Youth and Young Adult Engagement

This month, the Office of Sustainability (OS) is speaking with Aaron Arguello, member of the SA Climate Ready Climate Equity Advisory Committee and Dr. Neil Debbage, member of the SA Climate Ready Technical and Community Advisory Committee, about youth and young adult engagement as it relates to climate change.


OS: Thank you so much for taking the time to answer questions reflecting on your career and what brought you to serve on the SA Climate Ready Advisory Committees.

Aaron Arguello: I was born and raised in San Antonio, and I’ve been the Advocacy Organizer at MOVE Texas since March of 2019. Since then, my work in San Antonio has focused on identifying issues most important to young people, then educating and organizing around those issues. Specifically, my work has centered on climate justice, criminal justice reform, and voting rights, as well as specific policies such as Paid Sick Time.

Dr. Neil Debbage: I am assistant professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio in the Department of Political Science and Geography. My research and teaching focus on physical geography and sustainability. I study how cities alter our climate, especially urban heat and flooding issues, and how these hazards impact certain communities disproportionately. 

OS: What compelled you to step forward and serve on a committee?

Aaron Arguello

Aaron Arguello: I felt there was a need for young people to have a voice at the table regarding climate and energy generation decisions that we will live to see the long term effects of. Young people don’t often get opportunities to make policy decisions or recommendations, and I believe we must utilize every opportunity available to ensure an equitable future for all people.

Dr. Neil Debbage: Given my research and teaching interests in climatology, I was very excited to serve on the Technical and Community Advisory Committee. It is important that we translate our scientific understanding of climate change into actionable policy and being a part of the committee seemed like an excellent opportunity to contribute to our City’s climate policy goals.
Dr. Neil Debbage

OS: Our theme for this conversation is ‘Youth and Young Adult Engagement,’ particularly as it relates to climate change. You have either done extensive work with this population or regularly interact with them in an academic setting.

Younger generations have stepped forward to act in the face of a changing climate. What inspires you the most about the youth and young adult engagement efforts in SA?

Aaron Arguello: I’m constantly inspired by the conversations about climate that I see taking place within the younger generation. Today’s internet culture has helped young people have an increased awareness regarding the interconnectedness of the world around them that is unlike anything I’ve seen from any previous generation. Though I am a millennial, the awareness I’ve seen from those even younger than myself regarding climate change, as well as their readiness to take action, is unlike anything I experienced in my own youth. When engaging young people, I’m blown away by the amount of knowledge they often already possess.

Dr. Neil Debbage: At UTSA, I offer a class on climate change, and I am always inspired by the students’ passion for the topic. They are actively engaged and clearly committed to being excellent stewards of our climate.

OS: What advice would you give the younger generations about other ways they can engage in climate action? Why?

Aaron Arguello: I would encourage them to find opportunities to engage with, and put pressure on, local policy makers to make bold and robust decisions regarding climate policy. Showing up at meetings, giving public input, and demanding opportunities for deeper engagement will be crucial. As young people, we are not always taken seriously when fighting for change, but showing up in numbers with clear goals and policy demands could help change that.

Dr. Neil Debbage: Vote, vote, vote. Many of the climate challenges we face are simply too large to be resolved at the individual level, which means collective action, politics and policy will be necessary.

OS: Given that these younger generations will inherit the ongoing and largely detrimental impacts of climate change, what can youth do now to plan for a future amidst these challenges?

Aaron Arguello: I think one of the most important things young people can do is fight for more equitable and democratic energy generation policies for all, so that as we move forward with addressing the effects of climate change, those most heavily impacted are always centered and given decision-making power.

Dr. Neil Debbage: I think it starts with being informed. Understanding how climate change will alter certain aspects of our lives is the first step in preparing for that future.

OS: How can the community at large support these younger generations?

Aaron Arguello: By listening to what younger generations are saying, while fighting for energy democracy and public decision-making powers now, we can all do our part to ensure young people are in the position to make a more equitable future a reality.

Dr. Neil Debbage: One of the simplest but perhaps overlooked ways of supporting younger generations is simply listening. In my classes, I find that students have an ability to approach climate change challenges with fresh creative eyes, so valuing their input is critical to reaching viable solutions.

