Earlier this summer, Shiva Rajbhandari got a call from an unknown number in Georgia. It’s not a call he’d normally pick up, he said, figuring it was spam.
But this time he answered. On the other end, Rajbhandari said, a woman introduced herself: “Hi, this is Jane Fonda,” she said.
Several weeks earlier, Rajbhandari, a junior at Boise High School, had reached out to Fonda because he and some of his classmates wanted to take a class at Boise State University focused on climate change. But the class was expensive.
So Rajbhandari sent a letter to Fonda, an actor and climate change activist, asking if she’d be willing to pay for one student to take the class. He’d planned to reach out to other celebrities, too, hoping they would agree to sponsor one student each.
When Fonda responded, she offered to pay for everyone, Rajbhandari said.
“It was the craziest thing,” he told the Idaho Statesman. “Jane Fonda called me on my cellphone. She was like, ‘I want to pay.'”
She had one condition, though: The students needed to do more than learn about climate change. They needed to take action. She asked that they deliver a Greenpeace petition to Rep. Mike Simpson’s office calling for the federal government to eliminate fossil-fuel subsidies.
“So I was like, ‘Well, let’s do that,’ ” Rajbhandari said. “We are pros at organizing. Let’s make that happen.”
On Thursday, a group of students took the petition, which has about 2 million signatures in total, to Simpson’s office. Those signatures include all of the students taking the class. And thanks to Fonda — who donated $8,775 — the nine Boise High School students will start their climate change class at Boise State.
Why they want to take the class
Rajbhandari started learning more about climate change in his seventh-grade Earth science class.
“I think I’ve known for a long time that humans are destroying the planet,” he said. “But talking about how big of an impact this is going to have on my life, on my kid’s life, and for generations, we’re going to see the effects of this.”
At the time, he said, climate change wasn’t talked about nearly as much as it is now. He wasn’t seeing many people in power taking steps to try to help.
“In politics, we weren’t seeing any big action on this, (which) was really frustrating to me,” he said. “And I was like, ‘What can I do?’ “
He knew simple things he could do, like recycling and turning off the lights. But “systemic solutions” are needed to solve the crisis, he said. So, he started getting involved with climate change activism.
Now, when he thinks about climate change, he thinks about the human aspect of it, and the damage it’s going to do to “especially vulnerable populations” across the country and world. Standing in his backyard, he pointed to the sky.
“My backyard, it’s all smoky, which is, you know, an increase in natural disasters, which are going to kill millions of people over the course of my lifetime. An increase in fires, drier weather, less water,” he said. “And you know, climate change is really the exacerbator of all issues.”
In the Boise School District, he said, he has learned a little about climate change, but not in nearly as much detail as he’d like. The classes he’s taken also don’t cover what can be done to stop it, he said. That’s part of what he wants to get out of the Boise State class.
“We think of how sick we are of hearing COVID in the news right now,” he said. “I’m sick of hearing climate change already. And we are not even to the worst of it yet.”
When he told his classmates about the Boise State class, a bunch of them wanted to join as well.
One of those students was Riley Gibson, a senior at Boise High. Gibson said she’s taking the class as a way to expand on what’s offered in high school. It’s important for teenagers to talk about climate change and its impact on the environment and people, she said.
“If you can have this foundation early, then you’re set up to make informed choices later on,” she said.
She’s lived in a high desert area most of her life, she said. So she’s seen the impact of climate change on resources such as water.
“More than water, just ecosystems on a whole,” she said. “I think that wildlife is also a huge part of how the climate crisis is going to change our global dynamic, and how those two things come together. So how is water and water resource management going to affect how wilderness can still be accessible to people and how natural spaces are going to be preserved?”
When Fonda agreed to pay for the class, Gibson was sitting in her room reading and got a call from Rajbhandari saying he had good news about the class. Gibson said she’d read stories about Fonda’s climate involvement and her other activism efforts.
“To have someone that big and such a powerhouse in the sort of social justice world paying for this small group of students to go to a state university is amazing,” she said.
What is the class about?
The class, the Foundations of Climate Change, will cover the causes of, consequences of and solutions to global climate change, said Jen Pierce, who teaches the course at Boise State.
In the first section, students will learn how climate change has happened in the past and how it’s happening now. They will also discuss the drivers of climate change and its effects on snow and ice cover and water, she said.
“So kind of the nuts and bolts,” she said. “Then we go into more of the social science, so the economics of climate change solutions.”
The class will have a big focus on solutions, she said.
“How can we look at different systems of energy to address climate change?” she said. “How can we talk about climate change more effectively?”
It’s an entry-level class, she said, so it covers the issue on a broad scale. This year, Pierce said she also will work in similarities and differences between climate change and the coronavirus pandemic.
They’re both global, existential threats to our existence, she said. But there are also some key differences. COVID-19 hits the “PAIN criteria,” which stands for personal, abrupt, immoral and now, she said.
“That’s usually what people respond to, things that are personal, abrupt, immoral and now,” she said. “And climate change, one could argue, is this kind of vague, nebulous thing that may or may not affect them, people don’t think it’ll affect them personally.”
They think it’s something that’s going to happen in the future, she said.
Pierce said she became involved in climate change education because she has two young daughters.
“We owe it to the next generation of Idahoans to provide them with the tools and knowledge they need to succeed in a changing future,” she said.
Several years ago, she realized her kids weren’t learning about climate change in elementary school. Since then, she’s done extensive outreach to K-12 schools and has even taught classes to teachers.
This is the first time current high school students will be taking the course, she said, but she’s excited to have them in class and to teach them what they don’t learn at the high school level.
Delivering the petition
Fonda asked the students for a “commitment of action” in exchange for her agreeing to pay for the class.
So on Thursday, the students enrolled in the class completed the last step of the process. They headed to Simpson’s office to deliver their Greenpeace petition. Earlier in the summer, the students had attended a training for Greenpeace and organized a gathering to plan for the petition and its delivery.
The petition calls for President Joe Biden to eliminate fossil fuel subsidies in the 2022 fiscal year budget request and to use his “executive authority to end fossil fuel subsidies where possible under existing law.”
“The fossil fuel industry receives up to $20 billion in direct subsidies per year. … Many subsidies just end up making it easier for fossil fuel companies to produce coal, oil and gas, and inflate their profits,” the petition said. “It’s time for our government to divest from systems of exploitation and extraction, like fossil fuels, and begin investing in community health and well-being. Ending fossil fuel subsidies is a vital next step.”
Included with the petition the students delivered were their climate change stories.
“It’s an important part of humanizing climate change,” Rajbhandari said, “and really engaging people, especially people who maybe aren’t as comfortable with the science on climate change.”
Students wrote about how climate change has impacted them directly, telling how it threatens some of the activities that are most important to them, such as skiing, running and fly fishing. Other stories told how it is destroying the homes of animals they grew up loving, how the crisis is already forcing people from their homes and how it is creating new challenges for farmers.
The letters, many directly addressed to Simpson, urged the congressman to take action, now, before it’s too late.
Students said they didn’t necessarily expect the congressman to be on board with the petition. But they’re going to keep fighting.
“I think that putting this out for Congressman Simpson is sort of an appeal to his humanity,” Gibson said. “It’s probably not going to work. But if we can put ourselves out on the national stage and be involved with a group as big as Greenpeace, that’s a step in the right direction.”