Words Zoe Douglas-Kinghorn
At just 17, Toby Thorpe is an international advocate for young people and climate justice. In 2016, the Huonville High School student won the Zayed Future Energy prize, which provided $100,000 to repower his school with solar panels and build a community energy hub. That was the year Toby travelled to Abu Dhabi, where he was awarded the prize by the President of Kazakhstan and Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi. Since then, he’s never looked back.
Toby currently runs the Zayed Huon Futures Energy Team, engaging the community in sustainability projects from zero-waste innovation to carbon neutral transport. Championing the voices of young people, he is the Youth Convenor at Education for Sustainability Tasmania, and works as a Schools Coordinator with the Australian Youth Climate Coalition, where he empowers high school students to take climate action in their communities.
Recently, Toby held the first Tasmanian Climate Leaders Conference with over 250 students across Tasmania and New Zealand, participating in the United Nations’ Life Below Water goals for sustainable development. Later this year, he will be attending the COP24 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Katowice, Poland – at the same time, he’s doing his TCE!
I chat to Toby about the power of young people to change the world.
Tell us about winning the Zayed Future Energy Prize! What was the highlight of your experience?
It was a gamechanger. It not only put the Huon Valley on the map, but it put Australian young people on the international stage, as innovative thinkers in sustainable energy systems. It really shaped Huonville High School becoming a leader in sustainability, and it’s a key example of how students can influence the way a school works.
We’ve run heaps of community events such as Huon Fixit Day through Huonville High School. At this event we engaged the community through sharing their skills, and to have an impact on the environment by fixing things rather than throwing them in the bin. Everything we do is community focussed – my main passion is giving young people, who might be underestimated in society, a voice on issues that matter to them like climate change, which is a key issue for young people.
What do you think is the biggest challenge facing young people in Tasmania?
I think underestimation is the biggest challenge. The power of young people working together on collaborative projects is what is really going to change the future and shape history.
Why are young people leading the solutions to climate change?
Young people contribute the least to climate change but we are going to face the struggles of resolving the impacts of climate change because of older generations. We know that unless we act right now, we’re going to have to live in an adaptive future rather than a stable one. Young people don’t want a future destroyed by the fossil fuel industry.
How did you first learn about global warming, and what inspired you to make a difference?
I first learned about these environmental issues when my dad was made redundant during the Tasmanian Forestry Agreement. This was an environmental issue which exposed me to the forefront of what the natural environment meant to people, especially young people. Then my dad began to work in the mining industry, so I learned a lot about its impacts. At school, when I was given the opportunity to be mentored by an environmental mentor, Nel Smit, I learned a lot about those environmental issues. I’ve always been someone who wanted to make change, and living in the Huon I’ve always felt a strong connection to the environment.
Do you have any advice for young people who want to make a difference?
I would say stand up, use your voice and invest the power that you have to do the right thing, and follow the things you’re passionate about. Every young person in this world has incredible power – the power to connect with people, other young people and the older generations.
What is your most memorable experience as a volunteer with the Australian Youth Climate Coalition?
The most memorable experience would be Power Shift [an event uniting one thousand young people in naarm/Melbourne, to take action on climate change and social justice]. But I think the most valuable experience would be meeting other passionate young people, and being able to learn and work alongside First Nations people, with the leadership of the Seed Indigenous Youth Climate Network.
What has been the most challenging part of being a young leader?
People often assume you’re not experienced, you don’t know what you’re doing, that you don’t understand a social movement … working in a school and installing solar panels without having the support from teachers to lead the administration can be tricky. Being from a rural community in Tasmania can also be a challenge, because connecting with people in cities was well outside my comfort zone.
How do you balance your passions and study?
I’ve been lucky enough to include some of these projects into my education, for example, in my class called Learning Through Internship. I also have a dual enrolment, which means I not only get to spend more time in my local community, but I have more time to do what I love. The support of my educational institutions has allowed me to follow my passions and continue these projects.
What is your dream goal for after you leave high school?
It’s a hard question, because I’m always thinking in the now rather than the future! My dream is to continue working in the environment movement, and representing the younger generation as I grow older. I want to make sure other young people feel empowered and inspired to ignite change to issues that matter to them.
It’s so important for young people who are the future leaders to be equipped with the inspiration and knowledge to make change.