By Lisa Kava
Upper West Sider Emma Venarde, 19, has been fascinated by nature and the outdoors for as long as she can remember. “In elementary school my nickname was nature girl. Before I knew the word environmentalist, I considered myself to be one,” she told West Side Rag over Zoom from Glasgow, Scotland, where she is currently attending the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26.)
Now a sophomore at Brown University studying environmental science, Venarde is one of ten delegates representing the Youth Climate Program at COP26. The program is operated by The Wild Center, an environmental science museum in Tupper Lake, N.Y., way up north in the Adirondacks. While youth delegates cannot participate in negotiations, they have access to discussions and presentations at the conference. “We are trying to learn as much as we can and document everything that is happening here,” Venarde said.
Born and raised on the Upper West Side, where her parents and brother still live, Venarde attended elementary, middle, and high school in the Riverdale section of the Bronx. “In middle school I became concerned about the impacts of pollution and consumption, as someone who lives in a densely populated city,” Venarde said. She recalls becoming anxious about climate change after Hurricane Sandy. “As a twelve year old, I wanted to single handedly solve this crisis and became discouraged at how little I could do.”
Then, in high school, Venarde was introduced to The Wild Center by a family friend and, for the first time, felt part of a greater group effort. Through the museum’s programs, she was able connect with other students who shared her passion for environmental issues. Venarde attended a youth climate summit at Columbia University, where she participated in discussions and workshops about environmental issues. “That changed everything for me,” she said. “Suddenly, I was a puzzle piece in a larger solution. It was empowering.”
During her senior year of high school, Venarde organized the Bronx Youth Climate Summit, which ultimately took place virtually in March, 2020. This summit, which focused on education and action steps, according to Venarde, was attended by high school students from all around the United States and Canada, as well as scientists/conservationists. Many students created their own recycling programs after the event.
Venarde is excited to be in Glasgow at COP26. “We are lucky and privileged to be here,” she said. “We are listening. We are learning. Young people need to feel educated and empowered to take action.”
Highlights of COP26 for Venarde so far include a workshop her group participated in with students from the University of Glasgow. “Experts spoke about the intersection of health care and climate change, and the intersection of climate change and reproductive rights. That was fascinating.”
Venarde feels frustrated that the environmental crisis continues, yet at the same time inspired to be a part of a solution. “World leaders have come together 26 times now, and we have not stopped this crisis. We need to ask what needs to change. By having a front row seat this year, I hope to learn what systems I would like to engage with. I really want to look at what the potential roles for me might be.”
WSR asked Venarde to tell us about changes she views as crucial to helping the environment. “We need to preserve natural spaces. How we farm is really important. We need to ask if we are spraying fertilizers that will lead to emissions. Energy transition needs to happen quickly. We need to educate more people in climate change. Give resources to indigenous communities. So many small actions can have a huge impact.”
“I often say that I am an environmentalist because I am a New Yorker. Climate change threatens this city that is my home, and that I love deeply.”