Meredith Adler is Executive Director of Student Energy, a global youth-led organization empowering young people to accelerate the sustainable energy transition.
Adler has served as Executive Director of Student Energy since 2015, during which time the organization’s network has expanded to comprise 50,000 young people in 120 countries. Adler was Global Community Manager at Student Energy before commencing her directorship.
Prior to joining Student Energy, Adler was Communications Coordinator at Clean Energy Canada, and has held positions at Great Basin Water Network and the Student Conservation Association.
Adler holds a degree in Geography from the University of British Columbia, and is a keen climber.
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Michael Liebreich So, Meredith, thank you so much for joining us here on Cleaning Up. Where are you calling in from today?
Meredith Adler I'm calling in from Squamish, British Columbia on the west coast of Canada.
ML Very nice, very nice. Let's start, if we might, with a thumbnail of yourself, in your own words. We've got this enormously knowledgeable audience, but they don't know everybody. So who are you, and what do you do?
MA Yes, so I'm Meredith Adler, I'm Executive Director of Student Energy global. So, I run the largest organization working on youth capacity-building and training in energy and climate.
ML Now we're going to get into what Student Energy does. But as a starting point, maybe: you just got back from COP27, in Sharm el Sheikh. Now our paths didn't cross there. What were you up to?
MA Yeah, I was there doing a few different things. We had three different research pieces, we were launching and talking to governments about - our Global Youth Energy Outlook and the Green Skills piece, as well as the Youth Impact Framework. So a lot of what we're doing in government engagement right now is actually helping people to understand what meaningful work with young people looks like, and how do you really meaningfully bring young people into the space and help them get established as entrepreneurs or within their career in energy and climate. So that's a lot of what we bring to the space right now. The other exciting thing I was doing is our International Student Energy Summit, which you've been at before, is coming back in 2023, and being hosted by NYU Abu Dhabi and the UAE. So, that team came with us and did a lot of work, talking to the COP folks, meeting the people who will be running COP28, and basically working to align everything that they're doing with what's happening at COP next year. So the other fun part of my role, besides talking to funders and governments is really being head coach at Student Energy. And so that was an opportunity to work with one of our top teams and that was really fun.
ML How many days... were you there for the full two weeks or only part of it?
MA No, I just went for one week. I just went for the first week, and then we had another team there for the second week to see the final bits through.
ML And did you get out of the blue zone? Did you do any snorkeling or anything else while you were there?
MA This is a funny story. I am known for ensuring that people make the most of their time working together because we have staff in five different countries, plus students in 130. So I wasn't willing to let people have the Sunday off, but compromised, and held meetings on a boat, snorkeling in between meetings with each other so there was a little bit of snorkeling and a picturesque meeting location that I got people into.
ML Well, I'm glad it wasn't just me because I will confess that I, on the Saturday, Jo organized - Jo whom you've met, you've worked with to set up this session - organized for me to go also on a boat and do a bit of snorkeling with some colleagues who were involved in COP. And we sort of snuck off feeling very guilty, but we did loads of work on the boat. That's what I would say.
MA Yeah, I think that's the way to do it. Sometimes you have to pepper some fun and some sightseeing with all the meetings.
ML It was fun, but it was also important in the sense that I have been there before, I've been there decades ago, in Sharm el Sheikh, and also, we went down to Ras Mohammed, which is the nature reserve. And I can tell you the coral is in much worse state than it was. I can also tell you that it's not climate change, because I've seen very good coral in the Red Sea, elsewhere, fairly recently. And it all seems to be local stresses, it all seems to be pollution related; too many boats, too many tourists, too much being dumped in the Red Sea, sadly.
MA I mean, that's really interesting context, because I did notice it looked like the coral was in bad shape, frankly. But it's always hard to say which impacts are these. And I think, I mean, that's an interesting critique of COP in itself is, you know, there's so many people going into these areas, is that sustainable to keep hosting this mass conference? But then at the same time, how efficient is it to have everyone you need to meet within the same space for two weeks? So it's an interesting place to be.
ML The question about whether however many tens of thousands of people should fly to COPs is a good one. What I will say is that the boat trip that I was on, there was only a small number of us, a small group of us from COP; the overwhelming majority, were Russians, the overwhelming majority.
MA Yeah, I mean, I noticed that too around the restaurants, there are people from COP, and really large parties from Russia, and Israel, actually, there were lots there.
ML Now Meredith, it's fantastic to see you looking so well. And I've heard your most recent news, which is that you will actually be moving on from Student Energy, and we could chat about all sorts of things, we'll get back to that. But the audience at this point is thinking, I don't really know what Student Energy does. So you've hinted at it with some of the things that you were doing at COP. But can you talk us through what is Student Energy? How did you set it up? How have you been leading it?
