At noon on Friday, 14-year-old Gudrun Campbell stood next to the Free Speech Community Chalkboard on Charlottesville’s Downtown Mall with a megaphone and addressed a crowd of dozens.
“The climate crisis has largely been ignored. Today we’re striking again to ask the City Council to take immediate action,” she said.
At least 25 local students of all ages and over a dozen adult supporters participated in Friday’s Youth Climate Strike, organized by Campbell.
Campbell, a student at Charlottesville High School, isn’t new to climate activism. She organized her first climate strike in 2019, inspired by Swedish teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg, and started the Cville Youth Climate Strike organization. After a over a year-and-a-half long hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Campbell and her peers once again gathered at the chalkboard across from City Hall.
“There’s a lot of really good opportunities to act right now. An example is the school renovation projects that are coming up, where there’s going to be really expensive renovations to the school system. There hasn’t really been a climate element discussed in those conversations so we really want to make sure that the school innovations are green, and that there are solar panels, and that there’s a climate perspective on projects that are already happening like wall reconstruction and HVAC,” Campbell said.
During the hour-long strike, students of all ages held handmade signs and raised chants of “hey hey, ho ho, fossil fuels have got to go” and “no more coal, no more oil, keep your carbon in the soil.”
One student held a cardboard sign that said “don’t kill the world because then all the little baby hedgehogs would die.”
Another student’s sign read “our earth is hotter than my imaginary boyfriend.”
The strike was centered around specific demands of the city: Re-commit and take immediate action to meet the city’s resolved climate goals of 45 percent reduction of greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 and carbon neutrality by 2050; require all city departments to address climate change and set concrete goals and timetables for achieving the city’s climate commitments; ensure a climate-first approach to all ongoing and future school renovation projects; fund only projects that move toward zero carbon schools, retool existing projects to be energy efficient and fund new infrastructure for improving efficiency (such as solar panels); invest heavily in infrastructure projects centered around mass transit and increased density in order to cut reliance on single-occupancy vehicles; increase public transit service, make public transit more accessible with covered bus shelters, electrify the bus fleet, prioritize bike and pedestrian traffic, focus on zoning that reduces suburban sprawl by making the city more dense.
Campbell’s goal is to get City Council and other local government officials to take direct action on climate change.
“I have talked to some city councilors, and I think that they are generally sympathetic and I think that they do want to take steps towards climate action, but right now they’re really not. And we need to make sure that they do,” she said.
Campbell said she’s felt spurred to speak out after a recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change about the growing and immediate risks of climate change, as well as a local report on transit and climate change released last week from the Community Climate Collaborative, also known as C3, a Charlottesville-based climate action organization.
“That really heavily informed our demands around transit so we want to see things like electrifying the bus fleet, adding covered seating and lighting to the bus stops and increasing service frequency, because right now the transit system in Charlottesville is not reliable and it’s not green, and we want to see it be reliable and we want to see it have a climate perspective,” Campbell said.
The Community Climate Collaborative released its new report, Transit Equity and Climate: Moving to a Cleaner Future on Tuesday. The report is the result of a year-long analysis of community needs around transit and how they relate to the community’s climate goals.
The report outlines 14 recommendations to improve Charlottesville’s transit system, which were based on feedback from almost 300 residents and dozens of local social service partners.
Caetano de Campos Lopes, C3’s Director of Climate Policy and author of the report, said he decided to focus on transit equity because of the high rate of transportation transmissions in the area.
According to an Albemarle County report, transportation represents 52% of the community-wide greenhouse gas emissions for the year of 2018.
In 2016, transportation accounted for 28% of Charlottesville’s greenhouse gas emissions, with personal cars and SUVs making up the vast majority of those emissions. This is less than the county’s emissions, but still a high number, Campos Lopes said.
“I knew that finding a solution for transportation is key,” Campos Lopes said.
