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Jamie Margolin of Zero Hour is the teen climate change activist you need to know

The 17-year-old said climate anxiety has been a part of her life as long as she can remember.
Image: The Common Good Forum & American Spirit Awards 2019
Youth climate change activist Jamie Margolin wants lawmakers to take action to ensure that people her age will have a livable planet in the future.Sylvain Gaboury / Getty Image
/ Source: TODAY

Jamie Margolin can't recall a time in her life when the climate crisis wasn't on her mind.

"I remember panicking about climate change when I was in second grade and running around and talking to other students about it," the 17-year-old told TODAY Style, as part of our Groundbreakers series for International Day of the Girl. "I printed out all these 'save the earth' buttons and handed them out. And then I was like, well, what do we do now? No one ever teaches young people how to take action."

Fortunately, she figured that part out herself.

Jamie Margolin Teen Vogue Summit
Margolin founded Zero Hour, an organization of youth climate change activists, when she was 15 years old. Sarah Morris / Getty Images

When she was 15, Margolin, who lives in Seattle, co-founded Zero Hour, a group of youth climate change activists. She was propelled to action after seeing Hurricane Maria destroy Puerto Rico, a country that holds a special place in Margolin's heart, as it was the first Latin American country she visited and because of her own Hispanic heritage. Around the same time, smoke from Canadian wildfires was blowing into Seattle and engulfing the city in a smog so thick and dangerous it sent some of her friends with respiratory problems to the emergency room, she said.

Zero Hour was formed with other young activists across the country, mostly high school students who communicated via social media and video calls. "We wanted to relay that urgency we felt," Margolin said.

In July 2018, they held youth climate marches in cities across the globe, including Washington, D.C., New York City and London. They met with lawmakers to discuss their platform, a list of demands of what they need for a livable future, which includes ways to reduce energy consumption and ensure people across the globe have access to food, water and housing.

And in September, just before lawmakers met in New York for the United Nations Climate Action Summit, Margolin testified in front of Congress alongside other young climate change activists, including Greta Thunberg.

"I am missing a lot of school to be here," she told politicians during her opening statement. "It's my senior year of high school. College application deadlines are looming and to be honest, I've barely started because I'm too busy fighting to make sure I'm actually going to have the future I am applying to study for."

Margolin often speaks about how adults will ask her what she wants to be when she grows up and her response is always the same: How can she focus on that when she doesn't even know what the planet will look like when she's an adult? According to a report last year from the U.N.'s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, emissions would need to be slashed by 45% from 2010 levels by 2030, in order to prevent 2.7 degrees of warming.

Margolin (right) testified in front of Congress in September alongside Swedish environmental activist Greta Thunberg. Alastair Pike / AFP - Getty Images

And while some adults think her positioning is extreme — Margolin isn't convinced that all of the congressmen really got her point — she believes that her peers, for the most part, are on the same page. The numbers back this up: A recent poll from the Kaiser Family Foundation and The Washington Post revealed that the majority of teens say climate change makes them feel "afraid," "angry" and "motivated."

The other day at school, Margolin said two girls approached her, worried about the planet's future.

"They were asking all these questions and they were really scared — and these were just regular kids, not activists," Margolin said. "(One of the girls) said, 'The other night I literally cried myself to sleep over this climate issue. I don't know what I'm studying for if the future is not going to be there for me.' It broke my heart because I had to respond honestly and say I don't know."

All this doesn't mean Margolin has given up on the future, of course. She still has plenty of lofty goals for a teenager. Next summer she'll publish her first book, "Youth to Power," a guide to being a young activist. (Margolin said it's "the book I wish I had when I was first starting out.")

After graduating from high school, she hopes to move to New York City for college and eventually get involved in politics. Right now, her role model is Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, whom she met in Washington, D.C., a few days before the Sept. 20 climate strike.

"She's literally everything I want to be in life," Margolin said. "She is just so down-to-earth and real and unfiltered in the best way. And it's such a relief to know there is a way to be successful without selling out and still stand up for what you believe."

Like Ocasio-Cortez, Margolin wants to be a voice for underrepresented people. Her leaning toward political office has not a single thing to do with climate change, though. Margolin won't turn 30 years old — the eligibility age to run for the U.S. Senate, for example — until 2031.

"I don't want to go into office to solve the climate crisis," she said, before making her point one last time. "By then it will be too late."