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Students participate in Global Climate Strike for Green New Deal: ‘If Ann Arbor can do it, why not South Bend?’

| Monday, December 9, 2019

Around 50 students at Notre Dame headed to Howard Park in South Bend to participate in a climate strike Friday. The freezing wind did not extinguish the enthusiasm, and they waved banners and streamers that said, “This is an emergency” and “Pete & Council: South Bend Needs A Green New Deal.”

“We’ve already felt consequences,” Garrett Blad, the National Press Coordinator of the Sunrise Movement, said. “There has been increasing floods and storms here in South Bend. If we don’t start to [treat] it as an emergency, everything would crumble within our lifetimes.”

Blad, who graduated from Notre Dame in 2015, said the movement gives ordinary people the chance to exercise their power.

“Right now we have the biggest opportunity that we’ve ever had to remake the economy and society, to make politicians work for us and not just the wealthy people,” he said.

Zixu Wang | The Observer
Members of the Sunrise Movement, a youth climate change initiative, call for more ambitious climate policy in South Bend.

After the protest in Howard Park, protesters marched to the County-City Building and went to Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s office to hand over petitions requesting the government to accept the Green New Deal. The Green New Deal would require the city to achieve zero carbon emissions in 2030.

Many of the protesters belonged to an environmental movement called the Sunrise Movement. Founded in 2017 and led by youth nationwide, the Sunrise Movement advocates for government action on the climate crisis including adopting the Green New Deal, which contains net-zero carbon emission, investing in infrastructure and creating jobs. The movement boasts over 300 community-led hubs, including one in South Bend.

South Bend launched a Climate Action Plan in November, which aims to have the city emitting no carbon by 2050 — however, activists said this was not enough.

“It doesn’t follow the requirement of the UN report,” Blad said. “It doesn’t follow what scientists say.”

In an email, Mark Bode, spokesperson for the mayor’s office, said Buttigieg has been been a leader in the climate change crisis for the community.

“The City’s Climate Action Plan, which is supported by the Common Council, sets aggressive goals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in South Bend,” Bode said. “The plan will be a living document responsive to changing circumstances, but includes near-term benchmarks to drive early action by local stakeholders.”

However, becoming carbon neutral in 2030 is not unpractical, Blad said.


“If Not Us, Who? If Not Now, When?”

Some activists linked personal experiences to their decision to protest in the climate strike.

“The climate change has not left my life untouched,”  Duncan Donahue, a sophomore and Notre Dame trainings leader of Sunrise Movement South Bend, said. “I went a church trip when I was a kid. One day I was woken up by my brother saying ‘Duncan, your room is underwater.’ I ran back home and saw the creek near my house was six feet higher than before because of the extreme weather that year. It burst down the door and our house was soaked in five-feet high water.”

Tianle Zhang, a freshman, talked about his childhood memory of environment pollution.

“I lived in Tianjin, China in the first three years of my life,” Zhang said. “My grandparents always coughed when walking outside. Not only them, but many people there had this problem, because they breathed in the fog caused by air pollution.” 

The activists said their personal experiences prompted concerns about environment protection.

“The sense of powerlessness when seeing your home was taken away is so frustrating,” Donahue said. “If we don’t take the action on climate change now, there will be more people losing their homes. This is an emergency and it’s time for our leader to do something now.” 

Climate action is not for one person or one nation, but the whole world, Zhang said.

“The U.S. has the debt to pay,” he said. “During the history we emitted the most air pollution on the earth. We have the duty to fight for people in other countries against this worldwide crisis.”

Zhang said that climate movements face more difficulties in China due to limited free speech and free assembly.

“Not everyone in the world has the political privilege as we do,” he said. “We should fight for people who can’t fight.” 

He said he remembers the first time he joined the Sunrise Movement in September.

“I was holding the banner and being with other young people,” Zhang said. “I was inspired that there are so many young people who [are also concerned with] this issue. I felt we can do something huge together.” 

Being with people who have common goals makes them feel empowered, Greg Campion, a senior and hub coordinator of Sunrise Movement South Bend, said.

