A Climate 'Policy Wonk' in the Making

Kelley Greenman stands on Washington University's campus in St. Louis

At age 20, Kelley Greenman already has an impressive background in activism. Richard Harris, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Richard Harris, NPR

When Kelley Greenman grows up, she wants to be a policy wonk. At 20, she's a junior in college, poised and remarkably accomplished. Her passion: saving the world from global warming. She even traveled halfway around the world just to attend last December's United Nations climate negotiations in Bali, Indonesia.

Usually, U.N. climate talks are 99 percent tedium — diplomacy, technical discussions, posturing; maybe, if you're lucky, a little progress. The international youth delegation at Bali, though, added a big dose of spice.

Diving into Policy

Each day at 6 p.m., the international youth delegation held a satirical awards ceremony for the countries who, in the delegation's view, did the most to obstruct the talks. And when the United States won the dubious honor one day, fresh-faced Kelley Greenman stepped up to accept the prize.

"Why should America have to do what the rest of the world is already doing?" she asked with a sly smile. "It's not possible; we don't have the capabilities."

Greenman was clearly having fun with this bit of theater. But she didn't really travel to Bali to play for the TV cameras. She came to dive into the policy of climate change.

"I think I get frustrated because I know people can do better," she explains. "And I know that there's potential for change when strong people band together and make it clear that they want to make a difference. So maybe it's hope that drives that."

She's riding high on that hope. She managed to sweet-talk travel money for the trip out of Washington University in St. Louis, where she's a junior. But her career actually started taking shape 13 years ago at her family's home in the Florida Keys.

"I remember when I was 7 and my dad showed me the front page article of the Miami Herald about climate change. And it said something about how in 75 years ... the world was going to end. Now I'm sure the Miami Herald didn't print that, but as a 7-year-old, that's what I understood and I just remember crying about it."

The fear wasn't abstract — the island where her family lives is barely above sea level. So when she was 10, a family friend who works for the World Wildlife Fund encouraged her to become a pint-sized activist. Greenman became part of an environmental conservation group. And since she lived on a vulnerable island, climate change was a natural topic.

She started lobbying state and federal legislators about protecting the reefs, and gradually turned her efforts to climate change.

Seeing It's Possible

What really got her hooked on changing the world was a family trip during high school. Her father quit his local law firm so the Greenman family could spend six months backpacking around the world. Greenman says a day they spent at an orphanage in Kenya changed her life.

"I think there must have been over 80 kids there and they were all so little," she remembers. "I couldn't fathom seeing that and not doing something about it."

So she and her sisters started a non-profit, which she says raised $20,000 to help those orphans. And she says the experience taught her two lessons. First, the world is full of people much less privileged than we are. And second, it's possible to help them. She applies the same principles to climate change.

"For me it's not only just an environmental issue, it's a social justice issue," she says. "People in other countries are being affected by largely the actions of developed nations and largely the U.S."

At Washington University, she has a full class schedule in environmental studies and many extracurricular activities, too. She helps run a program that puts college students into local classrooms to teach about the environment, and she's giving a talk at a climate change teach-in.

Living Through the Lens of Environment

Between classes on this spring day, she heads to the career center to make sure her applications for summer internships at environmental groups in Washington really sing.

Counselor Karen Morton soon appears and leads Greenman back to her office. She asks Greenman for a printout of her letters, and Greenman is chagrined to have come empty-handed.

"The last time I brought a copy and she'd printed them out, and so then I was wasting paper," Greenman explains. She acknowledges that she lives her life through the lens of the environment.

"I think I get frustrated by people who are gung-ho for conservation," but who eat steak, she says. "You can do more for the environment by not eating meat than by not driving a car." That's the main reason she's a vegetarian.

She goes on to explain that, globally, the transportation sector emits 17 percent of greenhouse gas emissions. Meat-related agriculture accounts for 18 percent of all emissions.

Counselor Karen Morton comes back and reads over the letters. Greenman has a problem most students would envy: at 20 she already has too many things to be proud of to squeeze them onto a single page.

Then Greenman is off to class, lunch, and finally to give her talk about what she learned at the Bali climate talks. The talks were tedious and the progress was painfully slow, she admits. But still, Greenman wants to make her career as a "policy wonk."

"It's obvious that my career is going to be more than 10-years long," she says. "I think it's frustrating, especially going to the U.N. conference and seeing that our leaders could be doing things so much more efficiently."

One reason she's willing to try a career that's so daunting is that she's still full of optimism — about what she can accomplish and about human nature. She doesn't even blame her parents' generation for creating this climate mess.

"I think it's important to recognize that you didn't always have the knowledge in the past generations that we do today," she says. "And I like to think that if they did have the knowledge, then maybe they would have made different choices."

So far, Greenman has not developed a formula for saving the world. "But I'm working on it," she says with a laugh.

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