CHICAGO — Danica Sun, 17, recalls the first moment she felt the call to do something for the environment was a bit cliché: As an elementary school kid, she was unnerved by one of the many viral photos of bedraggled, emaciated polar bears floating on melting slabs of ice.
But the issue really hit home a few years later when she was working on a school report about permafrost — a frozen layer of soil below the ground’s surface — thawing in the Arctic and releasing thousands of tons of methane and carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
“I realized that climate change isn’t just some future issue that only impacts polar bears,” Sun said. “I realized it’s happening now and it impacts me and everyone around me, and especially my generation. At that point, I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I really need to do something about this.’”
Now, the high school senior’s activism has taken her to a faraway land and one much warmer than the North Pole — Dubai in the United Arab Emirates — for the 28th annual United Nations Climate Change conference or COP28. The summit, which runs through Dec. 12, brings together thousands of people, including politicians, business leaders, climate experts and environmental advocates from around the world.
The global summits are convened to find ways to address the climate crisis, such as limiting global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius, helping vulnerable communities adapt and achieving net-zero emissions by 2050.
“Growing up, I was always a really quiet girl and I never would have imagined going to something like this,” Sun told the Tribune over the phone before her trip overseas. “But I think … to bring about widespread, real change, I can’t just do it myself. I have to be out there, using my voice.”
She is one of six Chicago-area students who arrived in the Middle Eastern country Saturday to participate in the conference. They are the COP28 delegates from a local youth environmental advocacy program called It’s Our Future.
“They’re very much of a team. They just knock me out every day,” said program manager Rachel Rosner, who is chaperoning the young activists this week. “It’s a huge privilege to have the capacity to empower young people to make a difference, to connect them.”
Rosner said that COVID-19, school shootings and climate change are just some of the many issues younger generations have to deal with, which has made some youths wise beyond their years. But other young folks might feel paralyzed by how enormous the issues are — so giving them the tools to do something about it, she said, feels really meaningful.
One of the other young activists in the group is Natasha Bhatia, 17, a senior at Hinsdale Central High School, who with Sun, reestablished in 2022 the local chapter of Fridays For Future, the global climate movement that began in 2018 when Swedish environmental activist Greta Thunberg started organizing school strikes every Friday.
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