The hardest year of Sarah Goody’s life was in fifth grade. At age 11, she was suffering from abdominal migraines, a debilitating syndrome that doctors had trouble diagnosing. She was in and out of the hospital. At one point, she even contemplated suicide.
“I spent so much time away from my classmates, from school, from my extracurriculars,” said the Corte Madera teenager. “I really got into this place where it was so dark and it was so lonely.”
What ultimately ended up helping her to heal wasn’t a doctor, a hospital stay or a change in diet, but rather one of her teachers, Rebecca Newburn, at Hall Middle School in Larkspur.
It was sixth grade, a year into her turmoil, and she was in class when the topic turned to climate change. It’s one that many students feel “overwhelmed” by, Newburn said, but Goody had a different reaction: She was fascinated.
“Nothing at the time really excited me,” she recalled. “But for the first time, I felt empowered. And for the first time, I said, maybe I can do something about this. Maybe I could use my life or use the time that I have right now to raise awareness about this issue, to learn more about this issue and to fight for something greater than myself.”
Now 16, she is the founder of Climate NOW, an organization that educates thousands of youth about climate change. She also sits as the chair of her town’s Climate Action Committee. She has publicly urged Broadway stars, including Lauren Patten and Patti Murin, to speak out about climate change. And she was among 180 global recipients of a 2020 Diana Award, a humanitarian and social action honor presented by Prince Harry and named for his mother.
She’s also had a cascade of media attention, including an interview on “NBC Nightly News with Lester Holt,” an appearance on KQED Radio’s “Forum” with Michael Krasny, and profiles in Forbes and Teen Vogue.
Her high school paper even compared her to Greta Thunberg, the globally known Swedish youth climate activist.
Oh, and Goody is also in high school, in case you forgot.
“She’s just pretty darn awesome,” said Newburn. “She has a beautiful light about her. When you hear her talk about her passion for the environment, you just see this love.”
Goody was born in San Francisco and remembers going to Temple Sinai in Oakland with her grandmother. Her 86-year-old grandfather was among the Jews who escaped Nazi Germany and lived in Shanghai during World War II.
Goody is one of many Jews in the Bay Area keeping climate change and climate justice at the forefront of people’s minds. Before the 2020 presidential election, Jews of all ages used climate change as a way to mobilize voters in swing states. Most recently, Jewish activists were part of a protest last month at Lake Merritt in Oakland about the rerouting of an oil pipeline in the Midwest. And Dayenu, a national Jewish climate change organization, is expanding into the Bay Area.
Meanwhile, Goody’s focus as a youth climate activist is to get younger people — those who will inherit the climate crisis and undoubtedly face its worsening effects — educated and excited about the issue, the way it happened for her in that sixth-grade classroom.
A sophomore at Redwood High School in Larkspur, she divides her time between school, homework, giving virtual presentations to students at schools around the country (usually about three a week, though once she did 10!), speaking with journalists and trying to find time to keep up a social life.
“It can be hard to juggle,” she said with a laugh.
Whenever she’s asked a vexing question, such as “How are we gonna figure out this whole climate change thing?” Goody smiles before launching in, articulating how to surmount a crisis that feels insurmountable to the average adult.
After that pivotal classroom lesson four years ago, Goody hit the ground running and began immersing herself in everything she could about climate change.
She watched “Cowspiracy,” a 2014 documentary about the impacts of agriculture on the environment, and Al Gore’s landmark 2006 documentary “An Inconvenient Truth.” Further research led her to Youth Empowered Action Camp, a summer camp that helps teenagers learn the ins and outs of climate activism. She attended in 2018 and was taught the basics of organizing a campaign, such as writing press releases and raising funds.
She also started making changes closer to home, switching to a plant-based diet and encouraging her parents to switch to electric cars.
Goody also interacted with like-minded peers. At a 2019 summit in New York City, she came across a young person holding a sign that said “Fridays for Future,” promoting an international youth movement in which students skip class on Fridays to take action on climate change. Popularized by Thunberg, the action calls for participants to gather in public places and make adults (curious as to why these kids are not in school) aware of the issues.
I have to really prove myself as an activist, as a young person, to show that regardless of my age, I still have something important to add to this conversation.
Not all parents would be OK with their child skipping school once a week in eighth grade. But Goody’s father, James, allowed it.
“As long as she was keeping her schoolwork up,” he told J.
Goody remembered it slightly differently. “When I initially had the idea, they were very taken aback,” she said. “They didn’t really know what to think. It seemed really odd to them, but they trusted me and they trusted my passion.”
For about a year, Goody’s father, who works in finance and real estate in San Francisco, would drop his daughter off at either City Hall or the Ferry Building every Friday morning on his way to work.
With her sign “School Strike 4 Climate,” Goody spoke to all sorts of people. She said she had both negative and positive encounters, and that tourists from Europe were the most receptive. Police showed up a few times. After about six months, Goody had to make a compromise with her school, which wasn’t pleased with the class-skipping. She agreed to strike just one Friday a month, and on off weeks she would do her campaigning after school.