MA Yes, so Student Energy is a movement of 50,000 youth in 130 countries who are creating the next generation of energy leaders. And so what we do on the day to day is actually two pieces. So one is that we focus a lot on skill and capacity building for young people. So we have programs in everything from what is a solar panel to getting your first job, or starting your first business. And we really focus in the capacity building piece on what is it that brings more people into the fold, and how do we do that at scale. I think a lot of climate training or a lot of things in the past, definitely other generations, have had climate or energy be really niche, be really competitive. And what we know is that we need way more climate energy people and workers, and so what we're really focused on is how do you do that scale? And how do you bring in people who didn't make it here in the past; so, systemically excluded people, folks who may not have had the privilege to go to the right university, those types of things. So all of our programming is free. And all of it is based on how do we take this level of ambition.... And people haven't really turned that into a concrete skillset that can do something, that can organize the community, that can start a business that can really contribute to a company. That's one end of Student Energy. The other end of Student Energy is what we call Space for Youth. And so that's where we work with governments, companies and organizations on how do you do meaningful youth engagement. How do you really bring young people in as part of your team in solving these problems and facilitate the intergenerational work that needs to happen? And a lot of that takes place through research reports, we run youth advisory councils for C-suites organizations, a lot of pretty in depth facilitation that crosses those bounds between getting young people a really good learning experience, but then also actually working with leadership on energy and climate to really show that young people aren't just this scary force that's gonna protest you; they actually are people who really want to dive in and solve these problems with you, and we just need to create better forums really for that to be able to happen.
ML I've really enjoyed my interactions with Student Energy, because it is essentially an optimistic and a problem-solving kind of platform. It's not focused on, as you say, just protesting and sort of gluing yourselves to things. It's actually about those two things, which is giving the students the skills and then also creating environments where they can be integrated into workforces or into civic society or whatever. So it's a great force for good, in my view. Just repeat the numbers - you said 50,000, in how many countries?
MA So 130 different countries have been part of it so far.
ML And in those 130 countries, you work with universities? Do you have chapters in universities? How does it work on the ground?
MA Yeah, we have a complex network. So we have chapters in universities. So we have just over 50 chapters globally now. So, those are all over the world, and those are hosting universities, very much young people, bringing others into the fold. So we're hosting events, doing educational pieces, research opportunities, and small projects. So that is one way people are involved. We have a fellowship program that hosts a few 100 people every year; they do a project over 10 months, so it's all based on getting people their first project. And so often those folks are at university, but they don't have to be. And then we have a career training program, which really gets people their first internship, it's energy intensive, over four months. And then our guided projects program provides funding and coaching and mentorship for young people to do their first solar project, energy efficiency project, clean cooking, that's all about creating our next entrepreneur. So those are our different ways that people are involved in all 130 countries. It doesn't always make sense for there to be a chapter at a university, there's plenty of places where school clubs are not very common, or there's not really the infrastructure for that, or maybe it costs a lot of money to have a club at a school. So we have a lot of different methods. And then our big event, which we keep alluding to is the International Student Energy Summit. And that's actually where Student Energy came from. And so I didn't I didn't actually found the Summit, I took over in 2015. But the summit started back in 2009, and it's a pretty interesting story. The Summit started in Calgary, Alberta, because students there were actually working in the oil and gas industry going to school there, but really wanting to talk about climate change and sustainability. And finding that nobody wanted to have that conversation, and I think in Calgary in 2009, you know, people in boardrooms were careful if they said the word climate change. And so, you know, the students decided that, that wasn't good enough, and they decided to host their own international summit and brought together about 350 students from 40 countries, and then a lot of the top speakers on energy at the time, and really created this magical environment where these young people thought they could do it, they had access to the older generations that were thinking the way they were, and that opportunity for collaboration, and that really spearheaded our first generation of entrepreneurs and intrapreneurs, into the world of energy. And then because it was such a success, kept going, tried it again in 2011, that one was bigger and better. From there, the organization rolled forward, initially, just around these summits that were really launching people in a new way. And then in 2014, started having staff and then in 2015, we really sat down and said, okay, what's the theory of change on this? This can be bigger than these summits, and that's when we founded the Chapters Program and started doing Space for Youth and, and really, really dissected what the success stories were from those summits; what was it that young people were getting from that? And thought okay, how do you scale that on a regular basis, all the time and make this more than just a moment in time that a few 100 youth can access? So the summits now bring together about 700 youths from 100 different countries, so they're definitely the most diverse of their kind of but the network is much larger, much more than that now.
ML The typical member, I don't know if you call them members, but a typical student, would that be an engineering student? What sort of subjects are they typically studying? Or have studied?
