Sixteen-year-old Swedish activist Greta Thunberg took her weekly climate strike to Iowa City Friday, and was welcomed by local elected officials and several thousand supporters.
The teenage organizer, and Iowa City’s own Climate Strikers, have come a long way.
Since starting her one-person strikes outside the Swedish Parliament in August of 2018, Thunberg has gained international attention, has personally rebuked world leaders and has helped spur millions of young people around the world to walk out of their own schools to draw attention to climate change.
For the Iowa City Climate Strikers, the group that started as a few friends walking out of South East Junior High to hold sit-ins in the school district office, has grown to an effort that has changed local policy, and attracted the attention of someone who has become one of today’s leading voices on climate.
Friday afternoon, several thousand supporters of all ages filled an intersection in downtown Iowa City, carrying signs, flags and banners and chanting slogans.
Organizers for presidential candidates worked the crowd, clipboards in hand, eager to interact with Iowans who may be motivated to caucus this February because of their views on climate change.
Many parents brought along their young children, perched on shoulders or nestled in to strollers, some waving their own handmade signs decorated with the characteristic scrawl of children still learning their letters.
A group of preschoolers and their teachers from the Preucil Preschool waded through the crowds chanting, “We love Earth! We love Earth!”
Greta Thunberg’s youth is part of what inspired so many in the crowd on Friday, whether they themselves were young or old. The sixteen year old has become something of a “rock star” to her supporters, so there wasn’t much grumbling when an announcement came over the loudspeakers: they’d have to wait a few more minutes for her to arrive. Thunberg had to re-charge her electric car before she could finish the drive to Iowa City.
When she did arrive, she stood on a stage next to Iowa City students and local elected officials while the crowd chanted her name.
“Wow!” Thunberg said as she took the mic and looked out over the crowd. “It’s just so many people! I don’t think any one of us expected this many people!”
Thunberg told the crowd they gave her hope.
“This is the real hope,” she said. “So many people gathering here on a weekday, with such a short notice…this is real hope to me.”
Iowa City Mayor Throgmorton took to the stage Friday, saying he was “extremely proud” to formally welcome Thunberg to Iowa. He also encouraged the crowd to keep on fighting, saying the United States has a “moral imperative” to take aggressive action to drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions to lessen the effects of climate change.
“Climate change can seem daunting in scale and complexity. In light of that one might ask, why should I do anything if my neighbor doesn’t act also?” Throgmorton asked. “We need to flip that line of questioning around. If we don’t act, who will?”
Throgmorton acknowledged the “little bit of pressure” applied by the Iowa City Climate Strikers that spurred the city council to adopt even more aggressive goals for greenhouse gas emissions reductions. The city’s new Climate Action Plan is now in line with the recommendations set out by the United Nations’ International Panel on Climate Change, which calls for a 45 percent cut in GHG emissions by 2030 and net zero GHG emissions by 2050.
Massimo Biggers, now a student at Iowa City High, who started the local student movement said in a Twitter message sent in between classes this week that the group has looked up to Thunberg from the get-go.
“Greta inspired us from the start,” Biggers wrote, saying the group and Thunberg interacted on social media. “I think our focus on local initiatives are kinda unique in the country. A lot of strikers are general in their actions. We focused locally […] I think Greta and folks have been taking note.”
From the stage Friday, Biggers said that even when it was just him and a couple of friends, they knew they weren’t alone.
“I knew we were never alone. Greta Thunberg was striking with us, no matter what, no matter where,” he said.
On Friday, Biggers and other student organizers stood next to Thunberg, just two weeks after she had admonished world leaders from a stage at the United Nations Climate Action Summit, in a speech that has since been viewed millions of times online.
“We teenagers and children shouldn’t have to take the responsibility, but right now the world leaders keep acting like children and somebody needs to be the adult in the room,” Thunberg said Friday, as the crowd cheered. “The world is waking up, and we are the change! And change is coming whether they like it or not!”
Thunberg’s visit is a boost to the group’s latest push: to convince the University of Iowa to sign on to a “town-gown climate accord” and commit to 100 percent renewable energy by 2030, and to end the burning of coal at the UI’s power plant “immediately."
City High students Esti Brady and Alex Howe led the crowd of thousands in calling directly on UI President Bruce Herrald to act.
“The University of Iowa should be a beacon of light for our community, instead, the university’s sustainability goals were written in 2008. That’s over a decade ago and we have a climate emergency on our hands,” Brady said.
“President Herrald, no more excuses!” the crowd chanted with her.
Asked for a comment on the rally and the students’ requests, a university spokeswoman said simply, “The University of Iowa has pledged to be coal-free by 2025.”
Burning coal is one of the most greenhouse gas-intensive ways to power homes and buildings. Simply ditching the practice isn’t enough for those who want to see aggressive action; their ultimate goal is for the university and ultimately the state to transition entirely to renewable energy, and rapidly.
City High student Shoshie Hemley says simply being aware of climate change isn’t enough: sacrifices must be made.
“Solving climate change will take an entire societal upheaval,” Hemley said. “Governments and corporations need to change. They must change.”
Hemley’s vision of the future is nothing short of transformational. That’s what’s necessary she says, to lessen the chances of more natural disasters that have devastated her mother’s home country of the Philippines, and flooded communities across the Midwest.
“We must all be ready to put in time, energy, resources and money into changing the way our society functions,” she said. “Let’s make these sacrifices now to prevent the devastating sacrifices we will have to make in the future.”
That’s a message that Thunberg echoed as well: even if elected officials don’t take the steps they see as necessary, Thunberg urged the crowd to never give up.
“We must always carry on and we can never allow ourselves to give up,” she said. “That is simply not an option.”