IOWA CITY — For 11 minutes Friday, thousands of people sat or stood in silence during a climate strike rally with Swedish teen activist Greta Thunberg.
Those minutes represented the 11 years Earth has left to take action before climate change causes irreversible damage, speakers told the crowd. Those who had room to do so sat, many with heads bowed. But there were too many people in the crowd for many to have room to sit. Iowa City police estimated the downtown crowd at about 3,000 people.
“Wow,” Thunberg said as she took the stage to chants of her name. “There are just so many people. I didn’t think anyone expected so many people. … This is the real hope. So many people gathering here on a weekday on such short notice — this is real hope to me.”
Thunberg, 16, traveled to Iowa City in a Tesla, part of a tour of North America she has been on since traveling on a solar-powered yacht across the Atlantic to address the United Nations climate summit Sept. 23.
She joined Iowa City students who have been striking for action on climate change since March. The local strike was started by a handful of students including Massimo Paciotti-Biggers, 14, now a freshman at Iowa City High.
He spoke to the crowd at the event Friday and said he was inspired after seeing Thunberg’s own climate strike. When she started, she often protested alone.
“People dismissed us, laughed at us, but even though our numbers were small, I knew we were never alone,” Paciotti-Biggers said.
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The student’s efforts led to the Iowa City School District passing a climate action resolution over the summer and to the city of Iowa City on Aug, 7 declaring a climate crisis.
Now, the students want the University of Iowa to get involved.
They are calling on the UI to join the city’s climate action plan, to declare a climate crisis as a campus and to commit to ending fossil fuel use, including burning natural gas and coal.
“The University of Iowa could be a beacon of light for our community, instead of having a climate plan written in 2008,” said City High senior Esti Brady.
She and freshman Alex Howe led the crowd in chants of “end coal now,” and “President Harreld, no more excuses,” referring to UI President Bruce Harreld.
In response to a request for comment, UI spokeswoman Anne Bassett sent a one-sentence statement by email: “The University of Iowa has pledged to be coal-free by 2025.” She did not respond to questions about where in the process of eliminating coal the UI is now, or to a response for comment on the striker’s other demands.
The university did report in 2017 it had reduced its use of coal by 60 percent since 2008.
In a separate interview with The Gazette, Blake Rupe, sustainability program manager of the UI Office of Sustainability and the Environment, said Thunberg’s visit presented “a fantastic opportunity for university leadership to promote the work being done, as well as the effort and passion that faculty, staff and students have about sustainability on this campus.”
Thunberg told the downtown Iowa City crowd it is up to them — to young people — to lead change.
“We teenagers and children shouldn’t have to take the responsibility, but right now world leaders are acting like children, and someone needs to be the adult in the room,” Thunberg told the crowd.
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Iowa City High junior Shoshie Hemley, 16, spoke at the protest and helped organize the event. She told The Gazette she agrees.
“Every social movement, every systemic change has always come from young people — the civil rights movement, the anti-war movement. Every single movement has come from teenagers and youth,” she said. “We are the ones who will be making the change.”
Dawson Davenport, a member of the Meskwaki Nation, also addressed the crowd.
“I’m here to share a message I was raised with. We need to give back what we take and only take what we need,” he said. “We all need to unite. We all need each other in this fight for a livable planet. … Many rivers lead to one sea.”
Thunberg’s calls for change have at times been met with derision and even threats of violence. The Waterloo Community School District placed a science teacher on administrative leave after he made a threatening comment on a Facebook post.
Hemley said she tries not to let negative comments get to her.
“I just know, in the end, history will be saying our names, not theirs. History will be laughing at them,” she said. “Those people are the minority. They need to get with the times, they need to realize change happens.”
Thunberg called on people to join the next global climate strike Nov. 29, as well as to support the students striking each Friday. Elected leaders must understand that if they don’t act, they will continue to see protests, she said.
“We have reached a tipping point where enough people have had enough, and together, we are unstoppable,” she said. “The world is waking up, and we are the change, and the change is coming, whether they like it or not.”
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Vanessa Miller of The Gazette contributed to this report.