An interview with our keynote speaker, Dominic Frongillo: A New Generation of Leadership
Lena, an 11th grade student on our planning committee, talked with Mr. Frongillo recently on the phone about his plans for the MIS Youth Climate Summit.
At 22 years old, you were the youngest person ever to serve your hometown in elected office. How did you end up in that position?
I grew up on a dirt road in Caroline, New York. My mother walked with me up and down the road, picking up trash and bottles. From her I learned community and environmental stewardship. My father was the first in his family to graduate from college, and dedicated his life to help children around the world have access to good nutrition. From him I learned a global perspective and making the biggest impact one can make.
When I graduated from school, I sought to take everything we learned in school and make a difference. My mission to be a change agent – to be part of a community and solve global problems at the local level. My plan was to join the Peace Corps and serve in a rural community in Africa or Latin America.
While studying city planning at school, I became the planning intern for my hometown of Caroline, New York. I helped the Planning Board draft the town’s first-ever Comprehensive Plan, which was literally written by citizens. One night at a public meeting where we presented the plan to the public, the deputy town supervisor Ed Cope, who lived oﬀ the grid with solar panels and wind turbines, approached me. He said, “I’m retiring after 8 years on the council, and I’ve been impressed by your work with the Planning Board. I’d like you to consider running for my seat.” I was shocked. I was just out of school. Running for office is something that adults do! I said no thanks. But then the same evening, the chair of the party asked me, too.
After a while, I realized that to be a change agent, solve global problems at the local level, and be part of a community, maybe I don’t need to leave the country. Maybe I can do that in my hometown. Maybe I have a responsibility to give back to the community that raised me. I decided to go for it. Out of four people running, I was the highest vote-getter and was elected.
One of the ﬁrst things I worked on was wind power. To help stop climate change and get off fossil fuels, community members donated thousands of dollars for us to buy wind electricity to power our town government. The Town of Caroline became the second municipality of any size in New York — from NYC to the smallest community – whose government was powered by 100% wind power. We got an award from the governor and the EPA. In 2005, it was cutting-edge. Germany, of course, was much further ahead. I live in Freiburg, which as a city advocated for renewable energy back in the 1990’s.
After this early success, we started asking, “Why are we paying more for wind energy. How much would it take to just power the entire town with wind?” We did some calculations and discovered that it would only take a few turbines to power the town. We founded a group of elected oﬃcials, citizens, and students to start this campaign for our community.
We called it Energy Independent Caroline, and it brought people together across multiple generations, people new to the community and people who had lived there all their life. We saw the power of engaging young people to lead – to pull older generations forward. That was my first experience with clean energy, and led me to learn more deeply about sustainable development and climate change.
When did you first become interested in the topic of climate change?
When The Inconvenient Truth came out, I began reading about climate change, and was terrified by what I learned. I become involved with a group of young people across the county called SustainUS, which organized delegations to go to international conferences on sustainable development.
In 2007, SustainUS put out a call for delegates to travel to the climate negotiations that would kick off the renegotiations for the Kyoto Protocol in Bali – the future of the world’s response to climate change would begin right there in Bali. I knew I had to go. I said, “I can’t tell my grandkids that I wasn’t there.” I went with a powerhouse national team of young people from around the country, many of whom are now national leaders in the climate movement. In Bali, I met young people from all around the world that cared about this issue, who were passionate, and were taking action in their home countries.
One evening, all 500 youth got together and shared what we were doing in our home counties. After everyone was done speaking, a girl at the back stood up and said, “My name is Claire, I’m from the Kiribati, an island in the Paciﬁc. My home is a meter and a half above sea level. Already, our beaches are washing away, storms are getting stronger and my family is so afraid. We don’t know what we’re going to do. I feel so powerless and so alone.” And then, looking around the room, she said, “This is the ﬁrst time, that I felt not alone and that somebody cares.” The whole room was moved to tears. We had a sense that this is way beyond one individual, this is about something much, much larger. This is about justice.
