Leaders in Energy Four Gen Award Recognition with Samir Chowdhury, Founder of Youth Climate Action Team [an Energy Central Power Perspectives™ Interview]

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Leaders in Energy recently announced the winners of its Four Generations of Leaders in Clean Energy and Sustainable Solutions (Four Gen) Awards, which recognize exemplary leaders in the four generations of the workplace: Gen Z, Millennial, Gen X, and Baby Boomer, who are accelerating clean energy and sustainable solutions through transformational leadership and change. The 2021 Gen Z award was given to Samir Chowdhury, founder of Youth Climate Action Team.

Energy Central sat down with Samir to learn more about the work that earned him the recognition of his industry peers:

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Energy Central: Please tell me about your background – what were the milestones that led you to where you are now?

Samir Chowdhury: I first began becoming interested in climate solutions and climate activism at a really young age because I’m originally from a country, Bangladesh, that is at the forefront of the climate crisis. Throughout my childhood I spent a lot of time visiting the country and the topic of farmlands being flooded really concerned my relatives. On top of that, the air pollution in the city of Dhaka and throughout the entire country is resulting in so many mortalities every single day.

So, at a young age I was really exposed to the climate crisis and its implications. As I grew older, I became more interested in its complex intersectional implications. Specifically, I noticed in the Washington, D.C. area where I grew up, there were two rivers that differed very greatly based on the surrounding community. You have the Potomac River that has really high water quality and little to no pollution and it’s surrounded by a majority white community in the center of D.C. On the other hand, you have the Anacostia River, which is incredibly polluted, very poorly taken care of, and it is surrounded by a community that is 97% Black people. 

So, it was this experience and discovery that really magnified my perception of the climate crisis from a global issue to a global issue that uniquely impacts different groups of people. And, because of that, I founded Youth Climate Action Team Incorporated when I was 17. It’s a 501(c)(4) advocacy nonprofit composed of over 1,700 youth organizers across 27 countries. We’ve reached over 300,000 individuals and spearhead lobbying initiatives, climate education programs, research, and provide a lot of opportunities for youth to engage in work to directly benefit the planet.

Meanwhile, a lot of the time I spent in high school led me to learn more about the climate crisis and expand the ways that I spent tackling it. My freshman year of high school I did a research project related to carbon sequestration and it really bolstered the interest that I had in climate solutions, tackling the climate crisis. And I continued to do research throughout high school because of that in-class experience that introduced me to research.

So, in my junior year of high school, I interned for a professor in the Harvard School of Public Health. We did a lot of research relating to quantifying the public health implications of the clean energy transition in cities. What that research really taught me was that something as simple as implementing a 100 MW solar farm Dhaka, the capital city of Bangladesh, enables the country to save 20 lives every year. Even more, potentially.


EC: What does the Leaders in Energy Four Gen award mean to you and your organization?

SC: Honestly, I was surprised by it. Ironically, I was sitting in a class called Busting Energy Myths when I received the email saying that I had received the award. I didn’t know how monumental it would be to be named a generational leader and I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to fully grasp it. I’m very appreciative and don’t want to become desensitized to how significant it really is. My organization and climate advocacy are mission driven, so we don’t expect awards. But recognitions like this one mean so much to us because it enables others to see our efforts.


EC: What does climate justice mean to you? How do you know when it’s been achieved?

SC: It means equitably supporting all communities when creating environmental solutions and policies. A lot of current polices aren’t created with the knowledge they may have on different groups of people. I really think that climate justice at its core is essentially acknowledging the impact of environmental issues on different marginalized communities.


EC: Because this is a generational award, I’m curious as to what you feel your generation uniquely brings to the table in the effort to achieve climate justice?

SC: Since we are the generation that will be most impacted by the climate crisis, that will have to live through all of the consequences of the climate crisis if we don’t tackle it, it is our prerogative to fight for climate justice. I mentioned empathy models of change in my Leaders in Energy award presentation, and I feel that it applies directly to this question because, as youth, we’re able to directly empathize with the consequences of the climate crisis. Because, as I mentioned earlier, we will be directly impacted by its implications. We truly feel like we need to be agents of change. Centering empathy, centering those who will be the most impacted by environmental issues, is absolutely critical while we tackle this dilemma.


EC: What are empathy models of change, and how is this concept related to climate justice?

SC: Empathy models of change is a social change model that I coined through analyzing and looking back on my own experiences and advocacy work. I noticed that I was really fueled to tackle climate-related issues because I had such a deep, personal connection to it, one, originating from Bangladesh and, two, noticing climate injustices within my own community in the Washington, D.C. area. When I say empathy models of social change, I mean, whenever we are working to create something new, whether a policy, an innovation, or a business, that we directly consider the stakeholders and communities most involved with that issue. And I think this is incredibly important when tackling the climate crisis because we have so many policy makers that quite simply don’t know first-hand the lived experiences of so many marginalized communities that are being disproportionately impacted by environmental dilemmas. And without that insight, without that empathy, we won’t be able to create a solution that is 100% holistic to address the multifaceted nature of the climate crisis.

It’s a term I like talking about a lot but I’m sure a lot of people before me have really done a lot of work regarding centering stakeholders and communities most impacted. But it’s definitely something that I have adopted based on a lot of interactions with other people in advocacy across disciplines, not just climate. So, it’s based on a collection of my own experiences and advocacy. And it’s the one unique denominator that applies to sparking change in all issues, whether it be in criminal justice, educational equity, or climate justice.


EC: How do you get people to that place of empathy, where they have compassion and understanding for that perspective? Or do you just move forward with the knowledge that some people will just never get there?

