DEVASTATING WILDFIRES, destructive hurricanes, extended droughts, and rising sea levels: These effects of climate change, feared by scientists for decades, are now reality for innumerable communities around the globe. Yet, despite these undisputable warnings from our planet, legislation to cut emissions consistently stalls in state and federal legislatures.
America’s promise to remain dedicated to the Paris Climate Agreement is contingent on our leadership. Some people even question the legitimacy of climate change itself. Around the globe, we are failing to protect ourselves and our future. Those empowered to pass climate change legislation will not live to see its long term effects, and have no stake in the future we need them to protect. Young people understand this urgency. We know that without immediate action, we will be lucky if our futures resemble those of our parents.
Why do young people so fervently demand action on climate change? Because we know we will carry the burden of salvaging our world once the damage is already done.
For this reason, young people deserve the right to vote. Because young people are barred from the democratic process, we are denied the right to influence budget decisions, environmental regulations, and emissions policies, all of which will heavily affect our futures. But despite our disenfranchisement, young people are already highly engaged and motivated and have displayed extraordinary leadership in the face of existential challenges. We’ve taken action by participating in climate marches, writing letters to our representatives, and organizing for change.
In 2018, 16-year-old climate activist Greta Thunberg spoke in front of the United Nations, boldly calling out global leaders who have remained inactive in the face of the climate crisis. Thunberg’s words empowered young people to take a bold stance in their communities. Nationwide youth-led organizations such as the Sunrise Movement are working on a local level to make our communities more sustainable.
This national movement is demonstrated within our city of Northampton. In 2019, Northampton High School students turned out in droves for the 2019 School Strike for Climate, an international movement and day of action sparked by Thunberg. This past year, we testified at local school committee meetings in favor of electric buses instead of diesel-powered vehicles, and organized through the Northampton Youth Commission to pass the Plastic Reduction and Sustainability Ordinance through the City Council, setting new standards for polystyrene usage on local businesses. The bottom line is: young people in Northampton are informed of, and engaged in every facet of the political process – except for voting.
Some cities and towns across America have already taken steps to rectify this disparity, by lowering their municipal voting age to 16, empowering 16- and 17-year-old citizens to channel their knowledge and motivation into concrete democratic participation. Now, Northampton has its chance to join this historic moment. By passing state bill H.830, Northampton can become the first municipality in Massachusetts to allow 16- and 17-year-olds to vote for mayor, city council, and school committee, as well as local ballot initiatives.
The bill is sponsored by Rep. Lindsay Sabadosa and Sen. Jo Comerford, and unanimously supported by Northampton’s mayor, City Council, School Committee, and Charter Review Committee. H.830 had a hearing before the Massachusetts Joint Committee on Election Laws on June 23, 2021. At the hearing, city councilors, school committee members, the mayor of Northampton, a representative from the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, Congressman Jim McGovern, a researcher from Tufts University, and many other community members all provided spoken or written testimony in support of H.830. Despite the strong support, H.830 has not yet been reported out of committee, which has until February 2 to make a decision on the future of the bill.
State legislative approval is the final remaining obstacle preventing Northampton’s 16- and 17s-year-olds from having a voice on the issues which directly affect our lives and futures. We, much like the millions of other young people across the country, have a major stake in the issues on the ballot. We are organized, engaged, and motivated to act to mitigate the existential threat of the climate emergency. We are ready to vote.
Dahlia Breslow, 17, and Lila Nields-Duffy, 15, are members of the Northampton Youth Commission, which is the official city body tasked with representing young people.