The report recommends that the city of Charlottesville, Albemarle County and Charlottesville Area Transit (CAT) take action to make public transit more equitable so people will be encouraged to use it.
These recommendations include making fare-free transit permanent; having no route frequencies in excess of 30 minutes intervals; relaxing restrictions on carrying bags and consuming food and beverages; and making bus stop infrastructure safer with better crosswalks, sidewalks and weather shelters.
Campos Lopes wanted to explore reasons why people may feel discouraged from taking the CAT bus. He found that people had a lot to say. Lopes conducted a survey of community members, specifically reaching out to marginalized populations. He then asked respondents if they’d be interested in participating in focus groups to discuss their experiences.
One of the groups was specifically for Black community members and another was specifically for Latino mothers.
“We didn’t want for BIPOC [Black, indigenous and people of color] people to be the only one or two BIPOC people in a group where they would feel not so comfortable to fully express what they had to say. By creating these environments with the Latino moms and with the African Americans in exclusive groups, I can say for a fact that people felt much more comfortable saying things that otherwise they wouldn’t,” Campos Lopes said.
Campos Lopes said many participants said they would like to take the bus more, and the number one concern he heard from the focus groups was about the frequency and reliability of the CAT buses.
“You’re investing a lot of time for a short trip … being on the bus can amount to one hour or something like that for a relatively small trip,” he said.
Campos Lopes studied the patterns of the bus routes, and thinks if CAT changed the routes and made them shorter and more straightforward, more people would be willing to take the bus.
Respondents also voiced a desire for more bus hours, especially on the weekend.
“[Respondents] said ‘we cannot really rely on the bus system to go to church or to go to parks during the weekends, because the system assumes that during weekends there is no need for the bus,’” Campos Lopes said.
Campos Lopes said several respondents shared that they had stopped taking the bus for grocery trips because drivers would not allow bags of groceries on the bus.
Another major concern was safety and location of bus stops without adequate sidewalks and distance from busy roads.
Campos Lopes said the bus stop near Preston Avenue and Route 29, for example, came up as a concern due to lack of a crosswalk or rain shelter.
“Some people said ‘I would love to take this bus stop, but I would never cross Route 29 with my children without a crosswalk,’” he said.
Campos Lopes said the major takeaway was that many people are interested in taking the bus, but the current system is just not equitable and does not make it easy.
“These are all what we call equity factors. To actually improve the experience of these lower income or underserved communities, you actually need to pay attention to give them more safety, more cohort, more reliability, and care about their time and don’t make them wait forever,” he said.
Campos Lopes said public transit also ties in with density and affordable housing. He said it’s important for affordable housing complexes to have easy access to public transit.
“[Density] is creating locational efficiency, which helps reduce commuting times, reduces the necessity of using cars … it’s very much related. Affordable housing and more dense community is also beneficial for transit because you can have much more frequent and much more efficient routes,” he said.
C3 is hosting a webinar at 12 p.m. on Wednesday to discuss the findings in the report. Interested participants can register at http://ow.ly/b2gb50Geuu5.
For people concerned about the looming effects of climate change, Campbell said it’s important to find community, whether it be through her organization or another local environmental organization.
“I really recommend joining a group, because it’s really easy to feel hopeless at the beginning and feel like there’s nothing you can do. But there is stuff you can do,” she said.
“There’s a lot of really great climate activism groups in Charlottesville, so I recommend getting involved with one of them … These kinds of groups and ways to achieve collective action are really going to be the most effective way to stop the climate crisis.”
Campbell wants older generations to see how important it is to act on climate change and why her generation is so passionate about speaking up.
“When we have the opportunity to act, we need to act. We have a responsibility to my generation and to future generations to keep our planet livable. And right now that’s not being done … it’s really a matter of avoiding catastrophe,” she said.
“We are seeing increased and worsened weather events, and we are seeing the effects of climate change now. And it’s taking a toll on people’s health, it’s taking a toll on our planet and we need to act now.”