State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

Youth Activist Uses Art to Educate Her Community About Climate Change

At the Columbia Climate School, we are deeply committed to engaging future generations of students in conversations about climate change. We believe that youth are among the strongest voices for social change and climate action and are committed to working with and engaging them in important conversations around the climate crisis.

One of the ways in which we are doing this is by building a portfolio of pre-college program offerings for youth learners to participate in. This spring, we offered an online workshop titled Empowering You(th) for Climate Action, led by Laurel Zaima from the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory of the Columbia Climate School.

Another way we are developing our pre-college programming has been through our Columbia Climate School in the Green Mountains program. Offered for the first time in summer 2021, this effort was a two-week campus-based program for high school students that allowed students to mobilize action, drive impact, and affect change in response to our warming planet. In 2022, we are planning two in-person summer sessions of the Columbia Climate School in the Green Mountains program, along with a new effort, ‘Columbia Climate Corps.’ These are small group climate and sustainability programs designed for students interested with combining intentional travel with in-depth educational opportunities while experiencing a destination through the lens of climate change. We held an info session about these offerings and the recording is available here:

To learn more about the topics being covered on some of these trips, please tune in to these faculty presentations from an info session that we hosted in February.

In all these efforts, learners join faculty and staff from the Columbia Climate School to learn about cutting-edge innovations in action, share ideas with like-minded individuals, and collaborate on projects to tap into their collective strengths for action.

At the end of our summer 2021 Green Mountains program, all participants developed action plans for what they were going to do to drive conversations in their communities around climate change. We are very excited to share an update that showcases how one of last summer’s program participants has responded to climate change in her community through a personal passion of hers: art.

McKenna Kelly, a senior in high school and a native to the Bay Area of California, has felt the effects of wildfires firsthand. Through the Green Mountains program, she learned about several aspects of climate change, from the sustainability aspects to the psychology of climate deniers. McKenna has chosen to engage as a climate activist in her community through art and uses her art as a form of education. Using inspiration from the news, climate projections, and conversations with her peers, she creates pieces that are all related to climate change.

Below, McKenna has kindly shared samples of the pieces that she has created this past fall that she plans on showcasing at her school and local galleries.

artwork by mckenna kelly

Title: Meat

Materials: Oil pastel

Description: This piece is about the environmental and ethical repercussions of the meat industry, specifically beef. I used meat wrapping paper for the background and included a tree stump to represent deforestation to make grazing land for cows.

artwork by McKenna Kelly

Title: Emissions

Materials: Acrylic paint, cardboard, pen

Description:  I wanted to play on the idea of polar bears stranded on melting ice in the Arctic from global warming and include the actual causes, greenhouse gas emissions. I included a car and factories to represent transportation and electricity (the two largest emission sectors in the United States) and had the emission coming off these two things grabbing at the polar bears, displacing them. This piece was done on cardboard in an effort to be sustainable and is hanging in the hall outside my AP Environmental Science classroom.

Inspiration: One of the first things to come up when someone searches ‘global warming’ or ‘climate change’ are polar bears stranded on melting ice. I wanted to use this image that often pops into people’s heads, but also display the causes.

artwork by mckenna kelly

Title: Wildfire

Materials: Oils, coffee, paper

Description: I painted a house that fell victim to the vicious wildfires seen in California, and selected articles conveying the urgency and impact of climate change on these wildfires. I burned the edges of the articles and toned them with coffee.

Inspiration: Living in the Bay Area, the effect of climate change I see the most is wildfires. I have had days off from school for smoke, many outdoor activities canceled and have seen the sky turn an eerie orange. I wanted to create a piece displaying climate change’s effects on the worsening wildfires.

artwork by mckenna kelly

Title: Oil

Materials: Oil, Acrylic

Description: The piece is meant to show the dangerous proximity of oil wells to residential areas in California, with houses nearby and kids walking by the wells on a daily basis.

Inspiration: Unlike many other states, California has no restrictions on oil well buffer zones between homes. Those who are exposed to the pollution of the well on a day-to-day basis suffer effects like asthma, pregnancy complications, cancer, and increased risk with the COVID-19 pandemic.

artwork by mckenna kelly

Title: Youth Activism

Materials: oil, acrylic, pen

Description: I view Greta Thunberg as a figurehead in youth climate activism. Her sway over the media and the inspiration she spreads are noteworthy. I painted her with other symbols and words tied into the background.

Inspiration: I remember hearing about Greta Thunberg in the news and she inspired me. As I continue to learn more and advocate for the climate myself, I hope to inspire others to learn more about their actions and their effects. Education is one of the first steps, and as climate change progresses and time goes on, it is important for the younger generations to step up and take action.

This post was updated on March 8, 2022, with new information about the February info session and additional artwork by McKenna Kelly. 

Banner featuring a collage of extreme heat images.

Recent record-breaking heat waves have affected communities across the world. The Extreme Heat Workshop will bring together researchers and practitioners to advance the state of knowledge, identify community needs, and develop a framework for evaluating risks with a focus on climate justice. Register by June 15

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Patricia Muscarello
Patricia Muscarello
2 years ago

McKenna is truly an inspiration with using her fabulous art work as a statement for climate change. It gives us all hope to know our youth is studying the possibilities of how to change and improve our climate.
McKenna keep up your awesome work and what a wonderful way for you to show us through your thoughtful paintings as to what is happening to our most precious world.

Michelle Costianis
Michelle Costianis
2 years ago

This work and insight is fantastic! What a talented Artist and inspirational person for her peers! Very impressive!