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The Cypress

The student news site of Brookline High School

The Cypress

The student news site of Brookline High School

The Cypress

This conference taught me to be a better climate leader

Junior Toby Sillman reflects on his experience at the Climate Reality Summit in New York City. Hearing from speakers including Al Gore, Sillman said he learned to be a better climate activist.

I was surfing through Instagram about two months ago, as one does, when an interesting-looking post caught my eye. It described a certain “Climate Reality Leadership Training” session taking place in New York City. As it coincided with the very beginning of April break, I signed up right away.

Allow me to provide some background context. I consider myself to be very passionate about combating the climate crisis. I’ve devoted much of my time and energy to serving the Brookline community as a member of the School Committee Sustainability Task Force. I’m currently working on getting as many people to commute sustainably to school as possible, particularly by biking.

But through my advocacy, I’ve come to realize that telling people that their polluting, laziness-inducing cars are running on borrowed time – see my previous op-ed – isn’t enough. Climate change can’t be ended by attempting to persuade each and every driver in Brookline to make the switch to biking. If I’m to achieve any meaningful changes in Brookline’s climate status, they have to come directly through changes in policy. That’s why I decided to sign up for this training conference. I knew that I needed to have the skills to advocate for lasting and significant environmental improvements, which the conference would help me acquire.

So, on the morning of Friday, April 12. after taking an 8 a.m. math test, I boarded a Peter Pan bus to Manhattan. I met up with my aunt that afternoon at the Port Authority Bus Terminal before we walked to the Jacob Javits Convention Center, where the conference took place.

On the first day of the conference, there were a number of inspirational introductory speeches given. The collective passion I encountered in that conference room was a clear reminder of how important it is to be a part of this movement. It felt incredibly rewarding and humbling to be part of such an outstanding and wide-ranging group of people.

I also enjoyed listening to the first of many panel discussions led by the indomitable Al Gore that afternoon. Several regional political leaders joined Gore in the discussion. One of them, Sara Innamorato, the county executive of Allegheny, Pennsylvania, offered sound advice through her stories of advocacy against the region’s thriving fossil fuel industry. “We shouldn’t be afraid of conflict when addressing climate change,” she warned, “It’s going to get messy.” This was quite the wake-up call for my decidedly non-confrontational self. As I get more and more involved in advocating for better bike lanes, I’m beginning to sense that progress can be much more elusive than I previously thought. Innamorato’s insights were informative and relevant as a result and gave me a boost of confidence in my continued quest for environmental progress here in Brookline. I felt filled with a newfound sense of optimism and empowerment.

The next morning included the highlight of my weekend – Gore gave his signature two-hour presentation on the climate crisis. In a speech filled with statistics, insights, criticism, praise, irony, inspiration, humor, and so much more, Gore had a larger-than-life presence in the Javitz Center auditorium. The grace and dignity in his empowered and impassioned delivery of such an important message – perhaps the most important message of all time – blew me away. Additionally, he could be incredibly blunt in his wording. “When you’re in a hole, stop digging!” he thundered, in a scathing takedown of the fossil fuel industry. Watching Gore was not only a free lesson in public speaking, but it taught me just how important good leadership is. He was inspiring, and a true leader to emulate. He made me want to spring into action.

On the final day of the conference, I enjoyed listening to even more discussions led by Gore. With the help of leading climate scientists Rosina Bierbaum and Gavin Schmidt, Gore led a Q&A session, answering climate-related questions from people living in Queens, Miami, Nairobi and beyond. The level of international diversity at the conference was remarkable and contributed to a strong sense of geopolitical unity – yet another weapon against the fossil fuel industry. The sense of connection I felt to the other 3,000 attendees was magical. That sense of connection that I grew to understand is truly important in any level of advocacy.

The final Gore-led discussion consisted of several Climate Reality regional chapter leaders. I found it encouraging to hear from many of these climate advocates, many of whom were young people who had only been in the movement for a few years. This was inspiring for me, as somewhat of a rookie in the current environmental scene.

I knew that attending the Climate Reality Leadership Conference would be an amazing opportunity to educate myself. It changed not just what I know about climate change, but how I think about it as well. I truly believe that climate change and all other crises facing humanity can be solved if there exists enough courage, smarts, and will from the people fighting them.

I hope that everyone at this school shares this faith and will join me in the quest for a better Brookline: one bike lane, one conference, one committee meeting, and yes, one op-ed, at a time.

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