BLACKSBURG — As millions of people rallied across the globe to fight climate change, hundreds gathered at Virginia Tech on Friday to call for action from university, and national and world leaders.
They marched, they said, to call for policies that will combat climate change.
“We have a responsibility to take action for our planet,” Blacksburg High School student Rose Gruss told the more than 500 gathered. “It’s our one and only hope.”
The global strike, led by internationally-known Swedish teenage activist Greta Thunberg, called for world leaders to do something about climate change in the face of a warming planet.
Strikes took place on every continent, including Antarctica. And they took place at various places in the region as well.
Climate change is one of the biggest threats to humanity’s future, activists joined experts in saying. Rising sea levels, shifting extreme weather patterns and threatened food production will all challenge infrastructure and lives unless leaders take action, they said.
“We don’t have a choice,” Virginia Tech graduate student and climate strike leader Laura Lane said. “Our climate is changing and we can’t reverse it.”
In Blacksburg, speakers on the Drillfield, and later the steps of Burruss Hall, ranged from community activism mainstays such as Blacksburg Vice Mayor Susan Anderson to fresh faces such as 8th grade student Vishavjit Gill.
It was special to be part of a global movement, student leaders Heidi Hahn and Rachel Spector said.
Spector said she had “chills” when she saw images of strikes in other part of the world.
About 100 Blacksburg High School students marched along Prices Fork Road from their school to campus.
Student leader Christian Shushok said students who took part were not given an excused absence and those who participated wouldn’t be allowed to take part in school activities including some of the high school’s Homecoming events this weekend.
He said he was disappointed because school administrators were sending a message that “activism and school activities can’t go together.”
However, taking part was worth it, participants said.
“Every generation has a challenge that seems insurmountable,” Shushok said. “This is ours. We have to do something.”
On the opposite end of the spectrum, Tech instructor Marcia Davitt said she canceled her classes in data in social context Friday so her students could take part in the strike if they wanted. She said the issue is important and she knows that many young people care about it.
“It’s time to say no more business as usual,” she said.
The strikers ultimately presented a list of demands to Tech Provost Cyril Clarke. Tech President Tim Sands was absent from campus Friday.
Clarke told the strikers that Sands would meet with the students next week. It’s unclear what would occur at that meeting or if administrators were willing to meet student demands. However, Clarke said that he and Sands support the students and want to fight climate change.
Tech has made an effort to combat climate change since 2009 when it approved the Virginia Tech Climate Action Commitment. That plan includes goals like improving energy efficiency, having a minimum LEED rating of silver on all new construction (there are two higher ratings and one lower one), and reducing carbon dioxide emissions by 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050.
One goal is to have a recycling rate of 50% on campus by 2020. The recycling rate in 2018, the most recent year available, was 39%.
The plan was a “statement ahead of its time,” according to Tech spokesman Mark Owczarski.
Since then, Tech has maintained an “unwavering commitment to reducing the carbon footprint of the university,” Owczarski wrote in an email.
He touted a number of green initiatives including an effort to make tailgating greener on football gamedays, sustainability education programs on campus and the lights out power down event, which encourages people on campus to reduce power usage.
Student leaders said they ultimately want to see more. Their demands include that Sands declare a state of emergency and denounce the construction of energy projects like the Mountain Valley Pipeline; that university-run Virginia Tech Electric use 100% renewable sources by 2030; and that the Virginia Tech Foundation divest from all publicly-traded companies that hold coal, oil, or gas reserves and intend to use or sell them for the purpose of combustion.
Although it’s unclear what students will ultimately see from the day, they were hopeful that some change could come from the event, said Owen Callahan, a student leader.
“I’m unbelievably proud of everyone who came out today,” Callahan said.
Days like this are good, and rallying together can create positive change, his fellow organizer Spector said. The key will be to maintain momentum in advocating for people to fight climate change by reducing carbon footprints.
“We just have to make sure it doesn’t fizzle out,” she said.