Sonoma County students skip school to join global climate strike, rallies

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About 2,000 people — including a large contingent of students skipping classes — turned out Friday at Old Courthouse Square in Santa Rosa, as part of global youth-led environmental strikes to demand action to help contend with climate change.

They were joined in other area rallies that took place in Sebastopol, Sonoma and Petaluma, as well across the world from Manhattan to Melbourne. Many were inspired by 16-year-old Swedish environmental activist Greta Thunberg, who began her own protest a year ago outside her country’s parliament to urge the elimination of carbon-based emissions. This week she’s brought her crusade to America, visiting the U.S. Capitol in Washington to speak to Congress and meeting privately with former President Barack Obama.

“I feel very passionately about this, considering I feel like this is being ignored by a lot of the older generation,” said Joy Ayodele, a first-year student at Santa Rosa Junior College, where many gathered and then marched down Mendocino Avenue to the downtown square shouting “keep that carbon in the soil, no more coal, no more oil.”

The march, however, did have many older participants representing baby boomers and their children from Generation X. However, all the main speakers on stage at the one-hour rally on the square were young people.

The local and global protests were held before the Climate Action Summit at the United Nations on Monday, where countries will be urged to do more to curb greenhouse gases under the 2015 Paris climate agreement.

Although there have been past local environmental marches and rallies here, including the now ubiquitous Earth Day events every April, veterans of the environmental movement said they were encouraged that the mobilization among young people has reached a tipping point that can translate into actual policy changes on climate.

“I think it’s making a difference right now as a number of elements are coming into place for climate action. Part of it’s science and the impact on the day-to-day lives,” said U.S. Rep. Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, an environmental lawyer before entering politics, in a phone interview from Washington, D.C.

In addition, efforts that have been done at the state level also have been notable, said Ellie M. Cohen, chief executive of The Climate Center, a Santa Rosa nonprofit. The passage of a California law that allowed for alternative green energy providers, such as Sonoma Clean Power, was a major breakthrough, Cohen said. The mobilization of young people also will be critical for the state to meet its ambitious 2030 goal to have a 40% reduction in carbon emissions from the state’s 1990 level.

“The youth-led climate initiative is powerful,” Cohen said.

Despite the global challenge, young people at the Santa Rosa rally said they were thinking local about their own actions within their neighborhoods to help clean up the environment. For example, Ayodele said she and her friends are starting an Instagram account to highlight areas in Sonoma County where they will clean up parks and creeks polluted with trash and encourage others to help.

“We hope it will be really productive at least within our own peers and our own social group,” she said.

One speaker, Giselle Hernandez, spoke of the action she took at Roseland University Prep, where she convinced school officials to place chilled water dispensers on the campus to reduce the number of plastic water bottles students bring from home. She also helped come up with a fundraising plan so that students can buy their own permanent water bottle with the school logo on it.

“They’re drinking a lot more water now,” said Hernandez, 17.

She now wants to replace plastic utensils from the school cafeteria with compostable products. “I really love marine life. And I have seen how we — humans — are disrespecting them with our single-use plastic materials. I want to make a change,” she said.

In Petaluma, the march was led by mostly elementary and junior high school students from almost a dozen different campuses across southern Sonoma County and ended with a rally at Walnut Park.

Francesca Kaszuba, 12, of Rohnert Park, said making a difference on protecting the climate requires everyone to make fundamental lifestyle changes, whether that’s riding the bus more or dusting off the bicycle that’s sitting idle in the garage.

“Right now, with climate change, we’re walking down a path of destruction. Destruction that will be permanent in 10 years,” said Kaszuba, a seventh grader at Live Oak Charter School. “That means it’s crucial that we’re diligent to find different ways to feed ourselves and transport ourselves.”

In front of Sonoma City Hall, nearly 100 people gathered to wave signs, give brief speeches and elicit honking horns from passing vehicles.

Longtime Sonoma political activist Mike Smith, carrying his signature American flag, urged the students to make their voices heard. “We’re old! We’re tired! We need the young voices!” he said.

Rowan, a student from Woodland Star Charter School who did not provide his last name, responded.

“I feel like the climate is in a very bad place right now, and the kids like us need to learn how to fix that,” he said. “We will make the earth better.”

Yousef Baig of the Petlauma Argus-Courier and Christian Kallen of the Sonoma Index-Tribune contributed to this report. You can reach Staff Writer Bill Swindell at 707-521-5223 or bill.swindell@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @BillSwindell.

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