“It was disrupting the normal,” she said. “It made people look. I was impacting thousands of people at a time, whether they were walking across the street or they were passing by in their car because it was something to look at. It wasn’t normal. It was out of the ordinary.”
As someone who doesn’t yet have a college degree (let alone advanced education about the environment or climate), and who isn’t old enough to vote, Goody said she regularly encounters adults who hold stereotypes about someone her age taking on such a serious topic.
“Oftentimes, that makes it hard for adults to take me seriously,” she said. “I have to really prove myself as an activist, as a young person, to show that regardless of my age, I still have something important to add to this conversation.”
Being young even has certain advantages, Goody said, as she and her peers are often more “innovative and creative” than some of the older activists.
Many of them, she said, will quickly say “no” when presented with a new idea, or put up roadblocks because their minds are set on what needs to be done. But “I think young people are just excited to do something, and they don’t see those boundaries,” she said. “And that’s what makes us such powerful agents of change. We are something different to this movement.”
Goody’s age has worked in her favor in other arenas, such as in 2019 when she went in front of the Corte Madera Town Council to suggest a variety of climate-related policies, such as adopting a climate change resolution (the council later passed one) and hosting a youth climate summit (happening later this year).
“It’s really attention-grabbing when someone so young steps forward with a strong backbone,” said David Kunhardt, former vice mayor of Corte Madera. “People pay attention.”
In 2020, the council created a Climate Action Committee, which offers suggestions and solutions to help the town become more environmentally friendly. (In January, for example, the committee helped Corte Madera transition to LED lightbulbs.)
Not only is Goody usually the youngest person in the room at meetings — she’s also the committee’s chairperson.
“It’s funny; there’s at least a 40-year age gap between me and most of the [committee’s] volunteers and participants,” she said. “It’s been exciting, but also a little bit challenging.”
If the best way to show that age is not a factor is to “know your stuff” better than the adult questioning you, Goody said, she’s made it her mission to arm her peers with such knowledge.
That’s why in 2019 she founded Climate NOW. The organization, supported by donations, now takes up the majority of her time, she said. It is a volunteer-driven effort in which youth activists from around the world give half-hour presentations (virtually during Covid) to K-12 schools. Goody and her 30 cohorts have spoken to 10,000 students at 70 schools, according to the website, many in California but some as far away as India and Italy.
The presentations include a basic introduction to climate science, why climate change is happening, what carbon dioxide is and how rising emissions are affecting the planet. The volunteers localize their talks when possible, bringing up wildfires if they’re speaking to a California school or the recent spate of cold weather if it’s Texas.
In a Q&A session at the end of each session, the youth speakers almost always get some version of the question: “Will my actions really do anything?” Goody has two responses, starting with a bathtub analogy to illustrate how small movements add up: “If you have a huge bathtub and every single time you put a cup of water in that bathtub, over the next few weeks, that bathtub may be overflowing.”
She also conveys how actions can have a domino effect. “You never know who is watching. When I started to eat plant-based, my friends were asking about it, my family, their friends. What you do every single day — so many people take note of that.”
It isn’t just students she has to convince. Members of her own family have questioned her work — including an uncle who confronted her at a family seder a few years ago.
“He said, ‘You know, even if I did believe it, I don’t care about this. This is not something that’s impacting me,’” Goody recalled. “He started calling me Greta Thunberg all night long, but mockingly.
“Not everyone believes in this and not everyone agrees with what I’m doing. But at the same time, I’ve also learned how to focus not on the people who disagree with you, but on the people who agree with you.”
One of Goody’s Climate NOW colleagues, high school junior Hannah Sellers, described Goody as “relentlessly passionate” about her work. Goody could easily put herself in the spotlight, Sellers said, but she doesn’t.
“She is always cheering you and herself on,” Sellers said. “She is very selfless, too. I know sometimes people who run organizations like this want to be the center of attention. I don’t think she’s going to stop at any barrier.”
Goody’s optimism — that humans can solve the global problem and are not on a preordained road to destruction — undoubtedly will be needed if there is any chance of reversing climate change.
The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, considered the world’s leading group on the topic, released a report in 2018 warning that to keep the planet from warming more than 1½ degrees celsius — which would still have major effects, including the loss of 70 to 90 percent of the planet’s coral reefs — countries will have to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by 45 percent by 2030. It will require “‘rapid and far-reaching transitions in land, energy, industry, buildings, transport and cities.”
In other words, a revamping of the world economy.
And that is the best-case scenario. Because if the warming is 2 degrees celsius or more, according to the IPCC, it would make every aspect of climate change — droughts, wildfires, coral reef loss and sea-level rise — dramatically worse.
In a recent “60 Minutes” interview, Bill Gates, another person who is considered an optimist on this topic, didn’t shy away from the realities.
“The amount of change, new ideas — it’s way greater than the pandemic,” he said. “It needs a level of cooperation that would be unprecedented.”
Goody understands the enormous task facing her generation, but she also knows what she has to do. Simply put, “I have no option other than to try and to fight.”