The Great #ClimateWalkout - Reflections

The Youth Climate Movement is the great hope of our time, a gathering of millions of young people around the globe to urge governments to get moving on countering the growing climate emergency. The 2019 #ClimateWalkout was held September 20th, last Friday. Turnouts ranged from awesome in Europe to impressive in New York City and San Francisco to numerous but small events in San Diego County (25 events in all in the county, mostly in high schools).

I went to the University of San Diego (USD), a Jesuit institution with 8,000 students. Maybe 200 people showed up, a few faculty and a handful of seasoned (senior) citizens, one older woman sat in the shade wearing a #Resist T-shirt.

Perhaps because of the nature of the school, the students were far from strident; organizers asked them to sign a petition to the university president to get the USD to comply with its own sustainability plan, released in 2016. I expected much more rhetoric - in that respect, I suspect that the organizers toned down the verbiage to match the setting.

When massive responses are required at all levels of society, just meeting the modest goals of a campus sustainability plan isn’t going to cut it. What’s needed is dynamic leadership across all sectors of society. As large and (for the most part) financially healthy institutions, universities should be the leaders.

This event struck me as a far cry from the “On Strike! Shut it Down!” demonstrations and campus occupations of my own college days in the 1960s, when the Vietnam War caused so much student outrage and the civil rights movement engendered so much hope. Did anyone occupy the president’s office at Cornell (or any major university) last week as students did in 1969? If so, I didn’t read about it.

Organizers of the Climate Walkout rally at the University of San Diego

Organizers of the Climate Walkout rally at the University of San Diego

What’s next? The UN conference this week, then? Do we wait 16 months for the next Presidential inauguration, with a new President more favorable to action on the climate emergency, then many months more before new legislation makes its laborious way through our Congress?

Even though #FridaysfortheFuture will continue in various places and the organizers of the Climate Walkout have more events planned, It’s hard to sustain outrage for that long.

Listening to the speeches, I couldn’t help but thinking about the first Earth Day in April 1970, when 2000 colleges and 10,000 schools held teach-ins about the environment and a reported 20 million people participated in some way, about 10% of the US population then.

Today’s students seem to lack a clear and immediate target (besides the Trump Administration), climate dangers are mostly in the future (flooding and forest fires excepted, but even those dangers affect relatively few people), and the policy measures are not yet on the front burner of the US Congress (e.g., a national carbon tax or dramatic increase in the gasoline tax).

The unrealistic demands to “stop using fossil fuels” are not going to be met anytime soon, so then where do we go? Can we even agree on a 2030 deadline for getting 10% or 20% of the US vehicle fleet to be electric? And HOW do we assure that result - looks to me like it will take massive subsidies or heavy-duty carbon taxes.

The loudest sounds were chanting but that was held to the end of the rally, almost as an afterthought. Perhaps social media dampens emotions, even while it enhances turnouts.

There’s only so much outrage you can muster about events that are distant in both time and space, unlike say air pollution, which was literally choking us as students in Los Angeles in the 1960s, where every other day (180 days/year) brought Stage 1 alerts (unhealthful air) and my lungs would ache for hours after a basketball workout. The macabre joke at the time: “I wouldn’t want to breathe any air I couldn’t see.”

Just saying - this time is different. I hope the climate crisis movement can figure out how to generate a little more energy. I WANT it to succeed and to make major changes by 2025, but right now I feel there’s a lot of diffuse energy, but not much focus. And there’s a lot of passive resistance from anyone who would be inconvenienced by a change in priorities, which is most of us, in some way or another.

That scenario is playing out right now where I live in San Diego, in a pitched battle between using tax funds for major freeway improvements (as promised by the promoters of the last transportation tax issue) and instead using it for significant upgrades to mass transit. These types of battles are critical to climate change, since transportation carbon emissions now surpass those from electric power generation in most areas.