“As a young student, I used to feel powerless that there is nothing I can do about the climate crisis, and when I’m 30 or 40, it’s already too late for everything,” Campion said. “But being a part of the Sunrise, our voice can be heard and we together can push the government to make a difference.” 

Not all of the activists were students.

Anne Thacker, a retired teacher, stood in the crowd. Born in 1950s, she was influenced by the spirit of the peace movement against the Vietnam War.

“I know the importance of fighting against the government when they are doing wrong things,” she said. 

She said she has been environmentally conscious since she was 12 years old. 

“I’m sorry that my generation couldn’t stop this insane capitalism,” Thacker said. “I have 50 years in my life seeing people not listen and it’s hard for me to have hope. Honestly speaking, sometimes I just think we are not going to stop the climate crisis because some people are just so stubborn and we still need more people to vote.”    

According to the Sunrise Movement, besides becoming carbon neutral, the Green New Deal also advocates for the creation of sufficient high-wage jobs, security of clean environment and healthy food and promotion of equality and justice. 

“The Green New Deal is a systematic plan. We need to make sure that the people who are most vulnerable to climate change are getting the help that they need,” Donahue said. “People who are economically disadvantaged are going to directly feel the effects of climate change first, and some green policy like higher tax on carbon will hurt them most.”

Love Lee, a freshman whose family is half African and half Japanese, said living in a community of people of color gives her the chance to see different types of equality.

“Many of us [are] faced with problems of jobs, housing and food and these problems become more serious during climate crisis,” she said. “So Sunrise Movement is the opportunity to lift the community up and fight for a better life.”  

Lee stood on a stage during the protest, and called for unity.

“The Green New Deal concerns everyone of different colors and economic statuses,” she said. “We need to unite together to make the government listen.”

She paused.

“If not us, who? If not now, when?” she asked.

The crowd screamed back: “Now.”

“So I ask all of you to come hand in hand, using this movement for the future and for all of us,” she said and smiled.


“If Ann Arbor Can Do It, Why Not South Bend?”

“Right now Mayor Pete is not treating this like an emergency,” Blad said. “It’s unbelievable that it takes young students skipping school [to bring politicians] to understand it’s urgent and it’s necessary to pass the Green New Deal.”

South Bend’s Climate Action Plan was passed in November, and aims to reduce green house gas emission over three time horizons — reducing by 26% by 2025, reducing by 45% by 2035 and reducing by 100% by 2050.

“This plan is not adequate. It’s irresponsible and dangerous. It doesn’t follow what the scientists say,” Blad said. “When standing on the national stage, Mayor Pete himself even said that the time for carbon neutrality should be decades ago. Why did he still set the timeline on 2050 for South Bend?” 

The Sunrise Movement South Bend wants the 2030 timeline.

Cities like Ann Arbor in Michigan have already passed the plan of zero carbon emission with the time of 2030, Blad said.

“If Ann Arbor can do it, why not South Bend?” he said.

Money for investing in green energy is not impossible to find, Blad said, and pointed to Ann Arbor an example.

“If the city prioritizes environment, they can always find the money and make it [carbon neutrality] happen,” Blad said. “As a part of the climate plan, Ann Arbor passed a $1 billion bond through the school system to invest [in] sustainable energy projects. These are smart investments because not only do they stop climate change, but [they] also save the money and even make profits. For instance, in Chicago, they bought two electronic buses — and it saves hundreds of thousands of dollars each year since the pollution is decreased [in the city] and fewer people go to hospital, which saves the health cost for the government. Besides, the bus makes money, too. All of these side effects make it financially reasonable for the government to make the decision.” 

A similar thing can happen in South Bend, Blad said. 

“The University of Notre Dame is an incredible institution with $13 billion funds,” Blad said. “Why [doesn’t] the city partner with organizations we have right here and make co-investments?” 

In his statement to The Observer, Bode listed several of the mayor’s sustainability initiatives.

