Students step up as climate change leaders

Following a U.N. Climate Summit in New York City last September, Hamilton students have picked up the gauntlet. At a Youth Eco-Summit at Mohawk College this past October, the message was clear: we must all take an active role in the fight against climate change.

Fifteen years ago, the Hamilton-Wentworth Catholic District School Board (HWCDSB) began its own ecological conversion, using the Ontario EcoSchools program as its operational framework and the Social and Ecological Responsibility in Education (SERE) Committee as its advisory body.

Ontario EcoSchools is a curriculum-based program that integrates ecological literacy with hands-on activities aimed at energy conservation, waste minimization, and school grounds greening. The program is a natural fit with Catholic teachings on Stewardship of Creation, a theological principle that calls us to care for our common home. Today, Stewardship of Creation is both the ideal and the norm in our Catholic elementary and secondary schools.

Two of our students were invited to share some of what they’ve learned at last October’s Youth Eco-Summit attended by 900 Hamilton youth, including students from the HWCDSB.

St. Jean de Brébeuf Catholic Secondary School student Paulina Szczepanski urged young people to take action in big ways and small. Paulina conducts regular waste and recycling audits to look for ways in which her school can improve its practices, and is a vocal promoter of waste-free lunches and reusable containers. St. Marguerite d’Youville Catholic Elementary School student Nicholas Bullard, another presenter, makes a difference by raising butterflies in his backyard to boost declining pollinator populations.

Numerous other ‘eco heroes’ are leading the charge back at their own schools, informed in large part by the Ontario EcoSchools program and driven by their own determination to preserve the world for future generations.

The view from Windermere Basin – Sean Hurley.

Initiatives of recent years include recycling programs, waste-free lunches, plastic water bottle bans, solar-powered and outdoor classrooms, hybrid solar and wind turbines, biodiversity community and pollinator gardens, energy efficient lighting, mechanical and control systems, energy audits, tree planting, active transportation, and a slew of other programs to help the board and its schools reduce their carbon footprints.

In our own ward, the Health Action Team at Holy Name of Jesus Catholic Elementary School has been encouraging students to replace juice boxes, energy drinks, coffee and soft drinks with water from the school’s hydration stations through a “Rethink Your Drink” campaign. The campaign focuses on the health benefits of drinking water over sugary drinks and the ecological benefits that ensue from diverting paper and plastic containers from city landfills.

At St. John the Baptist Catholic Elementary School, the eco club has expanded its recycling program with a winter clothing drive to repurpose outgrown, gently used clothing and a book swap, which doubles as a literacy support. The club also organized a Christmas activity that invited students to create ornaments and decorations using only found and recycled materials. Waste and energy audits undertaken by the club have further pinpointed ways in which the school can reduce waste and conserve energy.

These initiatives are crucial in mitigating what Pope Francis in his Encyclical Letter Laudato Si’ calls “rapidification” – the intensified pace of social evolution. He suggests that a fundamental shift in thinking is needed.

“Every effort to protect and improve our world entails profound changes in ‘lifestyles, models of production and consumption, and the established structures of power which today govern societies,’” he wrote.

On February 5th, St. John the Baptist students joined students from 40 Catholic and public schools for a “Winter Walk to School” Day, sponsored by the City of Hamilton and Smart Commute in support of active and sustainable school transportation (ASST).

ASST emphasizes the importance of walking and cycling to school for a variety of reasons which include improved physical and mental health, reduced traffic and improved air quality. In 2015, the HWCDSB, together with the City of Hamilton, co-signed an ASST charter which aims to facilitate a measurable shift in travel behaviour towards active and sustainable transportation.

The timing couldn’t be better.

As mental health issues and childhood obesity continue to rise, as the board contends with an ongoing school bus driver shortage and as the city announces its intention to more rigorously enforce its idling by-law, ASST just makes good sense.

But the shift in thinking must go further. Earlier this week, the HWCDSB signed a memorandum of understanding with Mohawk College and eight regional school boards to establish a Climate Change Leaders Learning Partnership. The sustainability education initiative will not only provide students with new skills and learning in the area of climate change, but will assist school boards in reducing their own carbon outputs.

It’s part of the new and universal solidarity envisioned by Pope Francis in Laudato Si’: “All of us can cooperate as instruments of God for the care of creation, each according to his or her own culture, experience, involvements and talents.”

And our young people are leading the way.

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