MA Yeah, so that's an interesting one. About 50% will be studying engineering. But then we actually have a good amount of policy students and business students as well. And it's something that Student Energy has really prided ourselves on, is we really look for that diversity, and anytime that we're doing an in-person event, that is a big criteria, is we're really pulling together different people from different portfolios, really, because we know that more diverse teams end up as stronger teams and a lot of our success stories in the Student Energy world come from these more diverse individuals who have had exposure to multiple different things. And students find it to be much more rewarding. We hear this all the time; young people who are engineers who just go to engineering conferences don't necessarily feel like they got something they couldn't get out of their campus life. Whereas young people who come to the summit and get exposure - this would be my business plan, and this is how policy impacts the thing that I care about - it really creates much more multi-faceted young people early on, and that focus on systems thinking is a big one for us; both bringing in new ideas that people have not thought about, but then also getting exposure to folks with different experience both at their age group, but also mentors who can show them, why it's important to be more multifaceted.
ML Okay, and then you got involved in... you said you took over in 2015? Is that right? When did you first get involved?
MA So, I first got involved in 2015, right before our International Summit in Bali. And so I was actually hired on Student Energy to start our chapter program, and then my very first day, the then Executive Director who was the other full-time paid staff person, announced that she was leaving, and that she - Kali Taylor, she's an amazing person, everyone should look her up, she's in Geneva now - she announced that she was leaving, and that she was going on to work at the UN, four months later, and so said, you know, maybe you want this job. What I didn't know at the time was, I think that was the only job, I don't think we had funding for more than one person at that point. And so it's a little bit of a trick, but it worked out. So I took over a few months after I joined as Executive Director, but as the only staff person. And then now we have about 40 staff, so it's grown quite a bit since then.
ML So you did not join as a student, you're not an alumnus of the program, in a sense, yourself? You joined as a full-time staff member, but then sort of left holding the baby?
MA Exactly, I actually joined as the target market, if you will. My story's a little bit interesting. I actually started university, I'm very focused on youth empowerment, but very interested in human rights. And I lived in Latin America quite a bit as a young person, before I even went to university. I actually worked in the trades, I'd had like a pretty, varied experience and I had actually only taken one class on energy policy, and then I was like, oh, man, this is what I want to do, but it was my last semester, it didn't make sense to do another year. I was like, I guess I'll graduate, and figure out how to get a job in it. And then I ended up working in a think tank after school, and actually, poring over New Energy Finance data was my first job.
ML Sorry. Sorry about that.
MA I enjoyed it. I was such a keener. And then I heard about Student Energy, and then they were hiring, and they were hiring for this person to bring together both the energy world and this international youth piece. And I was like, well, those are all my things, maybe I'll apply and then.... but then as I kind of took over, it was very clear that, you know, I was the type of person Student Energy was looking to serve and had a lot of nonprofit experience, so kind of knew how to put together the strategic plan and go from there in growing the organization.
ML That's a great story. I didn't know your sort of route to leadership there, and that's part of what we do on Cleaning Up, it's about leadership, the subtitle is Leadership in the Age of Climate Change, so it's great to kind of get that mapped out. You then took it to 40 staff, you said 40 full-time staff now?
MA We have 40 staff in about five countries. So they're on every continent, and yeah, I mean, we've grown 200% since I started.
ML And how do you fund that? Who funds those.... that's quite a secretariat.
MA Yeah, my joke is anyone and everyone. But it's actually a lot more strategic than that. Um, so we do get funding from governments, both Canada and the government of Denmark actually, has been a big supporter. And then we have funding from philanthropy, and then we do work with corporations on energy as well. So we have a variety of funding. And then we work to fund the International Student Energy Summit as well, in conjunction with whoever is the host. So, there is a big diversity of a funding pool at this point, but it wasn't always that way to be frank; it used to be just, when I started, it was just a few companies that were willing to give us corporate sponsorships, and it was quite a small budget. And so it has been a pretty heavy lift to get into a place where we have actually sustainable, multi-year funding from sources that allow us to scale like this.
ML You have an advisory board, and I've been on a few calls. I regret that I've not been particularly helpful, I don't think. But one of the things that we've talked about on the last couple of calls has been this Ventures Program, which I don't think you've mentioned yet. Perhaps it's a good time to give me an update, particularly if it's going well I'd love to hear about it!
