Students from Atascadero High cut class to attend the climate strike at the Sunken Gardens. Photo Eden Rodriquez
“No one is too small to make a difference,” said 16-year-old Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg during a livestream as she received an award from Amnesty International. She urged students to walk out of school to demonstrate their dissatisfaction with climate policy on Friday, Sept. 20. Local activists and Templeton High School students planned a strike at the Sunken Gardens in front of City Hall from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. on Sept. 20 for Templeton High School students, Atascadero High School students, and anyone who supports the cause.
Youth climate activists in San Luis Obispo County have responded to the call to action by organizing climate strikes (school walkouts) in Paso Robles, San Luis Obispo, and Atascadero. SLO County Youth for Environmental Action, the organization of youth climate activists leading the local strikes, is pushing for a specific policy change here in Atascadero, and this was one of the main topics discussed at the Atascadero climate strike. “We want Atascadero City Council to vote in favor of Monterey Bay Community Power,” said Carmen Bouquin, an organizer from SLO County Youth for Environmental Action. The Monterey Bay Community Power initiative is a plan to move away from PG&E and buy into a local, community-run energy plan. Environmental advocates say it would be a positive change, as it allows community input at public meetings on energy policy. However, critics defend the state’s more centralized system, making a “If it’s not broke, don't fix it” argument.
SLO County Youth for Environmental Action also has broader goals for change in Sacramento. Continuing with the protest’s goals, Carmen Bouquin said, “We also are asking Gavin Newsom to meet several demands to make a just transition off fossil fuels and into clean energy.”
Since students skipped their last class of the day or were excused from class by a parent to attend the strike on Sept. 20. Prior to the strike, Principal Neely made a statement regarding the school strikes for climate and school policy on related absences, “We are not planning on necessarily clearing any absences for the 20 or 27, in regard to the school strikes for climate movement.” It appears that the school will certainly not clear any strike-related absences, but will not deal out any extraordinary punishment to students who do participate in the demonstration. In other words, cuts related to the strike will be treated like any other cut, which may include not being allowed to make up missed work or having to serve detention to remain eligible for activities.
Atascadero City Council member Susan Funk, who attended the demonstration, said, “I am here to support the students because we all have one planet. The youth have tremendous power and we are all stewards of one planet.” Opponents argue against both the validity of climate change as a whole and the effectiveness of students boycotting class time as a method of direct action.
When challenged with the claim that the science behind climate change is invalid, 16-year-old Templeton student Emma Payne, an organizer of the strike, argued that “They’re [climate crisis critics] feeding into the propaganda that is fed to them. I would say that there are many, many scientists and people with multiple degrees who have proven that this is a fact; that it’s not just a hoax. It’s not lies by the left-wing. This is something that’s going to happen whether or not we try to change it.”
On the criticism that school walk-outs are an ineffective means to a just end, Payne said, “I would say that we’re not going to have a future to use our education for. We might be in school for a future that’s not going to happen. For students, school is the most direct link to the government that we have. It’s a straightaway to their bank accounts, to their politics, and their votes. Because we’re small, you don’t think we can make a difference, but, if enough of us stand up, we can.”
On Sept. 27, a follow-up protest was held in San Luis Obispo. The protest aimed to unite activists from across the Central Coast. State-wide, activists even aim to visit Gavin Newsom’s Sacramento office.