At four thirty in the afternoon – pitch dark and raining – Sue Natali is waiting for her son, Clancy, to get home from school. But she’s not meeting a bus. Each day, Clancy takes a ferry from Woods Hole to Vineyard Haven, and back, to attend Martha's Vineyard Public Charter School.
A forty-five minute ferry ride may be an unusual commute for a seventeen-year old high school junior, but it’s nothing compared to the trip Clancy makes this week, to the climate talks in Paris. It’s an opportunity he earned in an essay contest his school held last summer.
Clancy was one of nine students chosen for the trip to Paris. He and his classmates had planned to take part in a huge climate march last weekend. But the protest and the school trip were both canceled after the terrorist attacks last month. Clancy was disappointed but not deterred.
“Now is almost safer than ever,” Clancy says. “Security is going to be tighter, things are going to be tighter and more strict. I think it’s safe and it was probably safe even before this happened. I don’t really have a fear about that.”
Clancy is now the only student from his school traveling to Paris. He writes for a local paper, so he tried to get journalism credentials for the meeting. That didn’t pan out, so he’s just riding his mom’s coattails.
Sue Natali is a climate scientist at the Woods Hole Research Center, where she studies what used to be the Arctic’s permanently frozen ground.
“There’s a lot of carbon stored in permafrost,” she explains. “As the permafrost thaws, microbes now can access that carbon and they release it into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide and methane.”
Those are powerful greenhouse gases that could make climate change worse. But just how much are we talking?
“I wish I could give you an answer. That’s a million dollar question,” Natali says with a laugh. Then she gets serious. “Carbon emissions from permafrost may be substantial, but they’re currently not incorporated into global climate models. So one of the messages I want to give when I’m at [the climate talks] is that the current commitments that are being made, they’re not even accounting for this additional carbon source.”
Sue and Clancy are both mild-mannered and quiet-spoken – not the type to hype the dangers of climate change or badmouth policy makers. But both are frustrated by the attitudes of many American politicians toward climate action.
“I think that there’s a lot of unjust opposition to it,” says Clancy. “People are just saying things without any proof.”
“It’s particularly frustrating because there are people - particularly in this country - who are saying it’s not real, and who don’t want to listen to climate scientists,” Sue says. “I don’t understand why you would make a decision that’s a science-based decision and choose not to listen to a scientist. It doesn’t make any sense to me.”
Sue says she vascillates between frustration and optimism.
“I’m optimistic that there will be an agreement,” she says. “I’m sure that agreement can be - needs to be - stronger, but I do think it’s important to have a starting point. And that’s how I see this. I don’t see this as the ending point, I see this as the starting point.”
Clancy also sees his trip as a starting point, on a different scale.
“I want to see, like, change happen,” he says. “I want to see people curbing emissions. I want to see how these things are done. And I want to see Paris.”
Clancy will be documenting his experiences to share with his school. He’s hoping that will influence fellow students on Martha’s Vineyard.
“If they see their peers, people their age, are interested in this stuff and working on it, they’ll get an interest in it too,” he says.
And Clancy says, that’s important.
“The past generations, they’ve tried,” says Clancy. “But a lot of them have also messed things up. They’ve kind of put us into this position. So this current generation needs to try to fix that.”
For Clancy, that means getting involved in climate change activism. As a scientist, Sue shies away from activism herself, but she’s proud of her son and other student activists.
“I worry about them,” Sue says. “But I also have high expectations and high hopes for them that they are going to push this conversation forward.”
That’s something her own generation has largely failed to do so far.