MA Yes, definitely. So Ventures has been renamed, I think based on your suggestion, actually, to Guided Projects... But it's our Entrepreneurship Program though, is the key piece. And it is actually going really well. So, the government of Canada has actually recently given us a good initial investment, and so we're doing these projects with indigenous communities in Canada quite a bit, as well as a few others. And then, soon to be announced, we'll have a bigger expansion of that throughout Africa and Latin America. So it is going well, and what the program is an initial grant funding for young people. So between kind of $10,000 and $30,000, as well as two years of coaching and mentorship to get their first major energy project off the ground, so that they're ready to become entrepreneurs, so that they have the know-how to do solar installation, they're doing energy efficiency projects, or clean cooking projects. And so the idea was born, many years ago, actually, we could see the fact that, you know, one thing that was really hindering young entrepreneurs was that you had to go over here for your money, and you had to go over here for your mentorship, you had to go over here for your training; people were wasting a lot of time basically trying to scramble all the pieces together. But Student Energy wasn't in a position to necessarily fix that. But then as we've gotten going with our capacity building, as we've shown people look, it really makes a difference if you put all this together. We've finally been able to say, yeah, this is something we can do, and do that first acceleration piece. So, it's going well, the projects are getting off the ground, solar panels are going up, things are getting built. And so that's been really exciting. And it continues, and there's a ton of demand from young people, and I think it really is something that's going to make its mark in terms of increasing the amount of people globally who are ready to do deployment. I think that's something that's often overlooked, that there's a lot of incubators, and accelerators and competitions around R&D, which is very important, we still need to invent new things, but there's very little support for people to get what we know works in the ground. And there's so much need for that, especially in the Global South, but even you know, across North America and Europe as well. So it's been an exciting thing to get off the ground and say, this is going to be an important part of how we move forward; really making this one stop shop for people to build their capacity. And then I think the other thing about the program that's been exciting, is it's really filling a big gap of the first piece. A lot of development funding, for instance, you need to be at a level where you can take in $500,000, a million dollars for your project, or a lot of incubators are similar... You need to have a certain level of business development under your belt, you need to be able to prove that you've managed a budget, all these different types of things. And none of that seems bad when you're setting a funding program. But what's challenging about it is you have all of these young people who have so much talent, and so much potential, but they don't have a lot of privilege, they don't have access to the things you need to build up to get to that spot. And so this program is really exciting because it is actually an entry level point for all that ambition to start to really take hold of their full potential and get to a place where they can get into those other programs or get that other piece of funding.
ML It's a great program, I love it. Thanks for the update. I was put in mind as you were speaking there of another program that we heard about on Cleaning Up. I don't know if you know who Alex Honnold is, he's the climber who climbed El Capitan.
MA I'm a rock climber, so yes, I know Alex Honnold!
ML So he came on the show and the reason was, partly obviously I'm a fanboy of people doing, you know, crazy scary things, but also he has a solar foundation, the Honnold Foundation, and does solar projects around communities - often where he goes to climb, there are indigenous communities or impoverished communities - and then by helping them to install clean energy, and solar, actually helped them to achieve their goals, whether those would be clean ferries in Latin America, on the Amazon system or wherever, and... What's really interesting is different takes at solving, not the same problem, but slightly different. In his case, it's these communities, in your case, it's the early entrepreneurs and giving them their seed capital, their first leg-up. I'm a big believer in these bottom-up approaches, by the way. I see too many, you know, billionaires want to spend 10 billion saving the planet and they don't really know where to start.
MA Yeah, I mean, I think bottom up approaches are so important, and then especially when you're working with young people, in that, you know, there will be lots... I've had, honestly what I consider to be some hilarious conversations with billionaires about what they think the solution should be to get more young people engaged, or to build a workforce or what have you. And a lot of it will actually fail at the point of basically dictating what they feel people should do. And I think that's actually, it's an issue within philanthropy, for sure, and in other spaces as well, in that, you know, you have a lot of people who are used to running the show, are used to having the solution because they understand their business, and they understand their market, and it's not to say that they don't. But when you're talking about how do we get to masses, and how do we get to community empowerment, how do we get to scaling? You know, unfortunately, the billionaire's life situation is so far removed, they couldn't possibly understand what's needed. And I think there is a reckoning to be done around who actually should be leading on what these solutions look like. And so for Student Energy, a big thing that we've instituted, is a youth empowerment model, in which young people always lead on what it is they want to do. And then we actually, as an organization, our whole thesis is to basically be the superhighway, if you will, of their experience, with people that kind of get things out of the way and help them move - as much as that's not a great climate analogy anymore... But we are the infrastructure and the backbone that helps to pull all the pieces together quickly, so that the solution that they see in front of them can actually be implemented faster, so that we can replicate it more at scale. And I think one thing that we're actually really good at is systematizing things, and it can sound very boring, but you know, all of our people in all of our programs and all of our staff organize projects in the exact same way. And so people are able to just plug in, see what they need, and get going on the strategic plan of what needs to happen. But it's all very community-based; it's all based in, okay, what do you actually need in your community and your geography, and really listening to people and helping them to kind of uncover the knowledge that they have. Because there are plenty of people who know how to install a solar panel at this point, but there aren't plenty of people who know how to make that acceptable in a community, or make that business model work for where they are. And that's been super exciting for us, to be able to empower that. And now as our staff team grows, you know, we've hired on a lot of those young people as well to work for us and help to help tweak our programs as they fit these different populations as well.
