Sofia Olsson and Charlotte Glass, Copy Editor and Print Editor-In-Chief
// August 20, 2018 – A fifteen-year-old girl skips her Friday classes and stands alone on the steps of the Swedish parliament building to advocate for legislative action addressing climate change.
September 20, 2019 – Over four million people across 163 different countries took to the streets with the same demand in one of the largest global protests in history.
Exactly one year and one month after Greta Thunberg’s first Fridays For Future protest, citizens gathered into the world’s major cities to participate in the Global Climate Strike. The worldwide strike took place one day before the anticipated United Nations Climate Summit in New York, which brought together world leaders and youth ambassadors to discuss climate change action.
In the Bay Area, an estimated 40,000 individuals convened at the San Francisco Federal Building outside Speaker of the House and California representative Nancy Pelosi’s office. The strike’s starting point intended to signal to politicians that the protestors, who primarily sought government action addressing climate change, viewed them as their first audience. The group then moved through the financial district of the city, seeking to place pressure on corporations that notoriously emit great quantities of carbon dioxide.
Leading the protest route and cries for climate justice, thousands of emboldened teens flooded the streets of San Francisco. Given that most of today’s youth regard climate change as the gravest of all dangers, a blend of fear and passion has molded a generation quick to speak and act in defense of the planet.
“We are striking because our future is not promised and because every single day we have to live in fear that we are going to have to die because of the unnecessary amount of CO2 in our planet’s atmosphere and because politicians and leaders aren’t taking necessary action in order to save our lives,” Youth Versus the Apocalypse (YvA) member and one of many teen organizers of the San Francisco strike Sarah Goody said.
In the months prior to the September 20 strike, YvA publicized the event through multimedia advertisements, phone calls, posters, and group meetings alongside other environmental organizations.
“Youth Versus Apocalypse is a diverse group of youth climate activists who try to lift up the voices of youth, especially those from frontline communities and other marginalized groups,” YvA youth leader Cemre Gonan said.
While Greta Thunberg recently popularized the climate movement with her Fridays for Future protests, YvA recognizes that minorities and indigenous people have historically led the battle against climate change.
“I also want to stress that indigenous people have been fighting against the climate crisis for a long time, yet the media only started covering it when white kids got involved,” Gonan said. “Indigenous communities are part of frontline communities and should be guiding us all.”
Among the 40,000 demonstrators in San Francisco, Acalanes students and teachers alike showed their support for the climate justice movement.
“It was an invitation by the youth of the world to adults to show up and I felt it was necessary to respond to that invitation,” Acalanes AP Environmental Sciences teacher Jada Paniagua said.
A teacher of environmental science for 14 years, Paniagua has watched the rise of today’s modern, youth-led climate movement. From her perspective, the movement now goes beyond the idealization of nature and the calls for conservation which have historically characterized environmentalism.
“What I’m starting to see is a fundamental change in ethical perspective and a very different understanding of humans’ place on the planet. I think that it’s become a widespread, global consciousness,” Paniagua said.
Passionate students described the protest as a nonviolent display of a powerful message.
“In my opinion, it was definitely a good strike to go to because it was really peaceful. We were yelling and chanting but at the same time it was peaceful,” senior Olivia Elliot said.
Elliot notes the absence of offensive graffiti and vandalism typical of protests. Instead, chalk drawings embellished the sidewalks alongside the protest route, highlighting the strong presence of youth in the strike.
Although the traditional protest demographic of young adults and teenagers attended, the San Francisco march differentiated itself from other protests with the presence of many elementary-aged children.
“The main demographic was a lot of young people, a lot of high schoolers, but I also saw a lot of parents who brought their younger elementary or middle school-aged kids,” senior Daphne Ganter said. “I think this shows how climate change is affecting the younger generations more and that we care more about the cause.”
Of the numerous young strikers, seventh-grader Eloise Gottesman attended the march alongside her parents.
“We don’t have a lot of time left before there is no time left. Our parents are basically sending us to school for no reason because we are studying for a melting future and if they don’t help us then we have no way of fighting back,” Gottesman said.
Worldwide, students of all ages decided a day absent from school was worth the opportunity to participate in the Global Climate Strike.
New York City’s Department of Education (DOE) even excused its 1.1 million students for the day to participate in New York City’s own Global Climate Strike.
Acalanes Principal Travis Bell found it surprising that the DOE in New York City excused its students from school for the Climate Strike. He explains that while Acalanes strives to create politically engaged students, the administration cannot act as political advocates.
“While we value free speech and the right to peacefully assemble, we know that there are consequences that happen naturally,” Bell said. “We want students to see that if they feel passionate enough about something to stand up and walk out, then they need to feel strongly enough that they’re willing to take whatever consequences that comes with that.”
English teacher Erik Honda expresses a similar attitude, pointing out that consequences are an inherent element of striking.
“I think that part of what you’re doing when you do civil disobedience is accepting the consequences,” English teacher Erik Honda said. “I don’t really care about missing a day of work or missing a day of school when it comes to saving the planet.”
Some students felt frustrated that the Acalanes Union High School District (AUHSD) did not follow the lead of New York City’s DOE.
“I think that they should have [excused student absences] because it’s students taking the initiative to go protests, it’s students who care about the environment, so I think that it deserved an excuse,” senior Samantha Swan said.
