In August, Joe Biden signed the Inflation Reduction Act, a reduced version of Build Back Better, that will invest $369 billion in energy and climate. The IRA is poised to cut the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2030, according to an analysis by the White House Office of Management and Budget. The plan will give Americans tax credits and rebates for purchasing electric vehicles and create millions of jobs to generate and deploy clean energy. According to the White House, “the Inflation Reduction Act will help ease the burden that climate change imposes on the American public.”
These are all positive steps, but the climate crisis can’t be solved by national actions alone. In Connecticut, the New Haven Climate Movement shows just how much local politics still matters. The group recently used national momentum to create regional change, pushing the municipal council to delegate $5 million of its American Rescue Plan funding toward local projects aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
On September 23, as part of the international Fridays for Future strike, the group will rally on the steps of city hall, only a few blocks from the campus of Yale University, demanding expanded climate education and electric transportation in the city.
For some activists, local politics need to be given higher priority. “It feels like, ‘Oh, there’s not a lot going on in my community, it’s so boring,’” Adrian Huq, a cofounder of the group and junior at Tufts University, said. “It’s important to break out of that bubble and dive into local government. Local community activism is a really, really valuable form of activism to get involved in as a college student.”
Over the past few years, the group has successfully pushed local leadership to take bold actions, even while national change was slow. In September 2019, the city passed a resolution that formally recognized the climate crisis, calling for zero emissions in New Haven by 2030. Last spring, the New Haven Board of Education passed the “Climate Justice Schools” proposal calling for well-rounded climate education. The pilot program began in January at five New Haven public high schools and activists are hoping to expand during the next school year.
“The more students that do get involved in local activism, you break down those barriers between you and local residents and make a positive impact in your college town along the way,” Huq said.
The movement has also formed robust connections with the city. The mayor, Justin Elicker, knows them by name. City Engineer Giovanni Zinn regularly attends the Electric Future committee meetings, which pushed New Haven to commit to electrifying 100 percent of public buildings, vehicles, and appliances.
“A lot of the heart of the movement does come from New Haveners,” said Emma Polinsky, a Climate Movement member. “I think that they’re doing a wonderful job of bridging the gap between the college and the community.” In return, groups like the Yale Student Environmental Coalition support the NHCM by sending people and supplies and boosting attendance at events.
While the New Haven Climate Movement is youth-led, all ages are active in the organization. Kawtar Nadama, a freshman at the University of Connecticut, sees the group’s diversity as unique, and the input from various ages and experiences of people who have done the work longer contributes to the group’s stability and longevity.
Since its founding in 2015, the New Haven Climate Movement has grown immensely. And it’s clear that the group’s local model can be easily replicated in other cities, according to Huq. Every college town holds a variety of young people ready to find opportunities for activism. New Haven is home to many educational institutions, from Yale to Gateway Community College, but an organization like NHCM could work anywhere, said Huq, as long as the group is welcoming and facilitates an intergenerational environment.
“As a college student, you can volunteer your time to your surrounding city, and not just be enclosed in the gates of your college,” said Patricia Joseph, a freshman at Yale and member of the New Haven Climate Movement. Campus activism can bring about high-profile campus change, from endowment divestment to campus sustainability initiatives. But in order to create lasting change, climate activists will need to step past the campus gates and fight for everyone in the community.