ML Can you share any metrics? So how many... Because you've got the 50,000 you refer to - is that the current pool of people who are involved? How many have you touched in total? And then also, how many have gone through that entrepreneurship program?
MA Yeah, so the 50,000 people is the amount of people who have been through our programs in the last probably five or six years. So it's our current network of folks that we could call upon at any point in time is how I would put it. And people who have also engaged in our learning in different ways. So that's the 50,000, I think. The total network is a bit larger than that, probably around 60,000 or 70,000 people at this point. And we're harnessing our alumni all the time. And then in the entrepreneurship program, that program itself is quite new, so it's only about a year old. It's just getting through its pilot phase. So we’re working with five different indigenous teams here in Canada, through our Imagination Program, and then we have about [a dozen] more. So it's a pretty new program, but it's actually based on... But it's based on the successes of the past. So, we have folks like a person who's a board member for us now, but Brian Kakembo came to our International Summit in 2015, and he was from Uganda, he was a business student, actually. And some speaker flippantly said to him, well, if you're from Uganda, and you care about energy, I guess you should also look at waste because waste is an issue there too. And he's like, okay, well, maybe. But actually went home and worked with his engineering faculty at his school to develop a clean-burning briquette for clean cooking, based on street trash that you can find around Kampala. And so actually, he now has a whole team of I think 200 young people who work for him collecting the trash, building these briquettes and a huge customer base on clean cooking, you know, from home and so... And he started at our summit then went through another capacity building program, then did a program we had called Greenpreneurs, which was a similar funding piece, and used all of that to build his business. And then we have other folks who have done rural solar Mexico, we have more technology and development companies that have come from Student Energy. So, a lot of what we see now with Student Energy Ventures and Guided Projects, is based on these success stories that we were able to piece together through different... based on, basically like, how do we replicate more of these at scale? I know I keep saying that, but that's where the lessons came from to make that happen.
ML I think the point about replicating at scale is, it's really interesting, because at the end of the day, we need millions, we need tens of millions of people doing these things around the world. But it's very hard... so many of these kind of top-down programs, whether they're funded by billionaires or by corporates, what they don't do is get that grassroots... And so they don't have any pathway to scale, really. Which brings me to another question, though. Most of the students in a place like Calgary, Alberta, or Imperial London - because that's where we originally met, when you did your International Summit at Imperial - most of them will not end up in Uganda. They might do a year or so, but fundamentally, they're probably going to end up working for large companies, whether they're large energy companies or large banks, or utilities, etc. To what extent do you focus on their needs versus the needs of the developing countries? The very grassroots stuff?
MA Yeah, so we do a lot, focus on their needs as well. And I think that's actually the other end of our skill and capacity-building programs, is something called Career Training. And so that actually is, it's a four-month program, there's an energy intensive at the beginning of it, and then you actually work in a global team of folks from around the world, with a client on a project. So you might do an analysis of the electric vehicle market in the southern United States, or you might do a financial model for a clean tech company that's trying to grow. So, there's all different types of clients that we have for folks. And so we actually do do that as well; we help people basically get their first thing on their resume. Similar idea to Guided Projects, in terms of, the hardest thing for young people seems to be getting that first piece of experience. And frankly, learning some basic professional skills. I can't tell you how many people I talk to that say, I'm looking for my next young superstar, who do you have? These ones, and they're like, oh, they haven't had a year of work experience, I'm not interested. Well, what would a year teach them? Oh, I don't want to teach them how to write an email. So that is something Student Energy does, teach them how to write an email, how to get organized, how to format their PowerPoints, and these things all really matter to accelerate that. So that is what we do for folks like that as well. And then our Chapters Program, our fellows are all about getting people that skill set of being able to see a project through from start to finish. It's not always about entrepreneurship, but I think... You know, you've hired plenty of people, folks who can join your company and kind of pull together the different pieces are always more effective. And so that's also what we're teaching people. And then a lot of what we're doing is exposure, frankly. Even at you know, the top schools in the United States and the UK, where have you, there are very few classes being taught on climate change, there's very little practical education going on. And I think that is something that we need to also contend with. You know, it doesn't make sense for everybody to need to do a PhD; that's going to take you eight years from now to do undergrad to PhD. We are past 2030 at that point, you've missed a whole section of what needs to happen on climate. Whereas, if we can be upscaling people faster and getting them in, I think that people frankly, can do more. And so that's a lot of what we're doing, as well, is saying, this is exposure, all these things you can do, because the university system, frankly, isn't catching up fast enough. Professors aren't exposed to enough; not enough people know what these careers look like. And so what we really do is work on really getting young people to talk to other young people, there's a lot of events and things that can seem fluffy or silly, but really so many of those start people to say, oh, I want to work in this, just like me - just like one piece of exposure to that in university. And then it really clicked for me. And then I think a lot of it is about young people talking to young people and building the momentum on this; our chapters are engaging, probably 15,000, 20,000 people every single year on that type of stuff. And that's not even what we're counting within our network, frankly. And then a lot of it is having people have their first piece of success. There's actually good psychological piece to this. And that before you're 25, your brain is actually still very malleable and you can't really distinguish emotions from thoughts. It's an interesting time... But part of that interesting time, is that if you feel like you've experienced success with something in that time, you're much more likely to stick with it. And so that is actually something we're really focused on is: how do you help people have positive feelings about what they can accomplish before that age range? Because if you look at like the span of entrepreneurs in the world, the people who do a lot at companies, they all have that in common, they have this I-can-do-it feeling before they turned 25 years old. And so we do really focus on that.
