Students, along with faculty, staff and other community members, rallied on the first-year quad on Friday to demand for stronger climate policy on campus and stand in solidarity with other climate strikes occurring across the globe. The strike, which comprised of several teach-ins throughout the morning and a main rally on the first-year quad at 12:30 p.m., drew over 100 participants.
The strike is one of several that occurred around the world over the week of Sept. 20-27 as a part of the Global Climate Strikes, an initiative inspired by 16-year-old climate activist Greta Thunberg, who skipped school every week to protest in front of the Swedish Parliament. The global strikes were scheduled throughout the week, with Sept. 20 and Sept. 27 drawing the largest turnouts. Three days ahead of the United Nations (UN) Climate Summit in New York, nearly four million people participated in climate strikes worldwide on Friday, Sept. 20, according to Vox.
In a landmark report released last November, the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warned that an average increase in global temperatures of 1.5 degrees Celsius — which the world is currently expected to match and exceed — will drastically increase the frequency and strength of natural disasters and result in rising sea levels. That same IPCC report also warned that governments only had 12 years to slash greenhouse gas emissions before the dangerous effects of climate change are irreversible.
The college has not been immune from demands for climate action. In the last decade, the college campus has seen increasing calls for the college to divest from fossil fuels in light of climate change.
The college’s Climate Action Plan (CAP) was itself crafted by a student group working with the Office of Environmental Sustainability. Last November, in advance of the Board of Trustees’ vote on the CAP, students shared personal stories of being impacted by climate change at a well-attended event titled “Student Voices from the Frontlines of Climate Change.” A few months later, the Board of Trustees passed the Climate Action Plan (CAP), promising to achieve carbon neutrality by 2030.
Leading up to Friday’s strike, organizers hosted a number of events throughout the week, ranging from invited speakers and discussion groups to chalking and an art build. Four students also traveled to Boston — funded by the Office of Student Activities — to attend the city’s climate strike on Sept. 20.
Abby Strong ’23, an organizer of the strike who served on its steering, logistics and research committees, said that the strike’s intention was to show solidarity with other communities protesting internationally. “The physical act of leaving classes, disturbing our daily lives to bring attention to the cause — that was the main goal,” she said.
She added that the strike aimed to hold the college administration accountable for the Climate Action Plan. “[The strike] is the beginning of a conversation,” she said. “The goal of the strike right now is to assert that we are here, we’re interested and we would like to learn more and express that we would like to see more changes.”
The day’s events began on the first-year quad at 10 a.m. with a short rally to mark the start of teach-in sessions. Indigenous Native Citizens Association (INCA) executive board members Alexis Scalese ’22, Nicole Vandal ’21 and Chimaway Lopez ’20 opened the rally with an acknowledgement of native land before sending participants to their respective teach-ins.
“We recognize that indigenous, black and brown youth have always been and will continue on the frontlines of protecting our earth,” Scalese told audience members. “That they, along with low-income whites, are affected the most by climate change.”
Fifteen teach-ins were held throughout the morning at various locations around campus, with most lasting for 30 minutes and repeating two or three times to allow participants to attend multiple sessions. Students, faculty, staff and organizers from around the Pioneer Valley led sessions on topics ranging from environmental racism and political involvement to the scientific reasoning behind climate change.
Ella Peterson ’22, who was on the outreach committee organizing the strike, said that the group intended to partner with organizations both on and off campus that work with communities most impacted by climate change and actively on the frontlines of organizing climate movements.
“The history of environmentalism has this terrible reputation that it was a lot of angry white people,” Peterson said. “We wanted to make sure that we were recognizing that the effects of climate change disproportionately affect marginalized communities. So we wanted those community organizations and affinity groups to be included in the conversation.”
Peterson added that while planning 15 teach-ins was initially an ambitious idea, the college community’s resources — with professors, students and other community members willing to lead teach-ins on subjects on which they had expertise — made each one possible. “The Amherst community has a wealth of knowledge,” Peterson said.
Gabe Echarte ’22, an intern in the Office of Environmental Sustainability who helped lead a teach-in titled “What is your role in the Climate Action Plan?”, said that he hopes the teach-in raises general awareness about climate change and encouraged students to use their voice on campus.
“Amherst is a small community, so students’ voices make a difference,” Echarte said. “If students go to AAS [Association of Amherst Students] meetings, go to [President] Biddy Martin’s office hours, it will have an impact on policy and how this goes down. It’s such a doable task on our campus.”
Eunice Dadau ’21, who led a teach-in on the intersection of environmentalism and faith, said that she was inspired by the different approaches students can take to tackle climate change. “I hope people took away that you don’t need faith to address this issue of climate justice, but if you have faith, you should use the teachings and practices that come from your faith tradition and advocate for climate justice,” she said.
Shortly after the end of the teach-in sessions, strikers recongregated on the First-Year Quad for the main rally. Many were holding signs — one read, “Hey Amherst, there is no third century without a promise on climate,” referencing the college’s “Third Century Promise Campaign” for its upcoming bicentennial anniversary. Another declared that “denial is not a policy.”
After a brief introduction, Massachusetts State Rep. Mindy Domb took the stage to address strikers. Domb, who represents the third Hampshire district that includes Amherst, has worked on climate bills in the state legislature, and co-sponsored bill H.2810, which plans to impose a fee on fossil fuel sales and return the fees collected to moderate- and low-income and rural residents in the form of rebates. Domb is also a co-filer on a bill that requires pension funds to divest from fossil fuel companies.
Domb began by saying how “proud” she was to be able to speak to an audience on a college campus. “College campuses have been on the forefront of divestment movements, whether it’s been to divest from South Africa when I was a student, private prisons a couple of years ago and now fossil fuel companies,” Domb said. The college currently maintains holdings in fossil fuels.
Domb then turned to ways students can engage with climate policy from their respective states. “For those of you who come from another state, I am going to urge you to think about registering to vote from your home district, remembering to get an absentee ballot and mailing it,” she said. Mailing letters to legislators is also effective, she said, citing the Every Voice Coalition’s letter-writing to the Massachusetts legislature advocating for the enactment of campus sexual assault policy.
“It’s not enough to just talk about it on campus — we have to do something about it,” Domb said.
Two students who organized the strike ended the rally by thanking the administration and the Board of Trustees for passing the Climate Action Plan. They noted, however, that the plan “only goes so far.”
Several students who were at the strike said they attended not only to raise awareness on climate change, but also to create impact on campus policy. “I knew this was about an immediate impact on this campus,” Sam Hodges ’23 said.
“All of this serves as a reminder to the administration that students still do care about the environment, that we are not easily placated and that we still are going to be talking about it,” Peterson added.
Corey Jacobson ’22 said he was striking to call on governments to act on climate change, but added that he was ultimately able to attend because his “professors were nice enough in supporting us and allowing us to come here. They didn’t penalize us for missing class.”
Not all professors canceled classes during the strike. David Hansen, professor of biochemistry and biophysics and chemistry, did not cancel class during the strike, but “we had made it clear the previous Wednesday that students could miss class to attend the Climate Strike,” he said in an email interview.
Hansen added that lectures for his classes were also recorded throughout the semester, ensuring that students do not miss material if absent.
Strong hopes that the strike’s efforts encourage students to continue advocating for climate action. “When groups of people get together, small things can turn into bigger things. We want to show that even though you are only one person, if you can combine your efforts and your interests with several more people … you can cause a movement,” Strong said.