Austin Students Demand City And State Take Action On Climate Change

Sep 20, 2019

Austin students rallied at the state Capitol today to raise awareness of the climate crisis as part of an international youth climate strike. Organizers said they expect millions of people to take part in rallies around the world, ahead of the United Nations Climate Action Summit in December.

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the world needs to dramatically reduce carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels by 2030 to avoid the worst impacts of global warming.

But many of the Austin students' demands are city- and state-focused: Their list includes Austin divesting from the fossil fuel industry, the closure of the Fayette coal plant and a 100% renewable energy grid in Texas by 2050.

Austin High School students Olivia Hoffman and Emma Galbraith helped organize events here. They spoke with All Things Considered host Nathan Bernier on Thursday about what they're hoping to achieve.

This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

KUT: Do you remember the moment when you became really passionate about climate change?

Olivia: It was actually when I was 5 years old and I was watching WALL-E, but fast forward later and climate change has really entered the arena of public discussion. I have always been more nihilistic toward climate change like, "Oh, it's, you know, something we can't fix." But then I realized, hey – I really can't afford to have that outlook. And then of course Emma contacted me because we both knew each other from previous activist work, and it all just kind of spiraled from there.

KUT: Well, Emma, let me ask you the same question: When did you become passionate about a specific issue?

Emma: It was actually also, I think, when I was around 5 years old, but I don't know if it was really sparked by any one thing because it's pretty much been in my head for as long as I can remember. I was always passionate about it, but I was at this point when I was younger where I was constantly being told that the only way I would be useful in the movement was if I finished school first and then got a job that had a lot of power in that field and then I could really quote unquote make some change.

That sort of outlook threw me into this depression for a few years about how I couldn't do anything to solve it. And then when I realized that I actually wasn't alone as a young person who cared about the climate crisis and that there were literally millions of young people across the globe who felt the same way, I did that entry into that community. I got involved in really exercising my power and becoming an organizer for climate action like this.

KUT: Is there anything specific that you would like to see done?

Emma: We actually have a series of demands for this strike that was basically harvested from the community that will be represented by the event. Among them include that the City of Austin must divest all monies from the fossil fuel industry by 2030. The Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA) and Austin Energy must close Fayette coal plant as soon as possible; that is a big issue for a lot of organizations in Austin are fighting for right now.

We want the State of Texas to declare a climate emergency plan with real teeth, and essentially we want the people representing us and government to do their jobs and fight for a future that we can live in.

We also want – along the lines of Fayette coal plant – we also want the City of Austin to close Austin Energy's coal and natural gas plants by 2025 and provide workers in those plants with a just transition to jobs in renewable energy. And we want the State of Texas to give Texans a 100 percent renewable energy power grid by 2050.

We realize that these could be viewed as very radical and bold demands, but it is what we need and we have the potential to get it done. So you know we're not afraid to come out and say what we need.

Michelle Van Doorn (second from left) and Emma Galbraith (third from right) join other student leaders in a news conference at the Capitol before the climate rally on Friday.
Credit Julia Reihs / KUT

KUT: To an earlier point of yours, Emma: What would you say to people who are concerned about climate change, but don't think that kids should be skipping class to make a point?

Emma: That reminds me of this interaction I had with someone in my school's administration when I contacted them about putting up posters in our hallways. The response I got was essentially that we couldn't put up posters, because the strike would be a disruption to the learning environment. And that phrase never fails to be funny to me when I think about it, because another disruption to the learning environment that I can think of as the climate crisis, you know?

And so it's pretty clear that this issue goes beyond being in school. We can stay in school and we can be where we are told that we need to be, but the reality is that the climate crisis isn't going to wait until we graduate. It's already here. And any student who is willing and able to come out on Friday for the climate strike, they have the encouragement of millions of students all over the world. One unexcused absence is going to be vastly outweighed by the impact that we hope that this strike will have.

Olivia: And, of course, for the people who benefit from you know the causation of the climate crisis, there's never going to be a perfect time, a time they will condone for people to protest. It's now or never. And I think that most people our age know that. If there's any good learning environment it's probably the one where you exercise your free speech. Gonna be real.