ML This is really interesting, because... I've already mentioned that one of the reasons I've really enjoyed working - to the extent that I've had time to work with Student Energy... By the way, I will say, I wish that you had been around, or that you had been able to help while I was building New Energy Finance, because you were talking about, you know, helping to house train students so that they were easier to integrate into companies. I don't know how many interns and fresh graduates I employed during New Energy Finance, but we're talking about many, many dozens, probably more than 100, during the time that it was... It was just something that we had to devote time to and energy, but we loved it. So we were doing your job back then.! But now you're doing it. This point about getting students engaged, modeling what success looks like, so that they do more of it. The point about it being an optimistic and engaged group... Because most sort of discourse about young people and climate is around, you know, that they're protesting, they're nihilistic, they are anxious, in some cases to the point of mental illness, and then there's Student Energy, where they're just kind of getting on and doing all this stuff, and helping to fix the problem that, instead of just being rancorous about, you grown-ups have done nothing. So why is it... I guess that you've sort of answered my question, which was going to be: are your students self-selecting because they're optimistic and want to do stuff? And then the other students who are not optimistic, are self-selecting to go on protests and be morose? Or are you training them to be optimistic and engaged?
MA That's a great question. And I would say, it's a bit of both, I think, I would say, the folks who are protesting and upset are not necessarily mutually exclusive from the people who are in our programs. There's some people in our programs who do both, and I'm a big advocate of the fact that, you know, in the grand scheme of change, you always have that; you always have a force that's pushing and feels uncomfortable, and then you have folks who are coming in behind that, taking up that space and creating solutions within that new area, if you will. So... I think there are a few things. One is that, yes, we do tend to harness people who are a bit more hopeful, or a bit more interested in moving those things forward. But I also think one thing that we do really well is we give exposure to the idea that there are multiple ways to engage. And I think, just like Twitter, maybe... I mean, I've worked with plenty of politicians, for instance, who are freaked out all the time about who's saying what on Twitter, versus what the poll says about them, or what have you. And I think that climate protests can be a little bit something that gets a lot of the media's attention, it sucks up a lot of the air, but it's actually not the only thing that young people are thinking about. And I think that a lot of young people are really looking for those constructive solutions, but finding them can be a bit harder. And frankly, some of what I'm talking about - like successfully completing an event or a research project - doesn't sound as flashy as throwing a giant protest. But it is something that's much more positive for a lot of young people as well. And so there are plenty of young people out there who are interested in climate who actually agree with what's going on in the protest, but personally, that's not their space, that's not something that they feel excited to do; they might be a little bit anxious going to a protest. And so I think that's where we also come, there's these other ways to engage and giving a lot of exposure, but giving exposure to the folks who are protesting and then also, who aren't, who all want to be part of this. And I think you'd be surprised to find out the amount of young people who are going to those protests but who also are interested in working in a clean tech company, are interested in doing something in climate and energy finance. And I think that the media has really grasped onto this narrative of climate depression and obviously, many people have it, we deal with it within our own young staff, there can be a lot of climate anxiety, for sure. Many of our staff are within this under-30 demographic. But I think by and large, from my perspective, it's more blown-up than it needs to be. I think where young people really do struggle, though, is in a lot of false promises, a lot of not knowing what comes next, and a lot of feeling like the governments, the powers-that-be around them, don't have the level of ambition that's needed. And then it's also interesting, though, to look at age demographics, and look at where demand is coming from for our programs. And then you know, where the stories are coming from as well. Because when you look at places like the UK, or the US average ages, the median age is 38, 40 years old. When you look at Nigeria, for instance, the average age is 18, or the median age is 18 years old. And I can tell you that we have probably 10 applications from the Global South, for every two that we have from the global north; we have a lot of applications from those areas. And you see this, where the median age is really young, there is actually a big ambition to just get going with climate: not wait for your government; not wait for the corporations around you; get whatever you can to build your own solar business, or to build your own thing and to get this going. And I think that's really exciting. And the more exposure, actually, that young people from the Global North, get to those young people from the Global South who have this, I'm-going-to-do-it-against-all-odds ambition, I find the more hope that can be engendered. And I think it's just important to think about, like, how much are we valuing young people. And that is, I think, a lot of where this, this climate angst comes from, frankly. You see it all the time; you see governments that get elected based on a youth vote, this new, shiny new face is gonna make it happen for them, and then once they're in office, they stop listening to young people, they don't do what they said they were going to do for young people, and then young people get discouraged. And I think it is a vicious cycle. So that was a fairly roundabout answer to say: I think we attract a lot of hopeful people, I think we train them to be helpful. I think we give them a lot of tools that make people feel more hopeful. But also, I think that young people are getting a little bit too much of a bad rap for just being depressed and angsty all the time, when really we just need to create more openings for them to feel like they're able to do something.
