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The Bergen Record

Bergen County teens hopeful yet worried as they educate others on climate change

By Ricardo Kaulessar, NorthJersey.com,

2022-09-29
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Pooja Rayapaneni, 17, Samiya Pathak, 17, and Jisae Son, 16, all attend Bergen County Academies, a magnet high school in Hackensack.

They also have in common that they are members of the student-run initiative Sunrise Bergen County, whose work focuses on climate education, protection and advocacy through community-oriented volunteer work. In August, the group was awarded the Presidential Environmental Youth Award by the Environmental Protection Agency for work in their region. Their work included organizing a climate summit hosting 40 speakers, education events for younger children, climate art galleries at parks featuring local artists, and park and river cleanups.

The three recently talked to the USA TODAY Network about their concerns about the current climate change crisis. Rayapaneni resides in Paramus, Pathak in Waldwick, and Son in Old Tappan.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How did you come to be interested in the climate change crisis?

Rayapaneni: “I was really sparked into the climate change crisis during the [2020 Covid] quarantine and especially with the Black Lives Matter movement and recognizing the privilege I hold living in Bergen County, and living in the United States and not really recognizing that a lot of marginalized communities are facing many crises including climate change.”

Are you ever angry, upset, disillusioned, or frustrated about the climate change crisis, and particularly on the East Coast where you live? What makes you feel that way?

Pathak: “There is a lot of frustration … especially when on the East Coast there are people living in communities that are being impacted where their own homes are being destroyed by the climate crisis through these floods. It’s just so heartbreaking to see that. People on the East Coast, people that I may know, my classmates, they may have their homes flooded and they may have to go through these crises, and not enough is being done about it and it’s pretty frustrating to see.”

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Are you sometimes hopeful – if so, what about?

Pathak: “I just love seeing all the young people, the people our age really fighting for this. How the young people who have been engaged in Sunrise Bergen County and their own environmental action clubs and organizations have just been really amazing and it just really brings out hope.”

Is there a specific example of how the climate crisis is affecting the area where you live?

Rayapaneni: “I have lived in Paramus my entire life. We are building nearly everywhere, new roads, new buildings, new facilities, and there doesn’t seem to be a switch to more clean energy and more renewable infrastructure, and that’s really disheartening.”

What have you learned from associating with other young activists like yourself as well as people of various races and various genders passionate about the same issue?

Son: “We were able to go to the awards ceremony [for Presidential Environmental Youth Award] and for me, I thought it was pretty cool to see that there’s this one group, the Monarch Butterfly Project. It was this group of very young children; I think they were 5or 6 years old. And it was just crazy to see such young children already getting involved in the movement.”

What do you see happening with East Coast climate change and America’s share of this crisis in the next couple of years or in the long-term?

Rayapaneni: I don’t think anything is going to happen in the long-term if we don’t keep this momentum going. We just need to keep showing up and rallying support for legislation to be passed like the Inflation Reduction Act. And holding our representatives and senators accountable for their actions in Congress.”

— This article is part of a USA TODAY Network reporting project called "Perilous Course," a collaborative examination of how people up and down the East Coast are grappling with the climate crisis. Journalists from more than 35 newsrooms from New Hampshire to Florida are speaking with regular people about real-life impacts, digging into the science and investigating government response, or lack of it.

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