OS: In your opinion, what opportunities lie ahead with regards to youth and young adult engagement in SA, particularly related to climate action and reducing greenhouse gas emissions?

Aaron Arguello: I’m pleased to see the Mayor’s Youth Engagement Council for Climate Initiatives, and I hope it is only the beginning of opportunities for young people to offer their input on climate related issues. As public awareness around climate change grows, especially within youth communities, the opportunities for them to engage with local climate policy should also increase.

Dr. Neil Debbage: Community buy-in will be instrumental in successfully implementing our City’s climate action plan so the committees are actively engaging with all the communities that make up San Antonio, including younger generations, to ensure that their voices are heard. The Mayor’s office is also doing a fantastic job on this front with the Youth Engagement Council for Climate Initiatives.

The Mayor’s Youth Engagement Council for Climate Initiatives provides a way for youth to actively engage in the civic process and invest in the future of their city as part of the City of San Antonio’s Climate Action & Adaptation Plan (CAAP). The mission of the Council is to empower San Antonio’s next generation of climate champions with the tools they need to become effective advocates in their community.  Led and facilitated by EcoRise, with support from the City of San Antonio Mayor’s Office and the Office of Sustainability, the Council consists area youth representing each City Council district public schools, private schools, charter schools and homeschools from all over San Antonio.

Learn more about the Mayor’s Youth Engagement Council for Climate Initiatives and the 2020-2021 cohort’s work on

OS: Considering San Antonio as a whole, what are the most pressing challenges we face with regards to engaging younger people?

Aaron Arguello: If we truly want to engage younger people in our processes, we need to ensure systems are both accessible and understandable, while actively soliciting input and working towards fair and democratic decision making processes that center marginalized communities. This means going beyond public comment at meetings.

Dr. Neil Debbage: From my experiences in the classroom, one of the challenges I often see is the students feeling hopeless with regard to climate change. Of course, some degree of frustration is warranted given the broad scope of the issue but ensuring that they understand there is still hope for a resilient and productive future is incredibly important.

OS: In your opinion who will be most affected by the impacts of climate change? Why?

Aaron Arguello: Young people will have to deal with the long term impacts of climate change and current climate policies. But more specifically, low-income young people of color will likely bear the brunt of the health impacts. San Antonio already has a disproportionately high rate of childhood asthma when compared statewide. 80% of the population that live within 12 miles of the Spruce coal plant, San Antonio’s largest emitter of greenhouse gas, are people of color. Nearly a quarter of that community lives in poverty.

Dr. Neil Debbage: Unfortunately, those that are the least responsible for climate change will likely be the most negatively impacted. For example, research I have conducted in the Southeast US has shown that minority communities are much more likely to reside in areas at risk for flooding. This is exactly why approaching the problem with an equity lens is paramount.

OS: As you learn about how other communities are trying to address similar challenges, what solutions do you see working best in SA in the long-term?

Aaron Arguello: Community-based energy generation decisions will be key to long-term sustainability in San Antonio. The rate at which we are currently reducing our greenhouse gas emissions will need to increase drastically, and this will require everyday San Antonio residents having a voice at the table to ensure their needs are met. More inclusive, bottom up, and inventive processes are a must.

OS: What inspires or encourages you most about your work and/or that of others with whom you partner on this critical issue of youth and young adult engagement around the effects and impact of climate change?

Dr. Neil Debbage: My students’ passion for the topic is inspiring. They truly understand that many of the negative consequences will unfortunately be felt primarily during their lifetime, so their level of motivation is certainly encouraging.

OS: What is your hope or vision for a San Antonio that has overcome these challenges? What does it look like? Paint us a picture.

Aaron Arguello: My vision is a San Antonio where your health and environment doesn’t depend on what part of town you were born or grew up in. One where energy generation decisions are based less on revenue generation and more on public health and the common good. A future made possible by a transition to renewable energy, overseen by the public through meaningful public participation, control, and oversight. The future of our city demands it.

Dr. Neil Debbage: My hope is that we can use the climate challenge as a way to more actively engage with and ultimately reduce the many inequities that are quite entrenched in our community. Creating a more climate resilient city will require sizable shifts that provide an important opportunity to bounce forward, rather than simply bouncing back after natural disasters, and will create a healthier San Antonio that provides a foundation for all individuals to flourish.