Margaret Goodman, a retired foreign affairs expert who is now in her 70s, has never forgotten the positive impact the Girl Scouts had on her life. “I loved it because I love the outdoors,” she said. “We hiked, and camped and canoed whenever we could. We were a bunch of kids who never got tired of playing outside, and I still haven’t.”
She developed her love and respect for nature largely as a result of her scouting experiences, and she believes that the values girls learn from scouting — especially caring about the fate of the planet — stay with them forever. Thus it came as no surprise to Goodman that scouts have begun to turn their attention to climate change, the most urgent crisis of our time, encouraging young girls to learn about the issue and take steps cut pollution. “The Scouts change regularly to reflect the times,” Goodman said. “After all, they were about girls being independent and adventurous back in 1912.”
The Girl Scouts’ activities are occurring against a backdrop of growing climate change activism among young people both here and abroad. Increasingly, teenagers and children — mindful it will be their generation left to cope with the most severe consequences of climate change — are taking to the streets and the halls of Congress to protest adults’ inaction.
On Capitol Hill, more than 100 young activists with the Sunrise Movement recently swarmed into the offices of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), calling upon him to support a Green New Deal and account for the money he receives from the fossil fuel industry. Democrats have been targeted too — Senator Dianne Feinstein (CA) also was confronted by a group of young climate activists in her San Francisco office, and later criticized for talking down to them after a video of her refusing to support the Green New Deal went viral.
Overseas, thousands of students in Europe and Australia have been walking out of classes to protest climate inaction during the past few months, calling upon their governments to declare a state of emergency on climate. Swedish teen Greta Thunberg’s earlier solo protest outside the Swedish Parliament inspired the mass walkouts.
Although the Girl Scouts’ climate activities are largely educational, the organization has long encouraged girls to get tackle issues that are important to them. Many scouting programs are designed to teach girls leadership skills and expose them to fields where women are underrepresented. The well-known cookie drive, for example, is meant to teach girls about business. Scouts are now learning about the STEM fields of science, technology, engineering and math, which include earth sciences and the environment, and by extension climate change.
“Girl Scouts also enables girls to address issues that they themselves are passionate about, so many Girl Scouts have taken action to address environmental topics through their projects,” said Jennifer Allebach, vice president of girl experience at Girls Scouts of the U.S.A. (GSUSA).
Most of that work is taking place on local and state levels, as scout troops and councils are free to focus on specific issues of their choosing. The Girl Scouts of Colorado, for example, created a program that enables girls to earn a climate change patch for participating in three climate change-related activities from a list of more than a dozen possible options.
Colorado scouts can visit a local scenic area, such as Rocky Mountain National Park, and find examples of things that will be affected by climate change. This might include visiting and documenting vulnerable park areas, or tracking and observing wildlife — such as the pika, a small rabbit-like mammal— that could be hurt by climate change. The scouts must document their findings through drawings, photos or by keeping a journal.
Other suggested activities including riding bikes or carpooling for at least two weeks to places where a parent usually drives, or talking to their schools about saving energy. Scouts also can assess their home energy use and cut back by changing lightbulbs or getting a programmable thermostat.
“There has been a huge movement in Girl Scouts to get girls more involved in STEM and the outdoors through Girl Scouts,” said Aimee Artzer, community partnerships manager for Girl Scouts of Colorado. “These topics certainly allow for girls to learn about the Earth, its climate and changes. We also teach girls how to become advocates and stand up for what they believe in — if that is regarding climate change, right on!”
The Colorado Girl Scouts program was initiated two years ago by Colorado Mom’s Know Best, a state group founded in 2012 to fight air pollution and climate change, and promote clean energy. “It goes back to be being a mom,” said “head mom” Jen Clanahan, a fourth generation Coloradan. “As parents, we do everything we can to protect our kids, and this is one of the ways – by having a clean climate and fighting carbon pollution so our kids have a bright future.”
Clanahan, who wrote the steps for earning the patch, said she tried to incorporate many different actions “so that girls from different geographic areas of the state, different skill levels and different ages would find it accessible,” she said. “It’s gotten a great response. It’s one of the most sought-after patches.”
In Virginia, the Girl Scouts of Virginia Skyline have established requirements for a climate change patch for junior scouts, which include having them learn the definitions of weather, climate, climate change and global warming, and how they differ, as well as understanding the mission of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and why it earned the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize.
In California, which has always been ahead of the curve on climate change, San Francisco Girl Scouts organized a compact fluorescent lightbulb giveaway in 2009, distributing 5,000 free bulbs to raise awareness about energy conservation. Also, the Girl Scouts of California’s Central Coast are now considering offering a climate patch and have approached Colorado officials about how to do it, Clanahan said.
Patches, which can originate on the national, local and state levels, are not the same as badges, which are established only by the national organization. Badges are awards that girls earn by building new skills and completing age-appropriate activities available for each level of scouts, from Kindergarten through the 12th grade. National badges represent approved official national Girl Scout programming. Patches are given to scouts for participating in local programs. Patches are worn on the back of vests or sashes, while badges are worn on the front.
“While GSUSA doesn’t currently have climate change-specific programs nationally, we do focus on environmental advocacy and stewardship in our programming,” Allebach said. “Since our programming is girl-led and enables girls to address issues they are passionate about, many Girl Scouts have taken action to address topics about the environment through their projects. Enjoying and taking care of our natural world is one of the cornerstones of the Girl Scout movement.”
Margaret Goodman is a living testament to the fact that the experiences of young people can profoundly affect the way they lead their lives. It was, in fact, a scouting experience that launched the trajectory of her career. The summer after she graduated from high school, she was one of six U.S. scouts representing the organization at an international conference in Switzerland. “I was a kid from a town of 5,000 in Wisconsin who had never even been on an airplane,” she recalled. “I came home, declared my major as international relations my first day of college and never looked back.”
Goodman went on to work for Congress and the Peace Corps, in addition to becoming a cross-country cyclist. She credits the Girl Scouts for putting her on her path. “Scouting can do that, which is why I applaud the Scouts for taking on climate change,” she said. “Exposure to these values while you are young, can make a huge difference.”
Marlene Cimons writes for Nexus Media, a syndicated newswire covering climate, energy, policy, art and culture.