Last week, the state Legislature held a hearing on a bill that seeks to protect and regulate indoor air quality in public buildings. Among the speakers who spoke in support of the bill was teenage environmental activist Julia Bae.
Julia, who’s a student at Boston’s Winsor School, is among the growing number of youth activists worldwide who are calling for environmental justice and climate action from lawmakers. She’s been active in several local advocacy groups, including Our Climate, MIT’s Climate Action Through Education and Spring Forward.
Julia joined All Things Considered host Arun Rath to discuss her environmental activism. The following is a lightly edited transcript.
Arun Rath: To start off, tell us how you first got involved in environmental justice.
Julia Bae: My interest in the environment started in fifth grade when my science class completed a unit on climate change, and I found it very interesting. As I've grown older and learned more about climate change, I've also become a lot more concerned about the issue and about our planet. So, in the past couple of years, I've become a lot more involved with some of the climate organizations and coalitions in Massachusetts.
Rath: Did you, early on, get a sense that we needed more activism and that working through traditional channels wasn't getting it done?
Bae: One of the things that I learned about both in my first science class and something that I've become more aware of as I've grown older is how a large part of this climate movement is driven by youth and members of my generation. I think that was also very inspiring for me to try to become more involved and to try to do my part for this movement.
Rath: Excellent. Talk about how you ended up on Beacon Hill last week.
Bae: As a field representative for [the group] Our Climate in Massachusetts, I do a lot of political work and advocacy. The hearing last week at the State House was a joint hearing in front of the Committee on Public Health. The bill that I was testifying for was an act to improve indoor and outdoor air quality. I went to the State House alongside four other high school students, and we were able to testify in front of all these legislators.
Overall, it was a really inspiring experience to be able to share our work in front of all these adult legislators.
Rath: The timing was kind of interesting as well because this came soon after we had heard a report about concerns about air quality in Boston schools.
Bae: Definitely. One of the elements of the Indoor Outdoor Air Quality Act is that it will also seek to improve air quality within school buildings. I think a large issue that this bill aims to address is that a lot of children, particularly in environmental justice communities, suffer long-term health issues such as asthma because of issues like air pollution.
Rath: To be clear, you're talking about kids in underserved communities being disproportionately hit by these problems?
Bae: Yes. The term 'environmental justice communities' refers to communities that have historically been marginalized. So, these are typically low-income communities and communities of color.
One of the great aspects of the air quality bill is that it actively addresses environmental justice and prioritizes the environmental justice communities in Massachusetts that are in the most need of improvements to air quality.
Rath: Beyond this bill on indoor air pollution, what are other measures that you're hoping state legislators will take up?
Bae: Another bill that, in particular, Our Climate is working towards is a bill regarding interdisciplinary climate justice education.
A common theme that we've noticed within Massachusetts and in Boston schools is that while climate change may be taught somewhat in science classrooms, there are a lot of other implications and connections associated with climate change that extend to history or in English classrooms, for instance. So, this bill would aim to not only mandate a more broad climate education in schools in Massachusetts but also to incorporate environmental justice and more of the interdisciplinary aspect into such education.
Rath: I think it's safe to say it's a pretty common experience right now for young people to—as they learn about science, as you did, and learn about what's going on with climate change in the environment—to feel pretty frustrated about it. Do you have any advice for other teens on how they can turn that frustration into action the way you did?
Bae: I would say to first learn as much as you can about climate change. I think there's so much information out there, whether it's from podcasts or from books and articles.
I would also encourage everyone to just get involved. Even within Massachusetts, there are so many amazing organizations that work within the climate movement and, especially today, I think a lot of people understand that we need to be united and connected if we're going to enact climate change legislation. So, I would definitely encourage anyone interested to get involved with climate organizations near them.