Thirteen-year-old Ellis Giller, a seventh-grader at The Harbor School, said she is tired of waiting for adults to accept that the climate is warming. She is afraid that life on the planet may be in peril unless more people demand accountability and push for change.
That’s why she took part in the island climate strike last Friday, organized by members of Vashon Climate Action and The Backbone Campaign, to coincide with worldwide demonstrations ahead of a United Nations summit in New York City on Monday, where potential actions that would curb greenhouse gas emissions were discussed.
More than 250 islanders gathered at a staging area outside the Vashon Island Estate Sales building across from the Valley Center Park & Ride to march up the highway and into town, stopping at the Village Green to continue rallying for their cause.
“I’m here because I think people have been talking about getting something done for the past 50 years, but nobody has actually acted yet, and it’s time to act,” said Giller, the oldest daughter of islander Chip Giller, an environmental journalist who founded the Seattle-based digital publication, Grist.
“I think it’s time to try to understand what’s going on and for the grown-ups to start acting like grown-ups,” she added.
In a press release, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres said the best available science shows that without intervention, an average global temperature increase of 3 degrees celsius is likely by the end of the century unless governments and stakeholders increase their commitments under the 2016 Paris Agreement.
The summit was tasked with launching efforts to accelerate the transition to renewable energy, protect habitat and vulnerable populations from the impacts of a worsening climate and spur industries to become carbon neutral. But many of the islanders demonstrating in the strike, taking unexcused absences from class or leaving their workplaces to participate that afternoon, called for more leadership on the issues.
Seth Zuckerman, a freelance journalist who covers the environment, addressed the crowd and said there is a vast difference between the amount of carbon emitted by the average American versus citizens living in other industrialized countries. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the United States is one of the single largest carbon emitters, surpassing the European Union, India, Russia and Japan.
Zuckerman said that a willingness to collaborate and drive transformation will be key in reducing the carbon footprint generated by everyday activities.
“It’s not just an individual problem, it’s not something we can take on [just] on our own,” he said. “That’s why I’m so happy to see so many people here as well as so many people gathered in places like this all over the world today, trying to take collective action, trying to take this on as the societal challenge that it is.”
Islander Lennon Bronsema, director of the environmental group Washington Conservation Voters, said in a speech to the crowd that it is past time for dramatic, radical action to make a difference. He added that Washington State allows 16-year-olds to preregister to vote, encouraging young people to get involved in the electoral process as soon as possible so they may reject politicians who fail to vigorously defend the environment.
“We’ve got to keep pushing them, and not let them feel good about being better than the worst — the worst have to go, but the better have to get better,” he said.
In the Village Green, where the island strike culminated, more students gave remarks about their hope for a future spent living on a healthy planet. Some hoisted banners and signs, including for the Green New Deal, the congressional legislation for broad environmental reforms spearheaded by activists late last year.
Islander David Van Holde held a large flag with a picture of the earth on it.
“This is the only home we got, so there we go. We have to change to save her ourselves,” he said.
Standing nearby, Jim Hauser said that he remembers when “The Blue Marble,” a complete image of the earth, was publicized after the Apollo 17 mission in 1972.
“That was a revelation of consciousness. All of a sudden, [I think] that’s what we have. Wow,” he said, acknowledging the flag. “So I think that’s a relevant picture.”
Islander Suzanne Greenberg, who belongs to the leadership team of Vashon Climate Action, was involved with planning the strike for six weeks, preparing banners and creating a game plan for the march that was set to take place to the center of town. But she said the group did not have a permit to organize or block traffic on the highway. She credited the King County Sheriff’s Office for respecting the intentions of the event and being on-hand to make sure things went smoothly, as well as Bill Moyer, executive director of the Backbone Campaign, for helping to coordinate the march.
“Considering how 11th hour that part of it was, it was amazing that it all came through,” she said. “You can never tell how many people there are bunched up in the beginning, and then seeing them stretched out down the highway. … It was just really thrilling to see them all.”
Participation of Vashon High School students in the island strike was low, said Greenberg — many of them opted to travel to Seattle to join the planned march from Cal Anderson Park to City Hall — but a large number of students from the Harbor School and McMurray Middle School, including off-islanders, took part.
“In the end, we had a whole bunch of young people. That’s what the focus was. Really inspiring young folks,” she said.
Slade McSheehy, superintendent of the Vashon Island School District, wrote in a message to parents sent last Wednesday that the district encouraged students to remain in class during the strike due to safety concerns and because the absences of students who left school to join an organized demonstration would not be excused in accordance with state law.
In a follow-up conversation, he said that the day would be treated as normal but that the district supports student activism.
“We don’t have any interest in penalizing students for missing the day,” he said. “I admire their eagerness to engage in this topic because there aren’t many topics where we see young people engaged.”
In a statement, Gov. Jay Inslee said that he hoped teachers would recognize the importance of the climate strikes, adding that he would excuse students from school to join the climate strike if he had the authority to.
“Moments like this in our environmental history will define us and will reverberate for generations. I commend the youth in our state and across the country standing up for their future,” he said.
Joe McDermott, who represents Vashon on the King County Council, told islanders who attended Monday’s town hall hosted by the Department of Local Services that the council was drafting legislation to declare a climate crisis in the county and that more information would be available soon. The county is also in the process of updating its Strategic Climate Action Plan for 2020. Public workshops will be hosted throughout the month of October to provide input. More information is available online.