ML Thank you very much. And I suppose, I realized the moment I said it, that I'd framed the question as either being a morose protester or being a happy, happy, excited and engaged Student Energy person is not... Clearly, there's going to be overlap. It's a fascinating question, I do see my own... My analysis, my understanding, all the work I've done says that, we're kind of, that where we are right now, the trajectory we are on, is not this catastrophic collapse scenario; it's a very bad scenario, it's like a two and a half degrees scenario, there's everything to fight for, to turn it into a 1.8 degrees - I actually don't believe we can do 1.5, but I think we can get to 1.8 - but it's an incredibly vital battlefield that we have to be engaged in, that's what gets me out of bed every day. And then if I do hear that the young people have given up, or they think it can't be done, or they think it's much worse, then that depresses me, that upsets me.
MA I frankly find it very upsetting, as well. Every time I end up at some party, late at night, some young person will come up to me and have some panic attack about how they're not composting enough, and they forgot, [inaudible] I have to sit there and be like, you know, try your best to compost, but actually, there are a lot of factors at play and that's okay. Like, the whole weight of the world is not on your shoulders. And so I think, you know, it's important to have those conversations with young folks. But I do think that the media has blown it up more than it needs to be. And I think that it's also hard... I will say that from my own experience... We haven't talked a lot about what I did before Student Energy, but I will say that I, in my first job, I was bright-eyed, bushy-tailed, paid nothing, but got to go work in climate, and I was so excited. And then as I got into it, you know, I was exposed to things that, frankly, were not pleasant experiences, that were experiences where I was like, oh, just because I saw these people were amazing climate leaders - which they are - doesn't mean that they're necessarily good people. And I remember that opening my eyes to what that was, and having to deal with that when I was under 25, I was in this emotional state of my life. And you know, that was a big reckoning for me of, do I even want to stay in the climate space? Or should I just go take a corporate job that would pay me decently, and I feel like have a little bit more respect. And I think that's also something interesting to think about within this youth thing is that, you know, you and I have, and many of the leaders that you talk to on this podcast, have the benefit of time, can look back, understand the history of how things happen. I mean, one thing I love about this podcast is I feel like I learn a lot about, oh, yeah, the little things that work to make that big change happen. And you learn a lot about the incrementalism of change. And I think for young people, they don't have that time scale. They're looking at the last two years, or the last five years, maybe they started paying attention when they were 15, and now they're 20. And so for them, things do feel more dramatic, and they are on these swings. But I think for the rest of us, there's something to be gained from actually being a little bit more patient with them, and taking this with a grain of salt, and being like, you know, when I was 17 years old, did I have the kind of life perspective that I would need to understand how climate policy change happens? And probably the answer is no. And say, okay, how can we be a little bit more patient with him, while also still producing signs of hope? And I think, pushing the media, pushing others to actually be more hopeful about this. Because people will always be loud about being naysayers, but by and large, young people aren't willing to roll over and die on this one, they're very committed. And I think we should take that emotional commitment as a good thing, and also trust in them to be able to grow up, as all of us did, understand the nuances that nothing is purely good, and nothing is purely bad, you know; get out of the Disney phase of their lives, basically, and kind of get into becoming solutions people. And I think it's all of our responsibility to guide them in being that, and be a little bit, you know... take it with a grain of salt when you hear that an 18-year-old is very emotional, because that's normal, and they will grow up and they will, you know... You have children, I'm sure you will get there. But, you know, they will grow through that, and I think it's our responsibility to make sure they have as many positive experiences as possible, can point to as many success stories as possible, and say, like, okay, yeah, we're gonna buckle down, and we're gonna keep going and do the best we can here. And I think that is where I'm really inspired often, by the indigenous youth that we work with, we have a [inaudible]. Our leadership team in Nigeria is amazing, our leadership team in Mexico is amazing. And I think a lot of these young people who have frankly, been excluded from the climate and energy space, their parents, environmental racism, all these other things have piled up, you know, have so much gumption for saying we're going to make this different. And I think, you know, if you ever want signs of hope, that's what I would point to. And speaking of Student Energy being a hopeful place, David Hochschild, the chair of the Energy Commission of California, actually has my favourite quote. He said, Student Energy is like the climate hope wedding. It's fun like a wedding, but everyone's talking about climate, and then everybody's coming together from all over the world. And I think, you know, the more we can have those experiences of people coming together from all over the world, finding that they share this value set... It's inspiring, and I think people just need more exposure. And the media, frankly, need to talk about it more that there are tons of great things going on.
