusive topic of conversation can really bring new people in, and we need everyone out there to help on this issue.   

Melissa Sevigny: Bruce Hungate, Kate Petersen, thank you so much for talking with me today.  

Bruce Hungate: Thank you, Melissa, for having us on. 

Kate Petersen: Thanks Melissa.

That was KNAU’s Melissa Sevigny speaking with NAU’s Kate Petersen and Bruce Hungate, organizers of this week’s climate summit in Flagstaff. It takes place Friday and Saturday. More information and registration is at

Melissa joined KNAU's team in 2015 to report on science, health, and the environment. Her work has appeared nationally on NPR and been featured on Science Friday. She grew up in Tucson, Arizona, where she fell in love with the ecology and geology of the Sonoran desert.
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