Mila Bekele strongly believes that everyone, especially young people, deserves to know why rising numbers of devastating weather events are occurring.

“We are often the least ingrained in the status quo,” she said, “and our lives will extend further into a future determined by current climate decisions.”

Home-schooled in San José before recently entering college, the 17-year-old student is a Climate Smart Youth Champion being recognized for her efforts that align with San José’s goals to be more sustainable city in 2022.

Climate Smart San José is an initiative adopted by the City Council in 2018 to “reduce air pollution, save water and improve our quality of life within San Jose,” said Christina Warren, senior public information representative for the communications division of Environmental Services Department.

The Climate Smart Challenge program, designed to encourage residents to lower greenhouse gases, save money and fight against climate change, is part of the initiative. Using an online dashboard, Warren said, participants track their steps to reduce their carbon footprint and monitor progress in saving energy, water, movement and personal finances.

Mila’s first involvement in climate action was as a marcher in a climate strike in September 2019 with her mother and brother. Later that year as the CZU Lightning Complex wildfires burned for weeks in California producing a pressingly dystopian atmosphere, Mila took further action.

The prospect and experience of a changing climate is frightening and saddening, Mila said.

“I mourn for the people around the world who have lost their homes, their livelihoods, or their lives to conditions that did not have to be this way,” she said. “An essential idea, though, is that it does not have to be this way.”

Though she doesn’t remember when she first learned about climate change, the fires, heatwaves and floods in recent years motivated her to advocate for change, so that such natural disasters don’t become the daily reality of our future.

“We have a chance now that will never come again, and I feel a responsibility as someone with any amount of time, energy, and culpability for our current situation to lend my efforts towards change,” she said.

She received training from Earth Guardians, an organization that trains youth to be leaders in environmental, climate and social justice movements in 2020, and later joined the Silicon Valley Youth Climate Action, a nonprofit working to combat climate change with education and policy initiatives.

Lisa Charpontier, Mila’s mother, said Mila was a philosophical child, asking deep, inquiring questions, and spending time to absorb and consider the responses. Mila enjoys learning, loves nature and pursues the numinous, her mom said. She and her family are inspired to be connected to something bigger than themselves.

“Five years ago, we decided to home school and it has allowed us to focus Mila’s studies upon her interests and issues our family cares about that we can help improve,” Charpontier said. “Part of Mila’s home-schooling was a three-year effort to learn more about issues, explore solutions and build a project which culminated in her Climate Education Initiative, educating the youth in our community about the climate crisis in local schools and libraries.”

One effort that led to becoming a Climate Smart Champion, Mila said, was to co-lead a San José Climate Smart Green Team in which she, her mom and brother headed up nine workshops about energy efficiency, water conservation and resilience.

Charpontier said her daughter’s Youth Climate Champion title will be most significant when it ignites local effort, creates a better quality of life for all and brings a shift toward a more equitable distribution of resources.

“I honor her hard work, commitment and effectiveness. I also respect her humility,” she said. “I also hope that the granting of this title will help Mila to inspire more youth to exercise their power to make positive impacts to mitigate climate change.

As a Silicon Valley Youth Climate Action member, Mila developed a Summer STEM: Climate Change program, which included creating curriculum for elementary and middle school students presented in schools and public libraries and sharing information on educational standards related to climate literacy for classrooms.

Mila added that the Climate Smart Challenge’s digital platform is a tool for residents to learn to organize emissions reduction and resiliency in their own lives. It sorts actions based on impact and expense, helping people with limited time and resources determine priorities. Connections to local rebates also are accessible through the platform.

While San José’s climate challenge is helping the city reach the goal of net zero carbon emissions by 2030, Warren said that individuals using the online platform can track the city’s efforts as well as their own personal progress. Pointing to the importance of involving young people in the Climate Smart initiative, Warren said, “This generation of youth is very climate driven. We have our 2030 goal, and the youth is part of that goal. They will be adults by 2030.”

Go Green teams, outreach to high schools via flyers and meetings, as well as attempts to reach San Jose’s diverse communities also are part of the initiative.

As the San José City Council launched One Day One Action, a public art project in June to cultivate environmental awareness, inspire sustainable practices and highlight traditional knowledge through social media, Mila served on the advisory council to help develop social media prompts.

Mila Bekele, right, and her family distributed information during an Earth Day celebration and rally in Palo Alto in April 2022. (Courtesy Lisa Charpontier)

“Dramatic emissions reduction is a step localities around the world will have to take in the very near future as our climate changes,” Mila said. “San José has a lot to do compared to most of those localities.”

But the biggest challenge, according to Mila, is funding, volunteer capacity and time — “the time of activists weighed against the pace of our planet’s warming, and against the efforts of those who benefit from fossil fuel burning to stall climate action,” Mila said.

She hopes to further climate education goals and better connect high school environmental clubs through a speaker and action series.

Having started university studies majoring in global and community health, Mila is planning a career in research and examining public health and justice issues, particularly those driven by climate change through the lenses of history, politics and biology.

“Studying and addressing climate change also leaves a resounding lesson for our species that we are connected,” Mila said. “Our actions and their consequences are tied together by the air we breathe and the water we drink. I hope that realizing and responding to the gravity of our current situation will ingrain this message, for ourselves and future generations.”

As a young person seeing the effects of climate change, Mila feels uncertain, finding it difficult to envision a life more than a decade or so in the future because climate change-caused extreme weather is creating unpredictable political and economic impacts.

Young people can’t be certain that their hometowns will look the same or be as resilient in 50 years, she said.

“This is frightening, but I also frame it to myself as a call to action,” Mila said. “Uncertainty means that there is still room for a healthier future to emerge from our present.”

She wants to encourage people to prioritize working toward a climate-safe future.

“If you have skills or time, try to lend them towards climate advocacy,” she said. “If you have resources, electrify your home or business. If you have institutional power, use your position to make your organization part of the solution.”

Prachi is a Dow Jones News Fund intern at Pagransen. She is a journalism graduate from University of Southern California. She previously worked at Annenberg Media as a Multimedia Journalist and the Managing Editor. Prachi has covered social justice, climate and human interest stories. She is interested in written and visual storytelling.