For Raina Rippel, executive director of Pittsburgh environmental education nonprofit Communitopia, concerns about the human impact on nature came early.
“I was in sixth grade and our family lived in western Nebraska,” she recalls. “I heard things on the news about pesticide use in the state’s aquifer and water supply. I thought, ‘Could pesticides be in the aquifer? Is this hurting my health? What if I got breast cancer from pesticides? I think that’s a bad thing.’
“That was scary for me as a sixth grader, and understanding those threats and doing something about them has been my path forward from there.”
Before joining Communitopia in May 2022, Rippel, now 49, spent two decades working in leadership roles with environmental organizations such as the Maine Chapter of Physicians for Social Responsibility, Center for Coalfield Justice, Halt the Harm Network and the Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project. During the first year of the Covid pandemic, Rippel served as a public health case investigator for the Pennsylvania Department of Health.
You can see her speaking on the dangers of fracking in the 2015 film “Groundswell Rising, Protecting Our Children’s Air and Water,” which features Mark Ruffalo, Sandra Steingraber, Bill McKibben, Natalie Merchant and former Pennsylvania Congressman Bob Edgar.
Rippel shares her thoughts about the importance of engaging young people to take an active role in climate change advocacy.
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NEXTpittsburgh: How did Communitopia start here in Pittsburgh?
Raina Rippel: In 2008-2009, some neighbors on the North Side began informal discussions about climate change. A formal group was organized around the need to make the climate change conversation more widespread and bring more people into the conversation. How could you transfer climate literacy into climate action? Now we have a focus on educating in schools and developing students, teachers and administrators as environmental action leaders.
NEXTpittsburgh: How hard is it to persuade people to become actively aware of climate change? Especially young people who may have awareness but not much political power or financial resources.
Rippel: I’ve been doing climate change work since the early 2000s, and I’ve seen the narrative switch up. It used to be a disaster narrative — science fiction that might happen someday far in the future. Now, climate change is a reality that exists within people’s lives. There is far less disbelief and misunderstanding of what climate change is going to look like because we see it happening in our daily weather systems.
At Communitopia, we work with young people who, to a certain extent, already “get it.” They get the changing world they’re living in. They understand the damage happening now. They also have a lot of hope and willingness to tackle the issue.
NEXTpittsburgh: How does Communitopia get them started?
Rippel: We focus on the educational system. We work with students in the schools and show them how to lead climate actions within their school environment and get the administration and school district to support them.
NEXTpittsburgh: What kind of actions?
Rippel: Actions that will raise the bar on climate change conversations in our region. They talk to their school boards, they talk to politicians. They’ve met with Rep. Mike Doyle and Mayor Ed Gainey. These students are amazing leaders. They know how to create and run an event, how to promote the topic and educate their fellow students. Once we have an empowered group of students, we support them in taking a leadership role.
We also train teachers to teach climate change and offer a climate change fellowship open to K-12 educators in Allegheny County. Because the state science curriculum standards haven’t mandated climate change to be presented as part of the official curriculum, the workshops help them gain confidence about teaching the subject.
NEXTpittsburgh: Hasn’t there been an update of those standards by the Pennsylvania State Board of Education?
Rippel: The new standards take effect July 1, 2025, replacing the standards last updated in 2002; up to now, Pennsylvania has had no state curriculum education that mentioned climate change.
NEXTpittsburgh: Science has learned a lot about climate change since 2002 that students should likely know about.
Rippel: Curriculum defines what teachers have to teach, and teachers want to teach to the curriculum the state has set. If the state is not expecting you to say anything about climate change, you’re not necessarily going to make that leap and spend classroom time talking about it. With the new standards, climate change will be part of what is taught to Pennsylvania’s K-12 students and can be integrated in all subjects.
NEXTpittsburgh: Communitopia sponsors an annual Youth Climate Summit?
Rippel: Yes, and it is youth-led and youth-organized. The students own this issue, they know what to say, how to present. They’re experts on climate change. I am tremendously excited for this year’s Summit on April 1 at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center. This is an opportunity for youth to be educated by youth and say, here’s how we want to take action.
NEXTpittsburgh: Along with Communitopia, there are numerous nonprofit groups in Pennsylvania working to educate the public and lawmakers about the effect of climate change to the state. Do you think progress is being made?
Rippel: Policy has not caught up to public perception of what’s really happening. Too many politicians are out of touch with what the public knows is happening. In Pennsylvania, there’s been a sense at the state level that we shouldn’t talk about climate change or have education about it because we are primarily an extractive industry state. That has been our economy, but that is rapidly shifting.
I see an immense positive energy coming out of Pittsburgh. I think Pittsburgh is flipping the narrative on sustainability. I think the concept of environmental justice is getting into diverse neighborhoods. It’s coming to Homewood, it’s coming to Hazelwood. I feel a lot of hope in Pittsburgh.