Young local environmental activists are demanding to be heard

By foot and stroller, by bicycle and hybrid and even by gas-powered vehicle, they reached Joe Biden’s neighborhood for a rush-hour rally to bring attention to what they call a climate crisis.

About 75 people used vibrant banners, impassioned speeches and a six-mile walk from downtown Wilmington to Route 141 and Barley Mill Road to promote their call for significant changes. Now.

“I want to give my peers and my eventual children and grandchildren the same quality of life that I have,” Salesianum student Jack Thompson said in an interview before the rally. “And that is not guaranteed, with the burning of fossil fuels, the logging of forests and climate change.”

Climate change — associated with burning fossil fuels, eating meat and other behaviors generating greenhouse gases — is controversial. Some deny it exists. Others believe the term is too mild and want all who share the Earth to consider it a crisis, evinced by scorching summers, devastating wildfires, dangerous storms, rising seas and life-threatening droughts.

“We are at the end of our rope,” Karen Igou, rally emcee and founder of the Delaware chapter of Extinction Rebellion, said in an interview. “None of my three children want children. They are worried about a safe future.”

Anthony Chan (center), co-founder of the Newark chapter of Sunrise Movement, at a rally in Washington, D.C.

The future, of course, is for the young, and so far, local calls to action to young people appears to generate the strongest response among private and charter school students. The rally’s student speakers were from the Charter School of Wilmington, Odyssey Charter, Salesianum and Wilmington Friends.

Odyssey itself has a Green Teams initiative calling for “sustainable development” and training students to be “environmental stewards of our planet.”

“I’m sick of feeling helpless,” said Kanmani Duraikkannan, a 17-year-old Odyssey student active with the Youth Environmental Summit, a statewide group and event begun in 2019, with the youth leaders deciding its agenda. “My passion started with voter registration and civic engagement. We live in a time of apathy. A lot of young people think their voices don’t matter.”

She wants to convince them that their voices do. “And if you don’t address the environment, nothing else can be addressed.” The 300 students at the recent virtual Youth Environmental Summit got that message.

“Adults will listen,” Neha Veeragandham, a 17-year-old Charter student also active in the summit, told the crowd. “If they don’t, make them.”

Although those rallying united behind a chant of “Save our youth, teach the truth,” multiple agendas were at play. Banners, posters and speakers referred to construction of a regional natural gas pipeline, America’s largest trash incinerator, the water table and voting rights.

Climate change functions as a big tent. At the University of Delaware, for instance, there are at least four registered student organizations focused on some part of the issue: a chapter of the Climate Reality Project, an advocacy group founded by Al Gore in 2006; the Environmental Justice Project; Students for the Environment; and a chapter of the Sunrise Movement, which calls itself “a youth movement to stop climate change and create millions of good jobs in the process.”

“Real change has to be systemic,” said Carl Nelson-Poteet, who last year co-founded the Sunrise chapter, explaining that it works with other progressive groups. Among its first efforts was endorsing candidates in the 2020 election and supporting ranked-choice voting.

Nelson-Poteet said that his double major in environmental studies and engineering has shown him “how things are going wrong,” and he “gets a certain amount of inspiration by organizing for bigger change.” (Personally, one of his changes to help the environment is avoiding meat before 6 p.m.)

At St. Georges Technical, junior Ira Washington last year founded the Lyfe Club to share environmental information and encourage change. “We put what we learn to use,” he said, noting that the club is planning to increase the number of plantings around the high school and install solar-powered phone-charging stations in the outdoor section of the cafeteria. (Personally, one of his environmentally friendly changes is eating seaweed — and adding it to the diet of other family members.)

Thompson, who lives in Camden-Wyoming, is the founder of the Delaware chapter of Fridays4Future, which calls itself “a youth-led-and-organized global climate strike movement” started in 2018 by Swedish teen Greta Thunberg.

Karen Igou, founder of the Delaware chapter of Extinction Rebellion, addresses her fellow activists during a rally off Barley Mill Road. Photo by Butch Comegys

“I want to amplify the voices that cannot speak for themselves, such as lower-income people and those impacted by heat islands,” he said, adding that he’s given up parties, sports events and other teen activities to devote time to pushing what he so strongly believes in.

The rally echoes this summer’s Grandparents Walk for Our Grandchildren and Mother Earth, a march from Scranton, Pennsylvania, where Biden was born, to Delaware, the president’s home.

Some rally participants continued their walk to Biden’s home to deliver their message. “I hope he fights for his grandchildren,” Veeragandham said.

Both events included a stop at Chase Bank, which contributes more money toward fossil fuel industries than any other bank, a Banking on Climate Change report concluded. In response, Chase told Forbes it is committed to “help address climate change and promote more sustainable development.”

“The political needle has moved, but not enough,” said Anthony Chan, another co-founder of the Newark chapter of the Sunrise Movement. “This is the time to make the transition so that people come out better on the other side,” he said.

Although Biden has made some moves they like — such as blocking drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, canceling the Keystone XL pipeline and calling for half of new vehicles to be battery electric, fuel-cell electric or plug-in hybrid by 2030 — they feel he’s not going far enough.

One dividing point for the activists is how far they will go.

“Activism in Delaware refuses to be associated with civil disobedience, but that’s the only way to move the needle, in my opinion,” Igou said, referring to the tipping points for suffrage and civil rights.

“All of our problems will be exacerbated by climate … health, food, crime, poverty, everything,” she wrote in an email. “The fact that [Delaware] is the lowest state for mean elevation makes us particularly vulnerable as well.”

The rally drew some supportive honking by those driving by and one more young activist: Nicholas Nonnemaker, who was heading home.

“I’ve viewed climate change as a problem my whole life,” and the University of Delaware student hopes to use skills he’s learning as an entrepreneurship major to “stop stuff from being ignored.”

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