71-year-old climate activist Gary Richards has stood on West Cameron Avenue protesting UNC’s coal plant nearly every Friday morning since last May.
Valentine’s Day was no different: Richards gathered in front of the plant with 15 to 20 other people, most holding heart and kiss-themed posters. His own poster said “I love clean air."
“People honk at me every time they go by, but we need more than honking,” he said.
Richards said we only have a few years to stop global warming, or at least decrease our carbon footprints. That’s why he wants UNC to shut down its cogeneration facility, which regularly burns coal and natural gas to power over 200 buildings for the University and UNC Hospitals.
But he also said shutting down the plant is a personal issue.
Richards lives about a block away from the coal plant, and his two granddaughters attend Frank Porter Graham Elementary School about a mile in the opposite direction. He said they’re exposed to air pollution all the time.
“These two granddaughters and my other two granddaughters are going to have a horrible existence, much different than what I had,” he said. “That’s the reason I’m doing this.”
Richards works with the Orange County chapter of the Climate Reality Project, a nonprofit that trains activists to fight climate change nationwide. He completed the training last April in Atlanta, a month before he began his protests.
“When I came back, I was looking for local things that I could do, and this is about as local to me as it could be,” he said.
To get attention, Richards said he sometimes shows up in costume. At first, he and his fellow protesters wore gas masks but stopped after they became too hot during the summer. In October, Richards said he came dressed as the grim reaper.
“I had a mask on, and I didn’t last half an hour before the Campus Police came by and said to me, ‘You know you can’t wear a mask in Chapel Hill,’” he said. “All right, so I took it off.”
In November, he dressed as a turkey and held up a sign that said “Don’t be a turkey. Go green.” He came as Santa Claus in December with another sign that said “Santa says coal is naughty.” He said it was too cold to dress up as Cupid on Friday.
Kim Piracci works with Richards on the Orange County chapter of the Climate Reality Project. She held a Climate Action Reality banner behind Richards on Friday.
“It’s time to get off fossil fuels, no matter where they are,” she said.
However, she said she’s conflicted about closing the coal plant. If the plant closed tomorrow, UNC would have to hook into Duke Energy, which she said would probably be more expensive and use more energy.
That’s why her sign, which asks people to love the Earth, doesn’t mention coal.
“I’m here just because people need awareness that this is here,” she said. “It’s odd to have a coal-burning plant in such a densely packed area, and so the air pollution isn’t good.”
She said UNC could build a giant solar farm as an alternative to coal, but she recognizes that it would require a lot of solar panels. She said a better solution might be building windmills off the coast even though it might be a little far.
But even that requires Duke Energy's help, and she said she thinks the priority should be getting off fossil fuels entirely.
“Our planet is burning up and drowning, and we have to act fast,” she said. “The window is small.”
Several members of an international climate group, Extinction Rebellion, also joined Richards on Friday.
Winston Torrance lives in Durham and helps organize local Extinction Rebellion protests and events. He said one of their goals worldwide is to be net carbon zero by 2025. To achieve that goal, he said they engage in nonviolent direct action and civil disobedience.
“Our planet is on fire, and when your house is on fire, you don’t hold a committee meeting to try and pass resolutions on what the best solution is,” he said. “We all know what the best solution is — you stop the fire.”
Amber Tarter lives in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro area with her husband and three kids. She said she felt like her previous strategy of calling her legislators wasn't effective.
“I’ve done that," she said. "And I just feel like it’s not working."
She said that’s why she began hibernating from climate protests until the Triangle Climate Strike in Raleigh last September, where she saw Extinction Rebellion. She said they were doing something different, and that lit a fire under her to participate more in street protests and meetings.
“More people need to get out and show up because a lot of people do care,” she said. “It’s painful. It’s sad. It’s depressing. But there’s also community in this. You walk away feeling like you’re not alone.”
To get the day's news and headlines in your inbox each morning, sign up for our email newsletters.