Saya Ameli Hajebi is a 17-year-old leading climate activist in Boston. Gina McCarthy was the 13th administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
We come from two different generations, backgrounds and cultures — one of us is a young Muslim immigrant from Tehran and the other an Irish Catholic from Massachusetts — yet we stood together onstage in Boston feeling the same powerful energy of thousands of people during the global climate strikes.
Our experiences seeing how pollution hurts the most vulnerable among us brought us to this fight. The adversity young people are facing continues to grow and the actions put into motion by President Obama — from clean-car rules to the Clean Power Plan — are being rolled back. Personally, we’ve felt the damaging effects of pollution, but that hasn’t eroded our confidence in the country’s ability to tackle the climate crisis.
As a kid growing up in Tehran, Iran’s capital — one of the most polluted cities in the world — in the mid-2000s, the environment shaped every aspect of my life. The air pollution was so bad that my brother had breathing difficulties and suffered from eczema. My mother didn’t have to read the air-quality reports; she knew everything she needed to know based on how labored his breathing was or the intensity of his skin irritation. Pollution drove us out of the city and eventually out of the country. When we arrived in the United States, I saw the sky unfiltered by smog for the first time and realized that the sky was actually supposed to be blue. My family left Iran in pursuit of freedom and clear skies, and now, devastatingly, environmental protections are being dismantled in the United States, the country I love and proudly call home.
As the former administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, my entire professional life has been dedicated to making those blue skies happen. Like Saya, growing up in 1960s Boston, I could literally see, taste and feel pollution. I remember running to shut the windows in my third-grade classroom when the stench from the rubber company wafted in. Years later, I learned just how many people in and around that plant had died of brain cancer. My dear friend was among them, and I wondered whether her classmates had been just a bit slower than I had at shutting the windows. The pollution was visible then: Smokestacks belched, the Cuyahoga River caught on fire, the air in Los Angeles was gray.
For over 40 years, our country has been making steady progress to protect our environment and to give Saya’s brother and so many kids like him the life they deserve. But if the White House thinks they can roll us over with their rollbacks, they’re wrong.
If we look beyond the political rhetoric and see how the government’s lack of action has been a wake-up call to states and communities all across our country, we find thousands of people just like us. More than 300 mayors have promised to uphold the Paris climate agreement. States that often lean red, like New Mexico, Nevada and Colorado, are all kicking butt on renewable energy. We are not looking for oil dominance; we are looking for independence from fossil fuels. We know that climate change — like every other pollution problem — isn’t an equal-opportunity killer. It targets our children, elderly and poor communities most.
Tackling climate change will help address our country’s most widespread health problems: obesity, declining mental health, anxiety, depression, asthma, allergies, heart attacks and strokes. These can all be improved through climate actions. It’s time to say enough to injustices and inequities. It’s time for those who usually come last to benefit first from all that clean energy can offer. A healthier, more just and sustainable world is within our reach because we already have the solutions — we just need to bring them to scale, and fast.
Of course, we face big challenges, but we’re not demoralized. In fact, we are climate optimists. Why? Because of young people. They are the face of climate change, and they are propelling us forward. It’s their health on the line; it’s their future at stake. And they are standing up and demanding change.
Let’s use the climate strikes to pick up the pace on climate solutions in the places we live, work, study and worship, across every rural and urban community. Energy and hope brought us the first Earth Day 50 years ago and will propel us into the future. Today we have the Green New Deal and other climate plans, which are not dropping out of the public conversation because young people won’t let them.