Seeing that the global negotiations were moving too slow to solve the crisis, I came back home on ﬁre. I asked some student friends, Shawn Lindabury and Kimberly Schroder, “You have access to a government official. What can we do? What is the biggest thing that we could possibly do to make a diﬀerence right here on this global issue and send out a ripple-eﬀect?” We came up with this big, audacious idea to distribute an energy-saving light bulb to every household in our town. Again, Germany was much further ahead – here they have LEDs, but the most energy efficient we had were compact-fluorescent light bulbs. Most people had likely never even heard of one, let alone used them. We asked: what if we gave one to each home so they could try it out for themselves? People will notice how they save energy and last much longer. So, what if we delivered one of the lightbulbs to every single house in the town of Caroline? Not just do it over a period of time, but in one day.
We applied for funding, but thought that no one was going to fund it. We got word back in December — it was funded! We thought, “Oh no, we are actually going to have to do this.” We started organizing students and working together with the community. We brought them together and started planning a student-led campaign. We worked with high school and college students from several schools. On April 19th, 2008, we went door to door with a hundred volunteers, mostly students and community members, by foot, by bicycle, by hybrid car and even by horseback, delivering one energy-saving lightbulb to virtually every single house in our town. It was amazing. One volunteer, a real estate agent, told us that because of the distribution, she switched out all the lightbulbs in her entire house. So, we started seeing the impacts we were having. That’s how I ﬁrst became interested in climate change and discovered how we could take action on this big global issue right in our small town.
How do you think being educated and passionate about climate change impacts your everyday life?
For most people, eating meat and flying are their highest-pollution activities. The reality is that eating meat and ﬂying on fossil-fuel powered aircraft will blow your carbon footprint out of the water. I’ve become a vegetarian. Because of my work I do, I travel a lot. So, I use carbon offsets for my ﬂights, whenever possible. I like to use UCapture, which makes it easy and even fun. While it doesn’t stop the airplane from burning fossil fuels, the funds go to capture methane, which is over 100 times more powerful greenhouse gas than CO2, to prevent it from leaking into the atmosphere.
Every time I get on a plane, I think about the impact that this is having on future generations. For example, when I was going to South Africa for the climate negotiations in Durban, which was a long ﬂight and emitted a lot of pollution, I said to myself, “I am going to make a bigger impact on reducing global emissions by going to the Durban climate talks by spreading the word about the new studies showing the dangers of fracking to the climate and tell the story of fracking in the United States than by staying home.” It worked. The press conference we did there was picked up by the Spanish Publico, Irish Times, and Japanese media. Since then, partly inspired by the successful grassroots movement to ban fracking in New York State, states and countries around the world have also banned fracking in their own countries, which in turn inspires others to act.
For me, the reality is that we can all do everything possible in our personal lives to try to marginally reduce our climate impacts, but without the political action necessary to change the infrastructure and rules that determines our choices, we will not solve this crisis. Individual impacts are important because they add up hugely and give us the power and courage to act more boldly, but individual action alone will not solve this global crisis. We have to change the rules of the game.
Why do you think younger generations or “millennials” tend to take more action to stop climate change?
Consistently around the world, younger people say climate change is our biggest global problem, and are taking action to solve it. That makes sense because it’s our future. It’s not some theory or abstract idea; we know that we’re going to live through it. We want to secure our own future.
Also, as a generation, we are also much more interconnected that previous generations. Thirty years ago, how many people went to international schools? How many people were pen pals, Facebook pals, or WhatsApp pals with people around the world? We are much more interconnected now than at any point in history, and have much more empathy with other people around the world who are suﬀering the pain and the impacts of climate change right now. So, I think those two reasons are why we are more empathetic and we see the impacts on our future.
So how does this play out for me as a young person in politics, on a city council? I always thought that the ground zero of climate change would be somewhere else. We heard stories of mountaintop removal in West Virginia and Kentucky, about the Gulf Coast with oﬀ-shore drilling and oil spills. The front lines of fossil fuel removal were always somewhere else.
