By Jessie Goodkind, American Forests

Climate ChangeClimate change is a hot topic these days. The world saw the warmest August on record this summer. Glaciers are melting at alarming speeds. Wildfires are blazing their way across our wilderness. All this news is enough to make anyone start sweating. But this past week, finally, something super cool has happened!

Nations across the globe decided to stop, collaborate and listen to try to get our ice back with brand new legislation. Seventy-five countries decided to quit being frozen by their differences, and they let them go by ratifying the Paris Climate Agreement! Even China and the U.S., two ‘frenemies’ well-known for big egos and even bigger emissions, agreed that it was time to chill.

With ratification by the European Union last week, the Paris Agreement was finally set into motion. It was introduced at the 21st session of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in Paris last December and required ratification by at least 55 nations, accounting for at least 55 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions before it could enter force. Some Parties worried the Agreement would put their economies under pressure in its effort to reduce net greenhouse emissions and keep global temperature increases below 2°C, but despite these concerns,  support and momentum for the Agreement accrued faster than expected. President Obama even called it “a turning-point for our planet” on Twitter.

The Paris Agreement is designed to bring nations together in action against climate change. It is not the first of its kind, but there are some key differences and features of this legislation that make it particularly exciting for American Forests and other forestry and environmental organizations. Unlike the earlier Kyoto Protocol, the Paris Agreement makes specific mention of the important roles of forests and natural ecosystems in climate change policy. This is a pretty big deal, because before now, no  official international consensus existed for forest conservation in relation to carbon sequestration and climate change.

Article 5, Section 2 specifically mentions tackling the emissions caused by deforestation and forest degradation by creating new incentives that will promote mitigation and adaptation approaches, conservation practices and sustainable forest management. These goals directly coincide with American Forests’ core beliefs, the third of which is “Resilient forests slow the effects of climate change, provide more abundant drinking water and improve air quality.” As a leader in forest restoration, conservation and management for more than 140 years, American Forests could encounter some unique opportunities to develop or suggest policies and programs for forestry projects that are needed to battle climate change.

Climate change is an issue that affects literally every single person on Earth, but no group is more concerned about it than millennials. As a millennial myself, I can attest that we are super stressed out about this stuff! Why? Because our entire lives, not to mention the lives of our future and existing children, are going to be changed irreversibly if we don’t do something now. Some studies predict the economic costs of global warming to millennials will total more than $8.8 trillion. We will also have to live through the physical and climactic changes scientists are predicting, such as mass flooding of coastal regions, widespread drought in other areas, stronger natural disasters and pressure on food supplies, to name a few. None of that sounds particularly appealing.

As of this year, we are now the largest age group in the United States at 75.4 million; in the coming years, our generation will become the most influential demographic (if we aren’t already) politically, socially and economically. Not only will we be voters as we are now, but we will be established in our careers. We will be taking over seats in governments globally. We will be the ones running the show! It is so crucial that American Forests reach out to millennials and become an active, engaged part of the conversation on issues that we care deeply about, and the Paris Agreement is a great opportunity to do just that.

Connecting with millennials won’t be as hard as it sounds. I know we have a reputation for being aloof and shallow (thanks a lot, selfies!), but a lot of us are actually really interested in environmentalism and conservation, and also in politics and world events. Millennials are even more likely to study social sciences and applied sciences than previous generations, suggesting that many of us place high value on being a productive, educated and engaged member of civil society.

I happen to know quite a few millennials from across the world studying or working in these fields (myself included). These are some of the future leaders of tomorrow, and they’re incredibly bright and passionate. I reached out to some of them to get their opinions on the Paris Agreement and to see how they feel about climate change in general. My respondents are American, German, Norwegian and Dutch, and all are in their mid-to-late 20s.

Immediately, I was impressed by how much everyone knew about the Agreement, and how closely they had paid attention to it. Every interviewee knew the status of the Agreement’s ratification in their respective home country. They also were able to describe some goals and features of the landmark agreement. A southern California resident working in digital media marketing, and also running a small business at age 25, claimed to be only semi-knowledgeable about the Paris Agreement, but then immediately was able to describe the main purpose and some key features of the legislation, saying: “I know that it is intended for the World to come together to set goals for lower emissions and then to reconvene ever 5 years and set more ambitious goals.”

