When Rowland Hall graduate Claire Wang was in elementary school, she just wanted her classmates to recycle. She could be found stalking the hallway making sure the correct items ended up in the recycling bin. Her obsession with environmental wellbeing and climate action began soon after she discovered that her Chinese zodiac, the tiger, was endangered, and has remained a constant theme in her life. Claire’s story, from being an avid recycler as a kid, to working in government, showcases the often overlooked power of the student voice.
Claire transferred to Rowland Hall in seventh grade, quickly learning that she would break from the STEM dynasty that ran through her family (her parents are chemists, grandparents physicists).
She attributes this discovery largely to the debate team: “Doing debate and learning more about the policy realm and how influential policymaking is to essentially establish the playing field for everybody, including scientists, made me want to leverage that tool.”
Her junior year of high school, Claire combined her desire to support the climate with her newfound interest in policy making by volunteering with Utah Clean Energy, a nonprofit which aims to promote renewable energy in Utah.
While at first Claire was doing what some might call “grunt work,” simply inputting business cards into the groups system, she recognized that her dream job was possible: “I was like, wow, this is so cool. There's people who are actually doing [environmental activism] for a job. I want to do that. And so that was my moment of realization that this is possible. And so I never looked back.”
Her senior year, Claire worked for the same nonprofit, writing letters to Utah government organizations and energy regulators to urge them to embrace renewable energy policies. During this time, she increased her own student activism, writing an op-ed for the Gazette, and co-organizing a press conference at the McCarthey Campus to oppose a policy that increased solar panel fees.
Claire continued her student activism while at Duke University, helping launch a national initiative to encourage college and university campuses to convert to 100% renewable energy. Her second and third years at college, Duke and Duke Energy attempted to build a new natural gas plant on campus, the first of seven similar plants that were to be built in North and South Carolina.
Claire and her peers fought tirelessly to suspend these plans. She said, “We did not think that was consistent to build new long term fossil fuel infrastructure at a time where we needed to be transitioning to renewable. So we fought that plant for two years and ultimately succeeded in getting that plant indefinitely suspended. And then after that, the majority of the other plants that were originally planned, also got scrapped as well.”
After being named a Rhodes Scholar, Claire went on to earn a masters degree in Environmental Change and Management and a second in Contemporary Chinese Studies while at Oxford University. She then worked for a variety of non-governmental organizations (NGO’s).
Claire loved her time working for these NGO’s, specifically appreciating the range of and depth of policy ideas that the groups concont and propose, but ultimately recognized that, “so much of what you're trying to do as an NGO, is to influence the government to act, which means that A, it's easier, and also more fun, if you're actually the one doing the acting. And B, if I really want to be effective in an NGO role in the future, I need to understand how government processes work.”
Because of this, Claire began working for the federal government in her current role as Senior Policy Advisor to the U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Climate. Under John Kerry, whose job is to essentially rally the world to enhance their ambition on climate action, Claire has the unique opportunity to do what she loves and be part of an organization that has a far-reaching impact.
When asked to describe her job, Claire said, “It's a lot of sort of mundane day to day, like most of my day, mechanically, involves emails and calls and sending follow ups and writing memos. But what it results in is a really exciting and dynamic space that hopefully can reduce emissions at the speed and scale that we need.”
Claire’s early activism played an essential role in guiding her to where she is now. Her story is ultimately defined by the steps she took in high school and at college to further a cause that she deeply believed in.
Her advice to high school students: it's never too early to start. Claire said, “I think that especially for climate, but really for all social problems, young people today have such an outsized influence in driving outcomes, because people really listen. And there are so many ways to leverage that power, whether it is through organizing, like I did, or through research or advocacy in any other way, that it's really never too early.”
For those who want to make a difference on campus, but don’t know how to start, Claire said that it is important to just try new activities out. She says, “If you don't like it, then you can switch to something else and that is totally okay. There are so many different clubs, so many different issues. If you're interested in something just read more about it, see who else is interested in talking about it, talk to your teachers who might have good ideas about how to get involved, and just try it.”