ML I think that you've put your finger on a couple of really important things. One is around the need for engagement, and the need to be hopeful and the need to work... Because at the end of the day, whatever temperature we're headed to, by working together and working hard and innovating, we can make it better than it would otherwise be. You know, even if we can't get to 1.5 degrees, it's still better to be at 1.8 than 2 and better to be at 2 than 2.5, and so on... So to continue, to just wake up every morning and doing something is incredibly important. But you've also put your finger really on the unifying theme of so many of these Cleaning Up episodes, because with a very few exceptions, who are incredibly negative, or even in some cases, you know, sort of contrarians on climate... But the vast majority of the guests, they've been working on climate solutions in their own way. And what I've been trying to do is to draw out the kind of the arc of change - not the news story, because the media you know, they all want to go to COP27 in Sharm and talk about this negotiation, or what did Australia say and, who didn't do what. But actually, there's also a longer-term arc, which was: COP15, Copenhagen failure; COP [...] 21 Paris, the first framework, although it wasn't tight enough; COP26 Glasgow, loads and loads of net zero commitments, and we've actually capped emissions growth. So I mean, that arc over the past... that's only been, you know, 10, 12 years, that's really important, that's really empowering to see that longer arc, but the media doesn't put focus on it. And the young people don't have the perspective to draw out those lessons themselves, because as you say, they've got very short sort of experience sets. So you put your finger on exactly, in a sense, what I'm trying to do here, so I'm very excited.
MA I mean, I promote the podcast all the time for this reason, I sincerely do. And I think that's a lot what we're getting at with intergenerational collaboration, with the idea of scaling - really reframing this too. Everybody you know who works in climate and energy probably has some crazy story about the circuitous path that brought them here. And now we need to get to a place where this is super common, where it's like trade school - we're just churning out people who can work in climate and energy to make all of this happen. And I think that's the arc that we're all on. But a big part of that is history, is understanding the history of where everything comes from, and so I think that's why the podcast is exciting. And actually, that is also what's hopeful about young people is, they really pay attention a lot less to mainstream media, to be honest. But they are still paying attention. But they're reaching out to these more niche media platforms, to things that really matter to them. And I think it's great to be producing more content that can really show what great examples to emulate.
ML I hope when this episode comes out, I look forward to working with you to get the message out, because it's such an important one. I want to just finish by talking about what are you going to move on to? Because you've now announced that you're going to be after - what is it, seven years? - you're going to be relinquishing the leadership of Student Energy, and going off to do something else. What's it going to be?
MA That is the question of the day. So I'm very much exploring options right now, and talking to people about what to do next. I'm still very focused on building teams, I love building teams of people who can scale and do things. So it'll definitely be scaling something, is my next thing. But yeah, looking at options in cleantech, looking at options in government, all kinds of different things at the moment. So very open to suggestion, probably not a good time for us to brainstorm Michael, but very interested in really actually pivoting more into the private sector, more into looking at how funds are flowing. Because I think there is a lot to learn from these empowerment models, and I think there's a lot to learn from really our lessons at Student Energy on scaling, and on scaling effectively and cohesively in a global environment, I think more people need to do that. So, these are all the things I'm thinking of, but very much in my own exploratory phase and kind of joining our students in what I always tell them to do, on how to have mentor conversations and figure out what's going on for them. I'm now having to take my own advice.
ML Listen, I don't know what you'll end up doing next, any more than you do it sounds like, but I do know that it will be something exciting and dynamic and impactful, and that you'll be unbelievably good at it. So I wish you luck with sort of searching out what it's going to be, I hope you also get to take a little bit of time off.
MA Yes, I intend to have a great ski trip in February, and we'll go from there.
ML A great ski trip as part of every single career plan in my book anyway, what can I say?
MA I mean, you should come visit Whistler, we'll do it together.
ML I've been to Whistler, of course, I actually skied in a couple of World Cups at Blackcomb, which is not Whistler, but just next door.
MA They're one and the same now, you'll have to come back and try it.
ML I'd love to do that, I'd love to do that. Thank you so so much for joining us here today.
MA Thank you Michael, thanks for having me.