Student Activists Tackle Climate Change

Two Stony Brook students have taken the lead on an influential issue that has significant ramifications for Long Island and the planet.

James Pizaro ’22 and Emily Schalkham ’21 have been at the forefront of efforts to promote climate change education and awareness as members of the student-run organization Students For Climate Action (S4CA)

Emily Schalkham ’21

Emily Schalkham ’21

With its eight Long Island chapters and chapters in upstate New York, Texas and Massachusetts, the group’s mission is to mobilize students to act on behalf of climate policies and 100 percent renewable energy initiatives, and through education, public acts of engagement and community involvement to help shape local, county, state and federal policy.

James Pizaro ’22

James Pizaro ’22

“Both Emily and James have been extremely productive, committed and creative as team members, and have truly improved our social media, press, website and overall coordination and taken them to a new level,” said Melissa Parrott, S4CA’s executive director.

Among S4CA’s accomplishments is passage of the Climate Leadership and Community Preservation Act. What’s more, the organization successfully aided the Town of Islip to become a Climate Smart Community and is working with the towns of Brookhaven and Islip to adopt NYStretch, a statewide model code that New York jurisdictions can use to meet their energy and climate goals by accelerating savings obtained through their local building energy codes.

In addition, the students are meeting with State Assembly and Senate candidates before the election to discuss their climate change priorities and policies. At that time, they will discuss options to increase adaptation and resiliency to climate change, as well actions to reduce carbon emissions.

They also will be co-sponsoring a virtual town hall on climate change for New York Congressional Districts 1 and 2 on October 13. The forum will feature 1st Congressional District candidates Congressman Lee Zeldin and Nancy Goroff, and 2nd Congressional District candidates Jackie Gordon and Assemblyman Andrew Garbarino.

“These students are game changers,” said Parrot.

Climate change wasn’t always a burning issue for either Schalkham or Pizaro, though both students were self-described nature lovers growing up.

Schalkham started and participated in the first recycling club at her upstate New York middle school, nabbing second- and third-place finishes in science research competitions all over New York State.

Pizaro, on the other hand, said he was inspired to protect the environment chiefly through his experience in the Boy Scouts.

“I grew to love the outdoors from being a scout, and I was also educated on some of the issues affecting it, like pollution. I decided I wanted to be on the right side of this issue and embody the scouting principle of helping other people at all times, so here I am,” he said. “I am using skills I have always had — writing, website design, youth mentoring — to make a positive impact on perhaps the most important issue on the planet.”

On behalf of S4CA, Pizaro prepared press releases, managed the website and wrote up a grant that secured $20,000 in funding from the Long Island Community Foundation this year. In addition, he advised the Sachem High School East Chapter of S4CA.

Extreme weather events, such as devastating high-velocity winds, storms and flooding, and disasters occurring with an alarming frequency in nature, such as long-lasting out-of-control wildfires, wreak mass destruction and have made climate change believers out of Schalkham and Pizaro.

“The effects of climate change are here, and it came quicker than the experts predicted,” said Pizaro. “When people think about fighting the climate crisis, they might think first of electric cars and going vegan, but these small-scale individual efforts are not enough to solve the carbon problem on the scale that is necessary.”

Schalkham said she became involved with S4CA in January. At that time, she began mentoring students at William Floyd High School.

“Before coronavirus, our main goal was to get solar panels in their school district. I also mentored another group in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, where are they focused on asking their representatives to co-sponsor important climate legislation,” she said. “Before long, all of our meetings went online. We started by meeting with the individual chapters on Zoom, but then combined all of our sections to keep students motivated. That way they got to meet people from Long Island who felt the same way they did.”

While COVID-19 was raging, Schalkham wrote press releases, compiled a New York State Senate and Assembly scorecard to keep track of how New York representatives voted on climate-related bills/legislation, and managed all the organization’s social media.

“The scorecard helped us know who to contact to push forward climate legislation, as well as who to hold accountable for voting against environmental issues,” she said.

student climate change group

Student climate change group meets online.

She and her colleagues became part of congressional, state and town/county teams, whose function was to break out into specialized groups. The town/county team focused on NYStretch and meeting with local officials, such as town sustainability coordinators.

“The state team wanted to raise awareness of the statewide bills we support, but now we are meeting with State Senate/Assembly members running for office to raise awareness of the S4CA among elected officials,”said Schalkham.

The state team asked legislators to co-sponsor the Fossil Fuel Divestment Act (FFDA), a bill that would force the New York Common Retirement Fund to divest from fossil fuel companies within five years; the Green Amendment, legislation that would encourage sound green decision-making and help prevent harmful environmental actions; and New York State Senate Bill S5099, championed by S4CA and sponsored by New York State Sen. Monica Martinez, which relates to extending the time period for recovery of energy performance contract costs incurred by school districts.

They also met with New York State Assemblyman Fred Thiele, who will be co-sponsoring S5099 and helping it get out of committee.

Schalkham explained S4CA’s interest in S5099.

“Students wanted to put solar panels up at their schools but learned that the buy-back period for solar panels is only 18 years through a New York State energy contract. The average solar panel takes about 21 years to make its money back,” she said.

S5099 would extend the buy-back period to 25 years.

“This seems like a simple answer to a lot of energy issues. This could end up saving Long Island school districts a lot of money,” she said. “School districts could use these funds for additional [personal protective equipment], hiring more staff, etc. They could sell additional energy produced back to the grid.

Both students are involved in the Climate Reality Project Campus Corps, spearheaded by climate change advocate Al Gore.

“James and I learned that there isn’t a Climate Reality Campus Corps program for Stony Brook, so I decided to take the initiative to create one with James,” she said

In the program, college students are trained “to become champions of climate action,” said Parrot. “Campus Corps, a program within the Climate Reality Project, engages and trains college students to work with their college, university and community to transition to 100 percent renewable electricity to curb our carbon emissions.”

All Students for Climate Action members were required to complete training with Gore in July 2020.

At the training, “I met people from all over the world who are making strides in the fight against climate change,” said Schalkham, who recently became director of the new Stony Brook chapter.

One thing is certain: She and Pizaro are amplifying their efforts to educate an increasing number of students about the perils of climate change — and taking the movement to a whole new local level.

— Glenn Jochum

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