Sonoma County high school students organize to demand action on climate change

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The chants began jumbled, with leaders of a throng of teenage activists timidly summoning their collective voices while stopped at a crosswalk in Santa Rosa, waiting to march forward in a renewed fight to protect the Earth from potential catastrophic effects of extreme weather.

When the light flashed allowing them to proceed, their vigor grew with each step until the group carrying cardboard signs coalesced around a streamlined psalm and hit their stride.

“Hey-hey, ho-ho, climate change has got to go!”

High school students from across Sonoma County on Friday skipped classes and converged in Petaluma, Sebastopol and downtown Santa Rosa, where about 150 North Bay students and supporters held an afternoon rally in Old Courthouse Square before their march to City Hall.

They joined youth-led climate strikes held in cities across more than 100 countries, coordinated to pressure political leaders to take strong action against climate change, which experts say is increasing the frequency and severity of floods, droughts, hurricanes and wildfires. The youth movement was inspired by 16-year-old activist Greta Thunberg, who began demonstrating outside the Swedish parliament last year, and was recently nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. During a speech at the United Nations Climate Change Summit in December, Thunberg told a group of world leaders they were not doing enough to stop climate change.

The local rallies also follow back-to-back years of Northern California wildfires that were the deadliest and most costly in the state’s history, a situation experts say is exacerbated by heat-trapping gases that continue to pour into the Earth’s atmosphere. Last year, California’s Fourth Climate Change Assessment found wildfires larger than 25,000 acres could become 50 percent more frequent if greenhouse gas emissions are not curtailed.

“We need to act fast and have huge action to ensure a future for generations to come,” said organizer Eleanor Jaffe, 17, an organizer of the Sebastopol rally. “I think Sebastopol has long been a hub for environmental change and people in our community are excited and engaged about what’s happening environmentally.”

About 120 students, most from west county schools, cheered and waved handmade signs in the town’s Central Park as organizers took turns sharing messages about the importance of the day’s protests.

Among the attendees was Jonah Dijoux, a 14-year-old Analy High student who left campus early on Friday to attend the demonstration with his mom. He worried about the prevalence of climate change deniers despite an abundance of scientific studies showing the phenomenon is happening, he said.

He carried a sign reading: Climate change is real and it’s happening now.

“The more people with a sign, the bigger the impact this movement will have,” Dijoux said.

Students from as far as Lake and Marin counties, and others who attend high schools in Petaluma, Rohnert Park and Santa Rosa, gathered in Santa Rosa’s city square to spread the word about climate change detriments. Over a set of loud speakers, they strummed Janis Joplin and Joni Mitchell tunes, read original poems and recited spirited words encouraging attendees not to give up the fight and register to vote.

“Right now, we are standing on the mountains built by our ancestors,” said Lucy London, 17, a senior at Marin School of the Arts who helped organize the Santa Rosa rally. “Let us not destroy these mountains, but build them even higher. I am here to enjoy the view, and to ensure that my children may enjoy an even better one.”

Amanda Knox, 16, came to the climate strike with two fellow 10th-grade friends at Rancho Cotate High School in Rohnert Park.

“We want to make a difference, and use what we can to bring attention to it,” she said of climate change.

Students from Casa Grande High School and Live Oak Charter School gathered for the rally at Petaluma’s Regional Library at 8:30 a.m., and were joined by Rep. Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, who praised their civil disobedience in a fight for tougher climate policies — even if it meant missing school.

“I think there does come a time when there’s an issue and a cause that is so important that you have to engage in some unconventional tactics,” Huffman said. “All over the country and all over the world, young people are finding their voice on climate change.”

One driver of the youth-led rallies in the United States was garnering support for the Green New Deal, legislation introduced in the House in February by freshman U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-New York. It aims to combat climate change by eliminating all U.S. carbon emissions and transitioning to sustainable energy. President Donald Trump has claimed the proposal will cost $100 trillion and attacked the bill, citing its potential to shut down the nation’s energy sector.

Students at the Sebastopol and Santa Rosa rallies zeroed in on senior Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D- California, who has not publicly expressed support for the proposal. They crafted postcards they plan to send Feinstein, urging her to back the green legislation.

Feinstein came under fire last month when a video posted online showed her lecturing a group of schoolchildren who visited her San Francisco office, seeking her endorsement of the Green N ew Deal package of environmentally friendly policies. Sen. Ed Markey, D-Massachusetts, has introduced companion legislation in the U.S. Senate.

Feinstein’s support would add her to the long list of California Democrats who back the pact, a group with the potential to lead the nation in the fight against climate change, said Annabelle Lampson, one of coordinators of the Sebastopol demostration.

Friday’s rally there also signaled what’s to come, she said.

“The youth are coming,” Lampson, 17, said. “We are the next generation of voters and we are here to defend our futures and the futures of our children.”

Argus-Courier News Editor Yousef Baig contributed to this report. You can reach Staff Writer Nashelly Chavez at 707-521-5203 or nashelly.chavez@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @nashellytweets. You can reach Staff Writer Kevin Fixler at 707-521-5336 or kevin.fixler@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @kfixler.

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