Alabama Climate Strike

Up Against Apathy, Oil, Walmart: Meet the Young People Who Held Down Three Southern Climate Strikes

Alabama Climate Strike co-organizers Love Lundy and Isabel Hope (Photo courtesy of Isabel Hope)

In 2011, Isabel Hope of Tuscaloosa, Alabama lost her home to a tornado. Eight years later—earlier this month—the deadliest tornado to hit the United States struck Alabama, killing 23 people and leaving destruction along its 27-mile path. Although Alabamians are used to extreme weather events, Hope explains, the extent to which the incident impacted her family has made Hope weary of a future without action on climate breakdown. “We have a Gulf Coast and as the sea levels rise, there will be more flooding and potential hurricanes,” she says. Not to mention the kind of storm that destroyed her home. According to a 2018 study published in the Journal of Climate and Atmospheric science, tornado activity is increasing across the Mid-South.

In spite of the uphill battle of climate activism in the South, 16-year-old Hope teamed up with 17-year old gun control activist Love Lundy to bring the national climate strike to Montgomery. Around sixty people showed up in front of the capitol on Friday, with signs aimed at the state’s conservative lawmakers, such as, “You fight so hard for us to have babies. I’m fighting for the air they’re supposed to breathe,” and “Some of y’all never read The Giving Tree and it shows.” Hope says there is a lot of apathy around climate issues at the Alabama State Capitol. “We are basically pulling, forcing our politicians to care about the issues that will affect their constituents,” she explains.

This, Hope says, is one of the challenges that sets the south aside from east and west coast climate activist work, where lawmakers like Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Representative Jared Huffman of California have responded to constituents’ concerns about climate by pushing for a Green New Deal and other legislation that would prevent climate change and its impacts by blocking offshore oil drilling and supporting wildlife protection.

Only five students showed up to Arkansas’ one strike in Fayetteville, where 16-year-old organizer Chloe Krik says her friends weren’t willing to miss the school field trip. In addition to lawmakers’ lack of interest in climate issues, Kirk says religion is also a major obstacle to making headway on climate action at her school. “Some of [my friends] said [the climate strike] wasn’t worth doing because God was going to take care of it,” she says. Kirk has been worrying about climate change since she saw Greta Thunberg address the United Nations last winter. She got her hands on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, and read the whole thing. “That’s when I started getting kind of scared because people weren’t doing anything,” she says.

Chloe Kirk and other students on climate strike outside of the Fayetteville City Hall (Photo by Leanna First-Arai)

Samantha and Yao are sisters that also showed up at the Fayetteville strike. They say northwest Arkansas is heavily influenced by the many major corporations headquartered there, like Walmart and Tyson. The companies provide good jobs for the region—Fayetteville’s unemployment rate was 2.5% in November, as compared to national average of 3.7% for the same month. The sisters think the level of comfort the companies provide means people in the region don’t question them on environmental responsibility. “I would like to see corporations—especially Walmart because it’s such a global company—step in and make a bigger [environmental] impact,” Yao said.

In New Orleans, where Mayor Latoya Cantrell has just filed a lawsuit against oil and gas companies including Exxon, Chevron and Entergy, another small but spirited climate strike convened on the neutral ground near the iconic uptown streetcar line. Much like the Fayetteville strike, the Crescent City strike was the singular action held in the state, in spite of Louisiana’s precarious history of extreme weather events.

Like many of the rising climate activists across the country, New Orleans strike organizer Berelian Karimian, first got involved with political action through a strike she co-organized to demand action on gun violence prevention last spring. As she told The Advocate, “I feel like the argument is always, ‘This is how it’s always been, so we can’t change it,’” she said.

With the next national strike only a month away, these young people are running with their momentum, building connections with other activists, and as Hope says, “working to make sure that groups are all lifting up voices of communities of color,” at both state and national levels. Until the May 3rd strike, Hope and Kirk will also focus on smaller interventions like talking with climate change denying grandparents and spamming other students with scientific articles explaining the causes of and potential solutions for slowing and stopping climate change. “Weather or not we agree on all points,” says Hope, “I think it’s cool that this discussion is being opened up because it’s so much better than what we have been doing … which is just silence and ignoring.”