Climate scholar participates in youth panel at Arctic Circle Assembly

The smoke from last year’s wildfire season spurred undergraduate biology major Michelle Ramirez to become more involved in combating climate change in her own community of Fairbanks, Alaska.

A young hispanic woman stands on a street painted in rainbow colors.
Image courtesy Michelle Ramirez
Michelle Ramirez stands on Rainbow Street in Reykjavik, Iceland, while attending the Arctic Circle Assembly in October 2023.

The wildfire events were turning into not just a once-a year-event but also profoundly impacting our daily lives. This  made me want to do something about climate change,”  said Ramirez, an undergraduate biology major and climate scholar at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. 

Her interest led her to participate in youth initiatives at global policy entities such as NATO this past summer. More recently, she was a youth ambassador at the Arctic Circle Assembly in Reykjavik, Iceland. Ramirez was one of five youths to speak as part of a panel that focused on breaking down barriers to youth participation in Arctic policymaking.

According to the United Nations Climate Action program, youths are a formidable force in combating climate change. The world’s population includes 1.8 billion young people between the ages of 10-24, the largest generation in history.

 “Older teens or people in their 20s play an important translator role between younger teens and children and the older generation. Climate change is happening so rapidly that the way the groups of people are experiencing it is different,” Ramirez said. “What youth are experiencing now in terms of evolving technology and changing environments can be much different from and less familiar than how elders experienced it 50 years ago, which means we’re less prepared.”

The youth panel at the Arctic Circle Assembly offered some ways to bring young people into the climate change conversation. Chief among them were early engagement and recognition that socioeconomic status can affect youths’ access to the conversation. Don’t wait until college or graduate school to engage young people, the panelists said, since not all youths have access to postsecondary education. Instead, they said, create internships or opportunities to serve on boards for high school students.  

A group of youth sit under a large television panel.
Image courtesy Michelle Ramirez
Michelle Ramirez speaks on a youth-focused panel at the Arctic Circle Assembly in Reykjavik, Iceland, in October 2023.

The Arctic Circle Assembly meeting was the latest in Ramirez’ international experiences. Last summer, she attended the NATO Public Forum during the organization’s 2023 summit in Vilnius, Lithuania. 

Closer to home, Ramirez topped off the summer with a float down the Yukon River as part of UAF’s climate scholar program. She and her fellow students connected with the Indigenous people from Eagle Village to learn about the challenges posed by the steep decline in Chinook and chum salmon available for food.

In September, Ramirez performed in a climate grief and healing ceremony called Gath and K’iyh. The event featured Gwich’in filmmaker, screenwriter and activist Princess Daazhraii Johnson reading a poem entitled, “When We Were Salmon,” a lament of the Alaska Native people for the radical salmon decline in the Yukon River. The same month, Alaska Public Media reported that the Chinook salmon run was less than a fifth of its normal size. The performance also brought world-renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma to Fairbanks to accompany the group.

"I’ve learned that it is possible to include our voices in policymaking and that there is a place for youth to be involved, but definitely more needs to be done,” Ramirez said. “While it’s great to have a platform at big, international stages, the work you do in your community is where you will get to see the most impact.”