A Climate 'Policy Wonk' in the Making When college junior Kelley Greenman recently traveled to Bali, she skipped the beaches in favor of U.N. climate meetings. At age 20, she's diving headfirst into climate-change policy.
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A Climate 'Policy Wonk' in the Making

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A Climate 'Policy Wonk' in the Making

A Climate 'Policy Wonk' in the Making

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When Kelley Greenman grows up, she wants to be a policy wonk, focusing on the policy details that might put the rest of us to sleep. She is 20 years old. She's a junior in college. She's poised and accomplished, and her passion is saving the world from global warming.

NPR's Richard Harris first met her last December at the United Nations climate talks on the tropical island of Bali. This morning, he brings us her story, part of our series Climate Connections with National Geographic.

RICHARD HARRIS: 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.

Unidentified Man #1: All together.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Group: (Singing) Bustle of the day, bustle of the day, who is that who is worse...

HARRIS: Each day at 6 p.m., they held a satirical awards ceremony to the countries who, in their view, did the most to obstruct the talks. And when the United States won that dubious honor one day, a fresh-faced college student named Kelley Greenman stepped up to accept the prize.

Ms. KELLEY GREENMAN (College Student): Why should America have to do what the rest of the world is already doing?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. GREENMAN: It's not possible. We don't have the capabilities.

HARRIS: Kelley 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 global warming.

Ms. GREENMAN: I think I get frustrated because I know people can do better, 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.

HARRIS: And she riding high on that hope. She managed to sweet talk travel money for this trip out of Washington University in St. Louis, where she's a junior. In her group house just off campus, she offers me a cup of tea.

(Soundbite of clinking)

Ms. GREENMAN: The chai and vanilla almond are my favorite.

HARRIS: Her career actually started taking shape 13 years ago at her family's home in the Florida Keys.

Ms. GREENMAN: 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 - how I understood it was, it said 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.

HARRIS: 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.

Ms. GREENMAN: She was the first person who sort of planted the idea of a youth environmental conservation group. And then just inherently in being in a place where the coral reefs are already being affected by climate change, it was pretty easy to latch on to a specific topic.

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

Kelley says a day they spent at an orphanage in Kenya changed her life.

Ms. GREENMAN: I think there must have been over 80 kids there, and they were all so little. I couldn't fathom seeing that and not doing something about it. And so sort of side story is that out of that experience, my sisters and I started a nonprofit.

HARRIS: She and her sisters 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.

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

(Soundbite of banging)

Ms. GREENMAN: Hey. What are you doing?

Unidentified Woman: (unintelligible)…

HARRIS: We head off across the Washington University campus on a blustery spring day, and Kelley catches up with some friends. She has a full class schedule in environmental science but tons of extracurricular activities, too. She helps run a program that puts college students into local classrooms to teach about the environment. She's also giving a talk at a climate change teach-in later in the day.

Ms. GREENMAN: Are you coming at 4:30, 45-ish?

Unidentified Man #2: Yeah.

Ms. GREENMAN: I think I speak at, like, 5.

Unidentified Woman: Okay.

HARRIS: She's also been anxious to hear from the Truman Foundation. She's a finalist to win a $30,000 scholarship for grad school.

Ms. GREENMAN: I have to stop checking my email, because I've become compulsive about it. Just, like, what if they wrote me today?

HARRIS: And between classes, she heads to the Career Center…

(Soundbite of door closing)

HARRIS: …to make sure her applications for summer internships at environmental groups in Washington, D.C., really sing.

Ms. GREENMAN: Hi. I have an appointment at 11 with Karen.

HARRIS: Counselor Karen Morton soon appears and leads Kelley back to her office. Kelley is chagrined to discover that Karen didn't have printed copies of the cover letters.

Ms. GREENMAN: The last time I brought a copy in, she had printed them out, and so then I was wasting paper. So I didn't want to do that this time. I think I get frustrated by people who are gung-ho for conservation but then are, like, oh, well, but I just really like steak. And then, I don't know. Because you can do more for the environment by not eating meat than by not driving a car.

HARRIS: Is that why you're a vegetarian?


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

Ms. KAREN MORTON (Counselor): Sorry about that.

Ms. GREENMAN: No, no problem. I'm sorry that I didn't…

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

Ms. MORTON: It's a little long.


Ms. MORTON: But you've got some really good background to bring, so I don't want to take out anything that's relevant.

HARRIS: In the end, there are just a few tweaks to be made.

Ms. MORTON: I think they're good.


Ms. MORTON: Nice job.

Ms. GREENMAN: Thank you.

Ms. MORTON: Yeah, I think they're good.

Ms. GREENMAN: Thanks.

Ms. MORTON: You're welcome.

Ms. GREENMAN: I'll let you know how it turns out.

Ms. MORTON: That'll be great. Please let me know.

HARRIS: Next, class, a quick bite of lunch, and Kelley sets off to give her talk about Bali. Tedious as the conference was, that's the arena where Kelley thinks she can really make a difference.

Ms. GREENMAN: I think it's obvious that my career's going to be more than 10 years long. I think it's frustrating, especially going to the U.N. conference and seeing that our leaders could be doing things so much efficiently. So I wouldn't mind being a policy wonk for the rest of my life.

HARRIS: 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 parent's generation for everything we did to put us into this mess.

Ms. GREENMAN: I think it's important to recognize that you didn't always have the knowledge in the past generations that we do today in terms of the environmental impact of what's going on. And I'd like to think that if they did have the knowledge, then maybe they would've made different choices.

HARRIS: Have you developed a formula for saving the world?

Ms. GREENMAN: Ye - no, just kidding. No, not yet. I'm working on it.

HARRIS: And things are looking good for her. She finally did get that email, and she won that prestigious Truman fellowship. Now she's hoping to hear any day about her summer internships.

Richard Harris, NPR News.

INSKEEP: This series has taken us around the world. And you can hear more stories in it at npr.org/ClimateConnections, which is where you can also get the latest features on global warming from National Geographic magazine.

You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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