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This young environmental advocate’s message to decision-makers: Let teens lead the way

Muskan Walia has been a part of UYES since she discovered the repercussions of the air her family breathes

By Alixel Cabrera - Utah News Dispatch | Apr 25, 2024

Photo supplied, Muskan Walia

Youth Climate Summit 2024 keynote speaker Muskan Walia.

The summer after Muskan Walia graduated from Bountiful High School, she abruptly learned what it meant to have a refinery almost at her doorstep.

Her mom, who liked to garden outside their home, developed a pervasive cough that led her to her doctor’s office. She was later diagnosed with a lung disease, a fact that was exacerbated by the air they breathed in Woods Cross, home to a few of the big refineries on the Wasatch Front.

“I remember feeling so angry and feeling like this was so unfair, and I remember feeling sort of motivated to act,” she said about that breaking point.

Walia, now a senior at the University of Utah and still a community organizer, learned about the environmental challenges the Salt Lake Valley faces when she decided to take action. She saw her friends posting about a campaign that successfully led the Salt Lake City School District to commit to convert 100% of its electricity sources to clean energy by 2030. And it lit a spark in her.

“They were talking about it in terms of air quality and improving air quality. And I was like, ‘I want this in my district because poor air quality is impacting my family. It is impacting my community,’ so I launched this campaign in Davis School District,” Walia said.

Spenser Heaps, Utah News Dispatch

Marathon Petroleum Company’s Salt Lake City Refinery in Salt Lake City is pictured on Wednesday, Jan. 3, 2024.

She joined Utah Youth Environmental Solutions, a grassroots group led primarily by young people. The organization focuses on advocating for legislation, education and direct action that moves the needle on environmental policy.

“We see a lot in social movements that young people are tokenized and sort of just used but not really empowered to be leaders,” Walia said. “And so we’re really passionate about making sure that young people are in positions of leadership and really sort of having a say in what they want their future to look like.”

Because of the group’s efforts, Utah officially acknowledged the impact of climate change on Utahns in 2018 by passing a HCR7, a resolution that encouraged “the responsible stewardship of natural resources and reduction of emissions.”

The group also undertook an initiative led by Walia to commit the Davis School District to switch its electricity operations to 100% clean energy by 2030.

“I was like, I want this in my district because poor air quality is impacting my family. It is impacting my community,” Walia said.

She put together a team of over 27 students, teachers and other community members that pushed the effort.

When conducting these campaigns, UYES presents it to school boards and facility directors as a smarter financial decision, she said, especially with unprecedented funding for clean energy initiatives from the federal government. They also propose ways to spend those savings as resources for classrooms.

Though the district didn’t commit to meet that goal, it took steps to use power more efficiently and revised its energy policy, said Christopher Williams, director of communication and operations at the district. The school board argued there was not a good path forward to achieve the 2030 deadline.

“The cost to convert our schools from natural gas to 100% electric is very significant, including adding solar panels to every building,” Williams said. “The cost to do so would require hundreds of millions of dollars, and would require a significant bond, approved by voters, to achieve the work.”

As for federal money, he said, funding is allocated to schools based on the Climate and Economic Justice Screening Tool and schools in the Davis School District don’t fit into those categories.

However, new buildings from the district are net-zero energy buildings, generating as much renewable energy as they consume, Williams added. The schools also upgraded their LED lighting, and use analytical control strategies and demand response controls in 10 facilities through a Rocky Mountain Program, among other actions.

“It was very difficult in Davis (School District) because Davis has kind of already been a leader in clean energy, using clean energy in their schools. But then we have such old buildings,” Walia said. “So we had to think through retrofitting old buildings and also, we’ve had new buildings popping up and having to change those buildings. I think that’s kind of been the holdup.”

After that effort, Walia became a leader looked up to by other young Utahns concerned by climate change. Walia was the keynote speaker at The Youth Climate Summit this month, an event meant to equip attendees with resources from the Natural History Museum of Utah’s Critical Action Lab — a nationwide internship program in which teens can work together to spread awareness on environmental issues and community action — to address climate change.

Sky Symond, a 16-year-old fellow at the lab who is particularly concerned about the status of the Great Salt Lake and the bad air quality in Utah, said she had always known about climate change, but never knew there would be things she could do to address those worries.

It was during that internship that she met Walia virtually. Walia’s family history with air pollution resonated with her. After her time in the program, Symond was inspired to keep looking for resources, even at her age.

“It’s going be hard for people to try and take action on their own, but they’re never alone,” she said.

Walia’s work with UYES hasn’t stopped. She realized that one big challenge to accomplish big items in a youth-led group is consistency.

“Young people’s lives are very transient, right?” she said. “People are going to college, people have jobs and they move. And so it’s really hard to sustain youth leadership.”

A key piece to counter that and to keep young people mobilizing was education on environmental issues, something she didn’t officially receive in the school curriculum. That’s why she helped build an environmental justice training program on the history and solutions for the ailing Great Salt Lake for Utahns from 14 to 17 years old.

The curriculum is now shaped as a week-long intensive program the group hopes to implement in some schools. That was an effort to offer what she missed out on and to preserve environmental campaigns led by a generation that could face higher burdens from the effects of climate change. It also helped to show the issue through a different lens in the state.

“There’s sort of this typical story for the environmental movement in Utah, which is people who like to explore the outdoors and go skiing and rock climbing, and want to preserve those opportunities. And I think that’s really beautiful,” she said. “But also there’s another story and that’s the story of people whose safety and sort of health is compromised when we don’t take care of the environment.”

Those health concerns were what initially motivated her to act. And, she believes, it is what encourages many of her peers to take action.

Driving young Utahns to be in the room where decisions are discussed is one of her priorities in her role at UYES. She wants the youth to be more than a photo opportunity. In an ideal world, they would be empowered to ideate and implement their visions.

“We can come up with some pretty dang good solutions,” she said.

Utah News Dispatch is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news source covering government, policy and the issues most impacting the lives of Utahns.


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