Though, not all students minded the district’s neutral stance.
“It’s fine that they didn’t [excuse students] because we live in such an educated area that to cut from school for it gives that extra weight to it,” senior Alex Haas said.
Scheduling conflicts, such as a Safe School Ambassador training session and numerous sporting events, left some students unable to participate in the movement due to the attendance requirements enforced by AUHSD.
Others, though, chose to take the risk by attending the strike and faced repercussions. As a result of failing to meet attendance requirements, Swan was disqualified from her track meet later that day.
A volleyball tournament the following day also rendered many unable to turn out to the Global Climate Strike if they wished to play.
“I wanted to go but I had to go to half of my classes because we had a tournament the next day so I wouldn’t have been eligible to play. We all talked about it during the tournament–a lot of us wanted to go,” senior and varsity volleyball player Kennedy Cornish said.
Only two of the team’s members, seniors Olivia Elliot and Kylie Wood, were able to participate due to their unique scheduling circumstances.
“Me and Kylie Wood both have only five periods so we were able to miss very little time of the march…I went for one period and then left as soon as I could,” Elliot said.
Various teachers, supporting the cause, yet wary to directly endorse student absences, chose to facilitate discussions about the strike.
“I had a conversation with some of my students about what the striking as was,” English teacher Cathy Challacombe said. “I don’t really feel that my endorsement is what they need. All I can do is say to them, ‘I think if it’s important to you, you should do it. I’m not going to stand in your way.”’
For the most part, teachers felt that the decision ultimately fell on the shoulders of students.
“It’s not my place to tell students what to do or not do outside of the rules of my classroom ever, so I didn’t encourage students to attend, but I did miss school and I was open and honest about why I did,” Paniagua said.
While not allowed to directly encourage attendance to the strike, the knowledge provided by educators, especially in natural science classes, often inspires students to take action.
“When you know more about it and you can back up your ideas it’s easier to shift to one side and to also want to debate other people about it, rather than just knowing a few facts. It’s a lot easier to become way more passionate about it,” Elliot said.
Likewise, YvA member Rowand Taylor recognizes the impact that knowledge can have on one’s world view.
“I learned about climate change when I was younger but it kinda clicked in my mind that the earth is in danger just recently because I’m now learning all about it. I’m taking biology right now and learned about the creation of the earth, which I think really relates to the end of the earth,” Taylor said.
Paniagua recalls that as a student, her introduction to environmental science involved learning about a foreseeable crisis. Now, in her own classroom, Paniagua teaches climate change as a current event.
“We learned about it as something that we would see the impacts of in the future. And now, twenty years later, this is something that’s killing Americans every year. Climate change is killing Americans,” Paniagua said.
Health professionals in white coats from the Physicians For Social Responsibility, Nurse Alliance For Health, Citizens Climate Lobby, and the University of San Francisco (USF) stood out amongst the protesters lining the streets of San Francisco.
“The health community has a huge presence today, it’s pretty diverse,” Assistant Professor at USF Anna Chodos said. “I think as a whole we all know that this is just as much an emergency for health as it is for the environment. That’s why we’re here.”
Although scientific professionals and youth alike are quick to understand the urgency of climate change, the government has been much slower to respond to the crisis.
“It shouldn’t be a political argument and we shouldn’t be arguing over facts. The fact that not a lot is being done by the people in power is absolutely ridiculous to me,” senior Jenna Grant said.
Well-versed in environmental science, Paniagua faces constant frustration regarding the debate over the scientific legitimacy of climate change.
“It fills me with rage that its been politicized and that false information is spread in order to mislead public opinion so that a small group of individuals can continue to profit at the economic costs, physical health costs, social well-being costs of billions of humans on our planet,” Paniagua said.
Younger generations express a unique sense of exasperation and extreme disappointment towards their elders.
“I think that older generations don’t have to care as much because they are going to be dead by the time that things are going to get really bad. We have to care–we don’t have a choice,” Grant said.
Similarly, Ganter believes that a lot of the anger expressed by young people at the Climate Strike is due to the fact that the generation most affected by climate change currently cannot vote. Instead, the desires of the older generations currently in office trump the will of the youth.
“We feel underrepresented and we aren’t able to have a big effect on politics yet because we can’t vote, but the Climate Strike was an outcry from the younger generation to receive more recognition in the eyes of politicians,” Ganter said.
Youth can begin to make other moves towards environmental sustainability, although the vote still holds the greatest potential for change.
“You are all about to make choices about what you study, where you live, what does your lifestyle looks like… All of these things matter, but none of this matters if our government doesn’t take action,” Paniagua said.
Change appears to be on the political horizon as a new wave of environmentally conscious voters emerges.
“A candidate’s stance on climate change and their proposed plan to combat the issue and limit emissions is going to be a huge factor in who I vote for in 2020,” Ganter said. “The 2020 election will be my first time voting just like a lot of other high schoolers that went to the strike, and politicians need to be prepared to meet the demands of the climate justice movement.”
As for now, though, the largest impact that the youth can make remains their advocacy for environmental justice.
“The number one way to change the opinions of the older generation is to have their kids talk to them about climate change,” Paniagua said. “People seeing their kids impassioned and concerned and upset is turning out to have a much bigger impact on how they vote and view the environment.”