“Under Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s leadership, the City of South Bend has prioritized sustainability and action to address the climate change crisis,” Bode said. “From constructing the first LEED-certified South Bend city government buildings, to implementing green infrastructure in neighborhoods throughout the area, to responding to historic flooding caused by climate change, the Mayor has led from the front on climate.”

Campion said besides the late timeline, the city of South Bend doesn’t put enough resources into its climate plan.

“The city hasn’t approved any more funds for the Department of Sustainability, which currently has one single employee,” he said. “She has been doing a great job, but you can’t expect one person to lead the effort to make the city carbon neutral. It’s a massive project that the city needs to commit more resources [to], because that’s the only way.” 

Campion listed several initiatives protestors hoped to see South Bend implement.

“Based on the Green New Deal, our position is that the city should invest resources to help make buildings more energy efficient, to increase the use of public transit, to reduce vehicle emissions and to provide opportunities and incentives for industries to shift to less carbon production,” Campion said.

The Green New Deal is like an umbrella, and it applies to every sector of the economy which directly or indirectly contributes to carbon emission or is affected by the climate crisis, Donahue said.

“Take green housing construction as an example,” he said. “Housing is the place where people consume the majority of energy in their life, such as heating, electricity for appliances, lights and air conditioning. That’s why the building you live in doesn’t emit carbon but its related system contributes a lot [of] carbon. Thus, when we invest [in] green housing projects, it also involves other infrastructures like wind, solar, geothermal and other renewable energy systems.”


“When The People Rise Up, The Powers Come Down”

The Green New Deal inevitably confronts the interest of fossil companies. 

According to the Sunrise Movement, it’s active in getting politicians to sign the “No Fossil Fuel Money Pledge” to reject contributions from the oil, gas and coal industry. It also endorses candidates who take the pledge. 

“We are working to elect representatives that understand the crisis and we will fight against the fossil fuel industry,” Donahue said. 

It is the masses that can confront the power of those above, Zhang said.

“In the end, it doesn’t matter how much money you have or how high the governmental position you are,” he said. “If you don’t have the people on your side, your system will

Uniting people became more urgent after the election of President Donald Trump, Donahue said.

“When Trump was elected and pulled out of the Paris Agreement — whoa, it dashed my hopes,” Donahue said. “But at the same time, it pushed the climate movement to change.”

Donahue said the movement cannot just be an abstract slogan or a weak agreement in this new political context.

“We need to build a movement across the country that advocates restructuring of the economy in a way that works for everyone. And I think that’s what Sunrise and Green New Deal are about,” he said. “It’s about the structural change where fossil fuel billionaires don’t dominate the economy. It’s about having people representing us in the government. It’s about less compromise and patience because the emergency is approaching.”

Donahue said community is at the heart of the movement. 

“We are building a sense of community which makes people feel invited into the climate movement,” Donahue said. “Many students join the strike because they feel there is an emergency and they no longer want to be powerless. When you’re calling upon your leaders to do something, it’s a very powerful feeling.”

Donahue said that right now they are building up this political power at Notre Dame by having conversations with friends or classmates about the climate crisis, holding lectures and activities and organizing protests and strikes. 

Blad said the Sunrise Movement Hub in South Bend was just started in February and now there are about 30 active members. In the strike in September, there were around 300 people who participated.

“In the strike today, we have kids from different high schools, students from the University of Notre Dame, Saint Mary’s College, Indiana University of South Bend, working people. … We are excited to keep building,” Blad said.

Still, Blad said it has been difficult at times to bring the groups together.

“We try to bridge the cross-community, and sometimes it’s challenging. Notre Dame seems to be isolated sometimes,” Blad said. “But it also provides [an] opportunity because there are more and more Notre Dame students engaging, and I’m optimistic with the potential that Notre Dame will bring to us.”

Blad said with the 2020 election new opportunities for change will be available.

“The 2020 election is coming and the window is open,” he said. “We have a growing youth army across the country that is forcing, for the first time, our politicians to look at the climate changes in the eyes, and actually have a plan to stop it.”

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