Over a hundred students, faculty and community members gathered near the Rotunda Friday to join the Global Climate Strike movement, in which people worldwide striked to demand that the United Nations take serious action to mitigate climate change during its Climate Action Summit Sept. 23. At noon, the participants walked to the Downtown Mall to join the hundreds who attended the concurrent Charlottesville Youth Climate Strike, organized by local seventh grader Gudrun Campbell.
The Virginia Student Environmental Coalition hosted the strike on Grounds and invited various climate and social activists within Charlottesville to speak to the crowd. Joyce Cheng, fourth-year College student and organizer of the University strike, also read aloud a list of demands directed towards the United States, the Commonwealth and the University. The goal of the strike was to shed light on those most affected by climate change, demand a divestment from fossil fuels and call for the University to commit to a 100 percent carbon neutrality plan, echoing the petition published by Wahoos for Sustainability. The event cost around $400, paying for paint and materials for signs as well as a megaphone.
In between VSEC-led chants, the series of speakers all voiced the need for the youth to take charge of the fight against climate change, the importance of voting for politicians who will advocate for the environment and the fact that that underprivileged populations bear the brunt of climate disaster. According to Cheng, VSEC wanted to invite speakers that would represent the perspective of communities often unheard in the global environmental discussion.
“Climate change is going to affect every single community in the world,” Cheng said. “We want to make sure … we have representation from [communities] who are going to be most affected in the future.”
Karishma Srikanth, Charlottesville Alliance for Refugees president and third-year College student, shared at the rally that those who least contribute to carbon emissions are affected by climate change the most and called for the international protection of climate refugees.
“Climate refugees by and large come from communities of color,” Srikanth said.
Caroline Campos, second-year College student and PLUMAS member, also explained to the crowd that the climate movement needs to collaborate with social justice movements and an improved immigration system.
“Fight for today and those who have been historically marginalized,” Campos said. “I call you to listen … and listen very closely.”
Anthony Malabad, fourth-year College student and the president of the Native American Student Union, was also a speaker at the University strike and told the crowd that the people who currently hold political power are not making decisions for the benefit of the planet. Erik Patton-Sharpe, fourth-year College student and U.Va. Students United member, agreed with Malabad’s statement and added that young people cannot wait for government officials to respond to climate change but rather need to be the ones to create change.
Alexis Zeigler, owner and designer of the Living Energy Farm — a farm that is completely dependent on renewable energy — along with Environmental Economics Prof. William Shobe spoke at the strike about the need for collective restructuring of institutions and infrastructure that is based on energy from cheap fossil fuels. Shobe and Zeigler told the crowd that a prioritizing renewable energy is actually quite possible and economically viable.
Shobe and Phoebe Crisman, director of the environments and sustainability track of the global studies major, also called on young people to take the lead on mitigating the climate crisis.
“Despair is not called for,” Shobe said. “We know many affordable pathways to solutions.… [Young people] are the ones who will put the nail in the coffin of the climate disaster.”
The strike at the Rotunda also featured Richard Walker as a speaker, a resident of Union Hill and founder of Bridging the Gap in Virginia — a non-profit organization dedicated to assisting people struggling to find employment and to addressing climate justice. Walker advocated for the divestment from Dominion Energy and pipeline-supporting businesses, and he recounted how his house is in the direct pathway of the currently developing Atlantic Coast Pipeline.
“[It is] time for us to stand and continue to stand,” Walker said.
According to Campbell, pipelines were also a main point for the Charlottesville Youth Climate Strike. Through Friday’s strike, Campbell and her mother, Elizabeth Stark, wanted to bring attention to Dominion’s planned and current pipelines that run through Virginia.
“We've invited people that are on the ground doing this work to try to bring this story to Charlottesville and help people understand that this pipeline is devastating,” Stark said.
Recently, Campbell traveled to a town hall meeting in Union Hill to learn more about how a compressor station might damage the wildlife and human health in that area.
“[The residents] love Virginia because of its clean air, and you can go outside, and you can roll the windows down when you're driving places,” Campbell said. “The compressor station would take all that away from them.”
The Youth Climate Strike Friday was the third climate strike seventh grader Campbell has organized this year. She is inspired by other young activists, like Nobel Peace Prize-nominee Greta Thunberg and New York City activist Alexandria Villaseñor. Campbell said in an interview with The Cavalier Daily that she is encouraged by the support she receives from the Charlottesville community and hopes to make her future strikes more accessible to young people by contacting schools and organizing transportation to and from strikes.
Sarah Bryan, fourth-year College student and financial coordinator for the on-Grounds Climate Strike, explained in an interview that VSEC has also been involved in trying to block the Atlantic Coast and Mountain Valley pipelines from being built and in encouraging the University to divest from fossil fuels, although the University “has not been very responsive.”
Cheng agrees. She believes that U.Va. Sustainability is indeed making the University more eco-friendly — especially with the recent announcement that the University is six years ahead of its carbon reduction schedule — but also thinks that it could do more if the University allocated more resources to the office and if the Board of Visitors were more dedicated to the issue of reducing the University’s carbon footprint.
“I believe that the Board of Visitors is … the organization or group of people who’s preventing U.Va. from taking greater strides in sustainability,“ Cheng said.
Cheng and Bryan hope the strike not only pushes the University to meet VSEC’s list of demands, but also shows how students are committed to the idea of sustainability. Although the organization is not planning another rally this semester, it will continue to educate its members and the community on local environmental issues and demand University divestment from fossil fuels.
“I think U.Va. has a responsibility to do more in terms of climate change and sustainability,” Cheng said. “Hopefully the administration sees how much we care and takes stronger action.”