Essay | Creating optimism, fighting pessimism: The mission of the YEAH program

Four people stand in front of blue walls with the UN Climate Change Conference 2021 logo.

From right to left: Moderator Shardul Tiwari and YEAH Fellows Alexis Pascaris, Jacob Genuise and Amanda Pastore. (Dr. Gillian Bowser/Colorado State University)

Walking onto the stage of the Action Hub at COP26, I felt a surge of adrenaline and excitement. I felt like regardless of the challenge or my preparation, now was the time to make it happen, and I would give it my best. I love public speaking, and the optimistic, energetic feeling that this fear-inducing activity gives me. 

There is another more horrifying threat that, like public speaking, shocks many of us into immobilization: climate change. However, despite the power of big oil money and corrupt politicians, and the current climate trends, there is something that gives me a surge of optimism and energy: younger generations.

I went on stage during COP26 to discuss a program that sparks hope in me, the Youth Environmental Alliance in Higher education, or YEAH. This group connects students around the world to work together on small projects which focus on education, empowerment, and excitement. This year, I have been working in the Module Team, which is a group of students that creates modules, or Google slides, that contain detailed lessons on each of the target goals within a single UN Sustainable Development Goal, or SDG. These lessons are free to download, making this education accessible to anyone. The YEAH program also meets via an online, international class where students work together to create a project that will assist in one of the SDG goals, so we turn education into real world action. The work the students in this program do is a continuous reminder that there is hope.

On the panel alongside me were two other YEAH Fellows, Alexis Pascaris and Jacob Genuise, who explained optimism to the audience. As they spoke, I realized I was confronting my own pessimism there at the COP. For years, I had seen COP as an honest attempt at diplomats gathering to negotiate to fairly create a better future and hold each other accountable. Speaking inside the Blue Zone, where only those equipped with special passes could be present as protests centering the excluded rightfully raged outside, I felt fully present in COP’s reality––a reality in which COP is essentially a greenwashing science fair where everyone knows the right words to say but very few have action to back it up. They may have small demonstrations, but are they willing to take the challenging steps to make change?

Even at that moment, as I sat behind a giant definition of the word “optimism,” my expectations for a massive COP26 climate pact were at ground level. But I do not lack optimism. I lack faith in the present leaders of the world, not the next ones. The youth are paying attention, they want to act. What they need is mobilization and education, excitement and empowerment. This is why something so small, like creating SDG modules, gives me hope. I know that I am contributing to educating young people on what must be done to confront the greatest challenges of our time. Participating in YEAH means being connected to an international network of students from every career background who care deeply about making a difference, and that is enough inspiration to make me optimistic about our future. 

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