'Winter is not coming’ — Hundreds of young Utahns protest, demand action on climate change

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Hundreds of students chant and sing as they march up State Street to the Utah Capitol, demanding action on the climate crisis. Friday, Sept. 20, 2019.

These kids are not all right.

They want to see change, and they want to see it now — before it’s too late to preserve the planet as a livable place.

Hundreds of Salt Lake City area high schoolers bailed on classes on a cloudy and soggy Friday to speak out against official indifference to climate change, joining a global protest demanding that elected leaders wake up to the potentially catastrophic consequences of worldwide warming.

Utahns young and not-so-young flooded the grounds outside Salt Lake City Hall — police put the early estimate at 500 or more — at noon before proceeding to the Utah Capitol. The protesters were spread over several blocks as they streamed up State Street’s sidewalks.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Hundreds of students from around the state chant and sing as they march up State Street to the Utah State Capitol Building, demanding action on the climate crisis. Friday, Sept. 20, 2019.

“What we need to do is change ourselves and our way of living,” Payton Horn, a seventh grader at Open Classroom charter school in Salt Lake City, told the crowd, tag-teaming her speech with classmate Cedar Whitesides. “Even if we stop climate change, it’s always going to come back. That’s why we need to change our culture altogether.”

Continued Whitesides: "We should be thinking about our own futures, but instead we are thinking about if we will even have a future to look forward to."

The teens who marched across downtown Friday and rallied on the Capitol steps were part of a global day of youthful protest, calling on the nation’s and Utah’s political leaders to acknowledge the reality of climate change and initiate steps to reduce the greenhouse-gas emissions associated with the fossil fuels that power much of the world’s economies.

“We are here to fight for our right to have a future and live our lives the way we want to and not have to be killed by a wildfire or something,” said Audrey Brown, a junior at Highland High School.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Utah Youth Climate Strike on the steps of the Utah Capitol in Salt Lake City on Friday, Sept. 20, 2019.

Elsewhere, youths flooded the streets of European and North American cities, clamoring for measures to put civilization on a more sustainable course before the world’s ecosystems are hopelessly disrupted. More than 4,500 strikes were planned in 120 countries, with at least 500 in the United States.

“There is no Planet B,” read many signs in Salt Lake City.

“Winter is not coming,” read others, inverting an oft-spoken phrase from the TV series “Game of Thrones.”

The marches were timed to take place before Monday’s gathering of the United Nations’ General Assembly in New York, where the international body is expected to host the 2019 Climate Action Summit.

Inspired by Swedish teenage activist Greta Thunberg, who traveled to the United States by a zero-emissions boat to participate in next week’s U.N. gathering, youths across America took Friday off school to push back against climate denial and Trump administration policies promoting fossil fuel extraction and thwarting state and local efforts to reduce energy use.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, last July was the hottest month on record, and August was not far behind. Meanwhile, atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide, a leading greenhouse gas, have not been as high as they are today in millions of years.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Hundreds of students from around the state chant and sing as they gather on the steps of the Utah State Capitol Building, demanding action on the climate crisis. Friday, Sept. 20, 2019.

Following Thunberg’s lead, Raquel Juarez, a recent graduate of Ben Lomond High School, demonstrates at the Utah Capitol every Friday with a cadre of young climate activists. She implored the students not only to join her crew on Fridays, but also to make adjustments in their own lives.

“We are asking for these things from the government, but it comes down to individually — as well as down to three meals a day. What you eat is that important to the climate,” Juarez said. “So cut out meat from your diet.”

Next to the speaker platform, teens pedaled a bank of bikes powering the public address system, ensuring a zero-emission rally.

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, in Japan on a trade emission, was not available for comment Friday, but his office emphasized his promotion of clean energy projects in the state.

“In this year alone, he asked the Legislature to put $100 million toward air quality, announced the launch of the Utah Advanced Clean Energy Storage Project, and announced that renewable energy company Enel Green will implement state-of-the-art technology at its plant in Beaver County, making that plant the world’s first large-scale facility to combine geothermal and hydropower technology,” spokeswoman Anna Lehnardt said. “We are actively working to be part of the solution.”

Many of the teens congregated at the Capitol wondered if the solutions Herbert envisions will be enough to avert the worst impacts of climate change and pollution from the use of coal, gas and oil.

Darius Maufas, an eighth grader at Utah International Charter School, was living across the street from Salt Lake City’s Liberty Park a decade ago when a pipeline ruptured, spilling oil that reached the park’s pond, filling the neighborhood with fumes in the early morning. He was 3 at the time, but he recalls waking up, barely able to see.

(Brian Maffly | The Salt Lake Tribune) Young people led the call for action against climate change at the Utah Capitol on Friday, Sept. 20, 2019.

“I couldn’t feel my arms and legs. I have experienced the effects of fossil fuels firsthand, and it’s terrifying,” Maufas told the crowd. “Frankly, I’m scared I don’t see enough people in power interested in stopping climate change. Human ignorance has put us all in danger, but there is hope.”

Hope for Maufas and others requires leaders to give environmental protection priority over powerful corporate interests. But first those officials need to acknowledge the environment needs protecting.

Then they need to act, Friday’s protesters agreed, and fast.