Photo of Morgan Stephens posing a question
Morgan Stephens ’20, a journalism and political science major, was among nearly a dozen USC students to pose questions to 2020 presidential hopefuls.
Photo by: Olivia Mowry

Joining the conversation on climate change

Using their powerful commitment to social justice, their voices, and their networks, Gen Z is not only mobilizing their generation, but inspiring all of us to call for meaningful action on climate change.

At USC Annenberg, our students are on the forefront of this effort and are helping to play an essential role in leading critical conversations around issues of environmental sustainability. 

Christina Bellantoni, USC Annenberg’s Media Center director and professor of professional practice, preps with students.
Photo by: Olivia Mowry

Just days before Greta Thunberg tore into world leaders at the United Nations, USC Annenberg students had the opportunity to question 2020 presidential candidates about their climate change proposals on a national stage as part of MSNBC’s two-day Climate Forum held at Georgetown University on Sept. 19-20. USC was chosen — alongside Iowa State University and the University of New Hampshire — as one of three satellite locations where MSNBC filmed live, allowing students across the country to participate. 

“It was exhilarating to ask Bernie Sanders a question about something that I care about, not just as a journalist, but as a voter,” said journalism and political science major Morgan Stephens.

Christina Bellantoni, director of USC Annenberg’s Media Center, served as host of our watch party in Wallis Annenberg Hall’s Forum lobby, and told me how she was nervous about filling seats, especially at 6 a.m. on a Friday. But, she added, our students packed the house by 5:55 a.m.

“They were there because they are so passionate about the climate crisis and they really wanted to ask their questions,” Professor Bellantoni said. “They were engaged and excited and had done their homework on the candidates and their platforms. I ended my day so hopeful not just about our own campus, but about the future for my son. This generation has it right on this issue and is actually able to affect change.”

Addressing climate change is just as important to our new USC president, Carol L. Folt, who has named sustainability among her four top priorities. In the week leading up to her inauguration on Sept. 20, she took the time to hold a special prep session with our students to share her expertise and insights as they formulated their questions. 

Smart, substantive and well-informed. Here is a selection of some of the impressive questions our USC Annenberg students posed and links to watch the candidates’ responses. 

Marianne Williamson: Rising Sea Levels and Our Coastlines
Chace Beech ’20, MS in Journalism program

“In California and across the country, sea levels are rising at an alarming rate. My question for you, Marianne, is, do you support managed retreat from the coastline or do you support building more walls to protect communities that are living on these coasts across the country and particularly in California?”

Watch here.

Chace Beech ’20, a student in USC Annenberg’s MS in Journalism program, questions Marianne Williamson on protecting coastal communities.
Photo by: Olivia Mowry

Sen. Michael Bennett: Rejoining the Paris Agreement
Jessica Doherty ’20, Journalism major

“You’ve mentioned a lot about the domestic approaches to the climate change issue this morning. And I’m wondering more about your international approach. Would you have the U.S. rejoin the UN Paris Agreement? And, if so, do you think there are any policies that it lacks that you would help to implement?”

Watch here.

Sen. Bernie Sanders: Preparing for a Greener Industry
Morgan Stephens ’20, Journalism and Political Science major

“You recently said that you won’t turn your back on workers in places like West Virginia. So, as fossil fuel jobs are replaced by environmentally sustainable jobs, as president, how do you plan to make sure that these workers are trained to compete in a new, greener industry?”

Watch here.

Rep. Tim Ryan: Ensuring Progress No Matter What
Dan Toomey ’20, Journalism major 

“You mentioned earlier that four more years of Trump would be a disaster, but we can’t assume that a Democrat will defeat President Trump in 2020. That doesn’t mean, though, that the fight against the climate crisis has to end. If Trump is re-elected, how do we not abandon efforts for investing in alternative energy sources and cutting carbon emissions moving forward?”

Watch here.

Sen. Cory Booker: Shifting the Responsibility 
Joan Miller, Communication doctoral student

“Yesterday, we talked a lot about individual responsibility to change behavior like veganism, water waste and plastic straw bans, all of which initiatives disproportionately affect disabled people and poor people. Besides a carbon tax and these individual responsibilities, how can we shift the responsibility to incentivize corporations and high-waste industries to change their behavior around climate change?”

Gov. Bill Weld: Working Together
Luke Scorziell ’22, Journalism major

“You’ve talked a lot today about climate deniers and people you can’t work with, many of whom are in your own party. I come from a very conservative area, but I know a lot of people who are very excited to help and I think they would be able to help with the right leader. But, specifically in Congress, which members of Congress do you think you would be able to work with as president if you were elected?”

Watch here.

You can also read coverage of the Climate Forum by our Annenberg Media team here

With USC’s new president renewing our university’s commitment to sustainability, and with millions around the world — including students here on campus — holding a global climate strike, and with MSNBC amplifying student voices, I’m feeling cautiously optimistic about progress. As Gen Z uses their collective voice to demand action, I am certainly ready to follow their lead.

Rohit Padmakumar ’20, majoring in cinema studies, prepares to ask Pete Buttigieg why voters should support his climate change proposal.
Photo by: Olivia Mowry

Special Note: I would like to express special thanks to Professor Christina Bellantoni, who helped spearhead organizing efforts and served as emcee of the watch parties both days. We are also grateful to USC Annenberg’s Center on Communication Leadership & Policy and our cross-campus partner, the USC Center for the Political Future.

This article was originally published by Dean Willow Bay on LinkedIn. Connect with her and USC Annenberg.