SC: It’s really all about honing in on those personal connections. The climate crisis will inevitably impact all people on our planet. Everyone has a connection to it, regardless of their generation. It’s something I really tried to focus on and hone in on during the Four Gen Award presentation because it was a unique opportunity to have that conversation of talking about sustainability issues across generations. More specifically, let’s say our demographic was older people who are above the age of 65. If we want to convince them to tackle climate change and implement more sustainability initiatives, within their lifestyles and within their own community, I would simply go straight into talking about how their grandchildren and their grandchildren’s children will be directly impacted by this issue, how their health and livelihood will be directly impacted by this issue.

Regardless of the generation you come from, there is certainly a personal connection to the climate crisis that can be illuminated further and can be really wielded to develop a sense of urgency that wouldn’t be there if there wasn’t any sort of personal affiliation to the issue in the first place.


EC: What are two or three of the most important current initiatives of YCAT?

SC: One would be our Clean America Project, which is the world’s first global teen-led energy study. It’s being conducted by over 100 youths across the world. I am the principal investigator, meaning I conceptualized the study and am executing it through YCAT. It’s based on the research I mentioned earlier that I conducted at Harvard that really highlighted the mortality implications of clean energy. Tying back to empathy models of change, what I was able to do with my research was show and highlight that this solar project would save this many lives. And humanizing the issue by tying it to mortality is something that the Clean America Project aims to do. It aims to spur policy makers to empathize with the necessity of clean energy implementation and act on it.

We analyzed 150 cities across the United States and conducted research and provided original data on the mortality implications of solar, wind, and nuclear energy of different sizes. And what we hope to do with this research is, one, submit it to journals and publish it. And, two, use these findings to further lobby politicians because one of the main issues around the climate crisis is that it’s heavily politicized. By providing transparent data, there’s no room for politics anymore. It’s clear and in front of their eyes that our energy status quo is taking lives and that there are measures that can be implemented to improve it.

Regarding our second major initiative, we organize many lobby mobilizations. We’ve engaged people, youth, across the world to call, email, sign petitions — call and email their local representatives — to advocate for policies that we want to be implemented. We’ve advocated for a variety of bills from the local to federal level, ranging from a Virginia Green New Deal to legislation that protects ground water at the federal level.

The third major initiative that we implement is our Climate Education Program. Our Climate Extracurricular Education subcommittee is focused on creating climate education programs across the U.S. And we’ve partnered with a variety of schools throughout the school year to provide programs for students to learn more about climate change and how they can take action on the climate crisis. Last summer we were able to have our inaugural launch of YCAMP, which is a summer program completely free of charge for students to learn about the climate crisis and also learn how they can take action on it. YCAMP stands for Youth Climate Action Midsummer Program.

We were also able to give microgrants to selected youth in the program who displayed a lot of potential, so they could continue their initiatives post-program. One little kid that I remember in particular, whose name was Marco, was 7 years old, and his final initiative for YCAMP was developing a compost garden in his community. We were really grateful to be able to financially aid him to continue his work.


EC: What do you see as the two or three biggest obstacles to climate justice?

SC: The number one obstacle to climate justice is just a lack of education. A lot of people don’t know that the climate crisis is an issue that impacts different people differently based solely on the color of their skin, their gender, their sexuality. I did a research project for one of my writing classes first quarter at Stanford about how queer people were disproportionately affected by air pollution. And there are a lot of historical trends, a lot of historical data highlighting how queer communities are exposed to more hazardous air pollution.

And it’s a lot more than just air pollution. Flooding impacts people with disabilities at a disproportionate rate. When sea levels inevitably rise, if we don’t tackle the climate crisis, how are people with handicap impairments who aren’t able to move going to escape massive flash floods? That will be so much more prevalent as this issue continues to progress. So, I would say the number one obstacle is education. The climate crisis is an incredibly multifaceted issue with so many intersections to other issues, whether it’s gender equality or racial justice. A lot of people just don’t know about these implications. 

The number two obstacle to climate justice is the politicization of the climate crisis. We’ve had people in administration that have publicly advocated that the climate crisis doesn’t exist. The politicization of the issue has made implementing policies so much more difficult. That’s why YCAT is invested in the Clean America project, to provide data to politicians so they can no longer think of it as an issue that is political.


EC: What do you see as the two or three biggest indicators that we’re on the right path toward climate justice?

SC: One is seeing more people of color in government at all stages — at the local, state, and federal levels. More women, more queer people in politics are essential for tackling the climate crisis because all of these groups are impacted more and have their own unique experiences of climate change.

The number two indicator that we’re working toward climate justice would be the implementation of a Green New Deal, which is essentially a policy that provides millions of jobs centered around sustainable energy, centered around achieving ambitious climate goals. And I think that policy is absolutely necessary because it centers stakeholders, it centers environmental justice communities that are most impacted by the issue.

It all ties back to empathy models of change. That is certainly the common denominator of all of it — that we need people who empathize with these issues to be the ones creating the solutions.


EC: What are your plans for YCAT in the next two years?

SC: We have been running for almost two years now. So, in another two years I want the focus to be around establishing more grassroots efforts across the world. We have a very strong core base that is composed of nine teams that run the day-to-day affairs of our organization. We’ve really been working on trying to expand our presence in local communities across the world.

Currently we have branches in Canada, Mexico, the Middle East, Uganda, Jordan, India, and South Korea. But we want to expand beyond that and have efforts in countries across the world so that people who know best about their own communities are shaping the work and doing the work to combat the unique implications of climate change within their own communities


EC: Is there anything else you’d like to share?

SC: I’ll just reiterate that the only way we’re going to solve this issue is if we center voices most impacted. That is what I want to do with all my work in the future. I want to be able to tackle this issue — through business, policy, entrepreneurship, and innovation — in a way that centers and uplifts the people most impacted by it.


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