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Thousands of Minnesota students strike to save the planet

These students refuse to prepare for a future they're not sure is coming.

These students refuse to prepare for a future they're not sure is coming. Hannah Jones

Hundreds of thousands of students from 123 countries and 200 cities – including, in Minnesota, Rochester, Duluth, and St. Paul – refused to show up at school on Friday.

Instead, they crowded government buildings – on the steps of the Capitol, in St. Paul’s case – and protested their national government’s failure to do much of anything to stop the onslaught of climate change.

The day was crisp, but sunny. A few young organizers fiddled with a sound system as it blasted out “Pompeii” by Bastille – named for a doomed city buried in volcanic ash. A security guard barked at some to get off a stone outcropping on the stairs. Meanwhile, dozens more meandered down the path to join the crowds, arriving in a steady stream long after the first speaker took the mic.

It was tough to navigate the steps of the Capitol on Friday morning.

It was tough to navigate the steps of the Capitol on Friday morning. Hannah Jones

This, as far as they were concerned, was their way of going on strike. They were not going to spend time preparing for a future that, if nothing changes, looks tenuous at best.

Josh Vogt, a St. Paul senior, summed it up with some concrete numbers. The world has 11 years to slow the rate of climate change. According to a report released by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, if the planet continues to warm past that point, it significantly increases the chances of “catastrophic droughts, extreme heat, and poverty for hundreds of millions of people.”

Vogt knows he will still be alive in 11 years – a time he calls “the point of no return.”

“There’s not enough being done for our environment right now,” he says. “Steps need to be taken.”

Grace Boutouli and Lia Lemieux are classmates from Eagan.

Grace Boutouli and Lia Lemieux are classmates from Eagan. Hannah Jones

The strudents want their legislators to support “executive motions for renewable energy” and to “further enact legislation to combat climate change” on state and local levels. They also want leaders to adopt the Green New Deal, which proposes an equitable transition to renewable energy without leaving workers and communities behind.

The third and final point: They want to declare a national emergency. Not to fund a wall between the United States and Mexico, but to save their lives as they know them.

There have been some small victories for these student activists. Amid constant pressure from youth groups like MN Can’t Wait, Governor Tim Walz has declared a new goal for the state: a carbon-free energy sector by 2050.

But Minnesota is just one state of 50, in one country of many, and these students know 2050 is going to be too late. They're seeing nightmares when they think of their futures. Duke Iverson, another St. Paul junior, can see the east and west coasts completely underwater in the next 20 years – all that culture gone, all those people’s lives ruined.

Katie Nowak from Eden Prairie thinks about how soon those fossil fuels will dry up, and whether they will have an alternative. She holds a sign with two cartoon brontosauruses. The caption reads, “They didn’t see it coming, either.”

The crowds only promised to get bigger as the event got underway.

The crowds only promised to get bigger as the event got underway. Hannah Jones

Grace Boutouli of Eagan says she’s afraid of apathy. She knows how easy it is to ignore what’s happening beyond your school and your screen. She knows how seductively easy it is to become too comfortable to avoid impending disaster.

“The Earth is dying,” Boutouli’s classmate, Lia Lemieux, says matter-of-factly. “We need to save it.”

Meanwhile, the interior of the Capitol was incredibly quiet, save for the faint echo of cheers and applause. The students’ demands will can only save them if someone hears them – if someone listens. They hold out hope someone will.