Chanting, shouting and passionate calls to action could be heard on Franklin Street Friday morning from the rally of people outside of the Chapel Hill Courthouse at the Peace and Justice Plaza.
Students and activists gathered for the Chapel Hill Climate Strike at 9 a.m. on Sept. 20, walking out of class or work to demand action against global climate change.
Students appeared not only from UNC, but also from Duke University, and various Chapel Hill and Carrboro high schools. Professors, teachers and other community members were also present.
The event was supported by organizations such as the Center for Biological Diversity, Sunrise Movement and Carolina Young Democratic Socialists of America.
The goal of the strike was to showcase citizens’ intent in pushing for local environmental justice to contribute to greater global change, such as the implementation of the Green New Deal in Chapel Hill and putting an end to the use of the local coal-fired power plant.
UNC remains the only institution of higher learning in North Carolina still operating a coal-fired power plant, according to the Center for Biological Diversity.
In 2010, former UNC Chancellor Holden Thorp pledged to the community that the plant would be shut down by 2020. But despite these promises, UNC recently renewed the permits.
The University’s decision to continue operating the plant has led to health concerns in communities of color and UNC’s South Campus, according to the event’s Facebook page. The organizations also cited concerns over the plant's production of high levels of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide.
Equipped with artistic posters and banners, participants lined the sidewalks to cheer and listen to speeches from activists.
“Public health researchers have concluded that addressing climate change will be the greatest public health opportunity of the 21st century,” Jason West, a professor in the UNC Department of Environmental Sciences and Engineering, said in a speech. “Every generation faces some great crisis, and climate change is our crisis.”
To symbolize the push for change against this issue, the Chapel Hill strike merged with the Triangle Climate Strike at 9:30 a.m., in which many participants biked 33 miles to the Halifax Mall in Raleigh. Participants also utilized the public bus system from Chapel Hill to Raleigh as a way to show support for zero-and-low emission transit options.
Specific bike and bus route information was provided in the event’s Facebook page as a way to collectively honor this cause.
For those who were unable to travel the entire way to Raleigh, a group of people continued on a 1.5-mile bike ride around UNC’s campus to promote meeting requirements for the Paris Agreement.
UNC sophomore Eleanor Murray said she thinks protests are an art form and a means of necessary expression from the public, despite what she described as an existing false narrative that protests are ineffective.
“We are trying to grab the attention of the media and the community at large,” Murray said. “We’re helping to spread the message and create a cause for people to latch on to and spark discussion about this issue.”
Rachel Maunus, the hub coordinator of the Sunrise Movement for the Triangle area, said bikers — and participants in general — are symbolically showing their dedication to the cause and fighting for the shift to greener transportation. Solidarity is necessary in order to make a difference, she said.
“This cause is for the sake of everyone’s future, and it needs everyone on board,” Maunus said.
During his speech, West emphasized that this crisis is not just a catastrophe for the planet, but also a pervasive issue for society and the future of humanity — our livelihoods, our economy, our security and our health, he said.
“We can no longer afford to sweep this issue under the rug,” Jovita Lee, a North Carolina State Campaign Organizer for the Center of Biological Diversity, said in a speech. “We cannot allow this campus to still burn coal and change has to start right now.”
Caitlin Flanagan, a climate activist and senior at Chapel Hill High School, said she thinks many people have the mindset that their individual action cannot make a large enough difference: some even thinking that this issue is a grievance to have rather than an obligation to fix. On the contrary, she said individual action is an absolute necessity.
“People around me were willing to revise the choices that they make after they recognized the importance of their own decisions,” Flanagan said. “Failing to be part of the solution makes you part of the problem.”
Once people start to act, she said, hope is everywhere.
West suggested some small ways individuals can begin to make a difference.
“Change your lightbulbs, buy energy-efficient appliances, bike, walk and use public transportation,” West said. “Learn about how you use energy and where it comes from but most importantly, talk about climate change.”
And if not?
“Lead, follow or get out of the way,” Flanagan said.
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