LMU Climate Refugee Initiative Awarded Competitive Millennium Fellowship

The effects of climate change are sometimes construed as an ominous future threat. In reality, however, the symptoms of climate change are already creating disturbing shifts, leading to new challenges as we become increasingly impacted by the realities and dangers of a warmer world. Climate-induced migration is already happening, and it will only get worse. But in the face of such a disheartening reality, there are students who see an opportunity to help others.

William Lighthart ‘21, a senior international relations and history double major, is drawn to the issue of climate-induced migration, which he views as lying “at the nexus of human rights and climate change.” Lighthart sees a problem with how we communicate climate change under the pretense that most of the consequences, like rising water levels and climate-catalyzed food insecurity, are not problems for our immediate future.  He notes that ineffective framing leads to complacency, and preventing “the urgency to innovate from gripping the minds of our greatest changemakers.” Through the LMU Climate Refugee Initiative, Lighthart is doing his part to reframe the conversation while increasing awareness and action.

Lighthart, the founder and campus representative of the LMU Climate Refugee Initiative, established it in December 2019 with the mission of raising awareness of how climate change displaces people, and advocating for those who are displaced. Fellow LMU students Kelsie Constable, Maya Wazana, Lucy Brandstrader, Cameo Brown, Jessica Laar, Reilly Grzywacz, Raymond CangKimVo, and Isabella Lucero, serve alongside Lighthart. Together, these students are laying the groundwork for collective impact. In the short term, the cohort’s top priority is fundraising and working to provide immediate relief and support to those who are currently displaced by climate change. The major goal, however, is a public awareness and education campaign. “Though education may seem like a one-dimensional approach to long-term solutions, our cohort firmly contends that education and awareness are the impetuses for advocacy,” says Lighthart.

From 1,458 campuses spread across 135 nations, 15,159 students applied in May to the Millennium Fellowship. Only 80 campuses were selected to receive the fellowship, one of which is LMU and its Climate Refugee Initiative. The Millennium Fellowship was set up by the United Nations Academic Impact and Millennium Campus Network in order to “convene, challenge, and celebrate bold student leadership advancing the [United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals] on campus and in communities.” After being made aware of the Fellowship by Cassidy Alvarado, the director of the Office of National and International Fellowships, Lighthart decided to apply because he found that the Fellowship’s ideological mission and development components align with the mission and goals of the LMU Climate Refugee Initiative. He sees the cohort as particularly aligned with the UN’s 13th sustainable development goal, which “demands that humanity acts collectively and swiftly to stop climate change and address its consequences.”

The Millennium Fellowship is a leadership and changemaker accelerator. “Through the fellowship’s leadership development curriculum, we will gain and refine tools that will not only enhance our teach-ins, demonstrations, and fundraising campaigns, but we will also learn skills that will allow us to better interact with and incorporate our administration, campus, and greater community into our fellowship project and beyond,” says Lighthart.

There are many urgent challenges facing our world, and it would be easy to throw in the towel and despair, or punt these daunting problems down the line. But Lighthart and his fellow cohort of students are confronting the climate refugee crisis head-on, moving a complex human and environmental issue from awareness to action, and ultimately meaningful change. After graduation, Lighthart hopes to continue his work as a champion of global climate change mitigation.  “I hope to work with policy in some capacity in order to reaffirm and strengthen the world’s commitment to stopping climate change and protecting the most vulnerable from its immediate and lasting effects,” he says.