The same thing was true for climate impacts. Climate change was it’s far oﬀ, in Tuvalu or the Maldives, coastal regions, or the arctic. I didn’t see it impact me or my town in upstate New York where I had lived my whole life. But, then we had two, 100-year storms within ﬁve years that caused millions of dollars of damage right in our community. They washed away entire roads, damaging our organic farms. A tornado even hit the home of our mayor. You know climate change is close to home when your mayor’s mother’s house is destroyed by a tornado — where we never had tornados. All of a sudden, we were getting hit and started to see that the front lines of climate change are everywhere and that no place is exempt. Not even peaceful upstate New York.
Do you have any tips speciﬁcally for students on how they can help prevent the eﬀects of climate change?
The ﬁrst is we need to look at this issue with clear eyes and an open heart. The reality is that this is actually much worse than almost anybody realizes. A decade ago, when I came into this issue, I could already see the trajectory of where this is going. Time after time, we are already exceeding almost every worst-case scenario. It’s happening faster than scientists even a few years ago thought was possible, accelerating faster and faster.
We need to face the reality. In my presentations, I show pictures — and one graph, because it’s the most important graph that we will ever see in our lives. I’ve shown that graph to elected oﬃcials, I’ve shown it to people all around the country and around the world.
But just as climate systems are non-linear and have tipping points, so are social systems. We have way more power than we realize. In the past they didn’t know about the problem, except for Exxon Mobil, which did know about the problem along with other fossil fuel companies, and then spent hundreds of millions of dollars over decades to mislead the public and the world. Now, it is up to us. This is our moment, and the purpose of our generation.
What speciﬁcally can students do? Start with what you have, where you are, with who you are, with your gifts, and with what is around you and in this present moment. We only have here and now and all of us. What this speciﬁcally means for students is start with here, start with your own home. Build your integrity and the motivation to align yourself and your actions. You start in your own home, and then in your school. You do this together with your buddies and you build a team and you ﬁgure out how you can collectively make a difference in your shared environment. And then, the third is your community.
You make a change in your home, at your school, and ﬁnally your community. And that’s where we start to see that we live in a larger context. Get involved in your local political situation, your local community, get to know the organizations, intern at councils, volunteer to serve on climate action boards and make things happen and get involved. There are so many opportunities and I think that also is not only a great way to make an impact, but it’s a great way to engage and build skills such as leadership which will help you throughout your life.
Those skills helped me, and also Shawn Lindabury and Kimberly Schroder. Shawn was a student and working with me, led efforts of 1,000 volunteers to deliver energy-saving light bulbs to 15,000 households in thee hours, which led to over one million dollars in energy savings. He just graduated from business school, and will be leading low-carbon transportation efforts in Seattle. Kimberly was a student and worked with me, and is now leading her own national initiative.
I have seen how this process of starting in your own home, working in your school, and then in your community has built leadership. That’s what this is all about. It is about us discovering ourselves as the leaders that we are and the unique gifts we can offer to this world, and how we can bring those out in ourselves and others.
That’s why I am so inspired by the Youth Climate Summit model that has been empowering students for many years and how that has been spreading, because I think that’s exactly the model of change we need.
The only way that we will solve this crisis is if we can bring out our full human creativity, our passion, our power, our vision, our humanity forward into the world. That’s why climate change could well be the best opportunity humanity has ever had to make a difference and build the world of our dreams.
In November, you will be the keynote speaker at the MIS Youth Climate Summit. What can we expect from your talk at our summit?
There is tremendous excitement and energy as this unprecedented social movement that’s happening right now around the world. It’s about solving climate change, but it’s about something bigger: creating a just and sustainable world for all.
It is so inspiring to see what’s going on all around the world from the smallest countries to the largest countries and young people are leading the way in almost every country and movement.
In Munich, I’ll share images and stories around the world, because movements only become movements when they see themselves. It’s only when we see other people on TV being hosed down during civil rights protests or marching in the streets for climate justice that we are inspired, and we recognize ourselves in that movement and we see that we are one movement, and that – to quote Joanna Macy — we are one planet people.
We need to see that we are one movement around the world and we need to take action as one. That’s the arc that I hope to share with the leaders in Munich and encourage them to see with focus, excitement and joy how their actions, as they begin to make climate action plans and change their community, can have ripple eﬀects. You cannot predict how one person’s action will impact the world.
We’re all in this together. Now is our time to rise.