Next, I asked my respondents whether they thought the Paris Agreement was good policy or not. Words like “absolutely,” “definitely” and, of course, “Yes!” were used in reply. A 28-year-old graduate student from Freiburg, Germany explained it like this:“The world need climate agreements to avoid free-riding on this issue. As most big polluters participate it also send a message to other countries to do more about environmental protection. To tackle climate change, global efforts are important, as climate policy is not only a regional and national issue, but has to be dealt with on the global stage, too.”When asked what features of the Paris Agreement make it a positive piece of legislation, the group had some great thoughts. “It will give our governments much more leverage to pass legislation in order to tackle climate change,” said one graduate student from Ingolstadt, Germany, age 27.

A 25-year-old Norwegian university student and middle school teacher from Stavanger feels strongly that it is “important to protect the environment, and the policy is putting multilateral pressure on the countries to do their part.”But, the millennials remain pragmatic and admit some challenges will likely stem from the Agreement.“I think many countries will have a hard time reducing their emissions according to the agreement,” said the Norwegian millennial. “In Norway they just launched a new budget that is getting a lot of for not being good enough when it comes to the environment… It is not enough just to raise taxes for industrial companies and gas prices. The people need to change, too, and that is one of the biggest concerns when it comes to the environment.” A 25-year-old Dutch master’s degree student hailing from Doetinchem brings up important points about developing countries’ unique challenges in complying with the Agreement: “…emerging countries may not be flexible enough to adjust their economies properly. The policy goals may not be harmonized with their ways of economic growth, as the goals require refined and technologically advanced standards.”

Despite the challenges, most of my respondents remain hopeful about the Agreement’s ability to make a difference:

“It might be problematic that all commitments are on a voluntary basis, but since all important countries are on board, I hope and think there will be some kind of peer pressure among the countries to stick to their promises.” — German student, age 27“I do not see these difficulties as impossibilities. As previously mentioned, we have destroyed the Earth and owe it to future generations to pay the price to protect the environment.” — American businesswoman, age 25The last topic we discussed was climate change in general. Not at all to my surprise, my millennial interviewees all cared about global warming! My Norwegian respondent notes that the weather has already changed in her lifetime (again, she’s only 25!), and she cares about future generations having a well-preserved planet to live on. From California, a state many feel is hard-hit by climate change, my American respondent expresses that she “believe that climate change has happened naturally prior to human existence and that it is a process the planet goes through, but I also believe that we have poisoned the Earth with our emissions and have pushed the planet towards a path of unlivable conditions for all life on the planet.

My German respondents, ever-practical, bring up some specific points to consider about global warming:“It’s definitely the biggest challenge of our generation. Even though I’m from Germany, and we won’t be affected by it too much directly, I’m sure we will feel the consequences as well. Especially when the number of climate refugees increases. Then we won’t have any right to deny them.” — Graduate student, age 27“It is one of the most urgent and pressing topics. The climate change is a fact, and we might already reached a point where we will be confronted with irreversible changes. Nevertheless, I also see a chance in it. It creates new opportunities and markets, renewable energies are, for example, a big topic in Germany and are creating many new jobs. By discussing environment issues, the public awareness, not only for the bigger picture (climate change), but also everyday life environmental protection issues can be .” — Graduate student, age 28.Finally, I love the passion from my Dutch respondent, his response pretty much sums it all up:“I see climate change as a total f****** nightmare. I worry about it, and worrying about it changes my personal behavior. I know I can do very, very little, yet I try to do my own part: I buy less and more consciously with regards to how a product was made, where and what it contains. I categorize and separate my trash. I try to avoid traveling by plane as much as possible. But, I do believe the ‘big change’ can only be achieved if big industries co-operate with the reduction of emissions and finding environmentally friendlier ways of production. My biggest concern is the observation that they don’t.”Millennials obviously care about making a difference and helping our planet, but we need experienced partners to make our goals into reality. The Paris Climate Agreement is a great starting point for American Forests to engage with millennials. There is so much opportunity for meaningful conversation about what role forests and forestry will play in the coming years as we take on the monumental challenge of saving our planet. It is my hope that young people continue becoming more and more engaged in environmental issues, so that one day, the only things spreading like wildfire are cooperation and innovative ideas!