Students lead charge as Langley council takes climate action

The Whidbey Island city has declared a climate emergency and has pledged to involve United Student Leaders.

LANGLEY — The city of Langley has declared a climate emergency and has pledged to involve the young people who have encouraged the city to take action.

United Student Leaders, a coalition of South Whidbey High School students, led the charge at a city council meeting last week.

The students gave a presentation on their progress since the group’s founding in October 2019 and asked the city leaders to acknowledge the current climate crisis.

Juniors Maggie Nattress and Annie Philp co-founded United Student Leaders as a way to highlight the voices of youth in the community.

The students have focused on climate change but in recent months have also led campaigns promoting equity in education.

“Climate crisis is one of the biggest threats to our generation and greatly affects marginalized groups disproportionately,” Nattress said during the council meeting.

Around the time the group was forming, international teen activist Greta Thunberg was challenging everyone to take effective climate action.

“As students, we watched in horror as governments and corporations, large and small, did nothing to combat the climate crisis and save our future,” Philp said. “Their lack of action inspired us to take action.”

Before the COVID pandemic, United Student Leaders led demonstrations outside of Wells Fargo and Chase banks in Freeland in protest of the banks’ financing of the fossil fuel industry.

Since the pandemic began, the students have turned to educational efforts within the online sphere. The group contacts around 860 people through weekly emails.

The students pointed out that Langley is directly impacted by the climate crisis. Sea level rise poses a threat to beachfront communities and businesses.

Fourteen of Washington trout and salmon species are at risk of extinction because of deteriorating habitats, which affects orcas and countless other species.

Ocean acidification also has a major impact on local businesses such as shellfish farms, fisheries and restaurants.

The students also included a draft of a resolution calling for action to be taken within two weeks.

The resolution suggests the charter of a new advisory committee dedicated to climate action within three months and asks for youth in the community to be involved in decision-making.

Five other governments in Washington — including the Everett City Council, the Puyallup Tribe of Indians, Redmond City Council, Tacoma City Council and Thurston County — have adopted climate emergency declarations. The city of Mukilteo has committed to a climate action plan.

The council was responsive to the students’ requests and agreed to declare a climate emergency.

The declaration will be followed by an enabling resolution based on the draft submitted by United Student Leaders.

“My hope is that we’re committing ourselves to identifying some actual actions,” Councilmember Christy Korrow said. “I want to follow through on that commitment, even if it’s just a couple of actual actions.”

Her fellow council members tossed out ideas such as electric vehicles for the city. Brigid Reynolds, the city’s director of community planning, has been updating Langley’s comprehensive plan to include climate goals that relate to mitigating sea level rise and keeping greenhouse gas emissions low.

Councilmember Peter Morton suggested that students should be part of the new climate change advisory group. The others agreed.

In an interview with The Record, sophomore Claire Philp, a member of United Student Leaders and a co-leader of the climate emergency declaration campaign, said she is hopeful that Langley’s declaration will create a ripple effect.

As part of the declaration, Langley will submit its new climate change resolution to the leaders of neighboring cities, the county and the state.

Claire Philp said she has heard that two students will be part of Langley’s new climate change advisory committee. Although the task force has been referred to as an ad-hoc operation, the ultimate goal, she said, would be to make it a permanent committee.

“Climate change is not going to suddenly be over,” Claire Philp said. “It’s going to be something that continues to bear down on us and is a threat to us for the rest of eternity.”

Although there are 11 students from South Whidbey who are part of United Student Leaders, students from everywhere are invited to join the group.

Derek Hoshiko, a community member with experience in climate change activism, is the group’s mentor.

The group intentionally avoids a hierarchical structure — such as a president — and allows students to focus on their own campaigns.

“One thing that we do want to kind of create within USL is this sense of safety and a place for students to come and share their ideas without feeling judged, kind of a safe place to be an activist and work with these really difficult topics without feeling like you’re being targeted or attacked,” Nattress said.

Claire Philp and fellow sophomore Parker Forsyth are leading the climate emergency campaign.

The student-led coalition is currently working on a sign-on letter that summarizes what has happened in terms of Langley declaring a climate emergency. The letter has 40 signatures so far and will be shared with the Langley city council.

This story originally appeared in the Whidbey News-Times, a sister publication to The Herald.

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