No one knows exactly how many people participated in Friday’s worldwide climate strike, but it’s clear the number is in the millions. In Pittsburgh, the youth-led protest brought hundreds Downtown to protest what they see as insufficient world action on climate change.
Pitt senior Sarah Hart, an environmental studies major, helped organize the strike.
“Silence is being complicit. I feel like this is the tipping point,” Hart said. “I’m hoping that this is the one that’s going to make history.”
Grant Street was blocked off between Forbes and Fourth avenues for the afternoon to make room for the crowds of people chanting, shouting and playing bongos. The crowd gathered at the Pittsburgh City-County Building on Friday from noon to 4 p.m., holding signs with phrases like “There is no planet B” and “Learn to change or learn to swim.”
The global climate strike was inspired by 16-year-old Swedish activist Greta Thunberg, who sparked a worldwide movement when she started striking each Friday in Stockholm last year.
Hart was joined by Leandra Mira, an 18-year-old Upper St. Clair native who has been striking for climate change on the steps of the City-County Building for the last 17 weeks. Unlike the first few weeks she spent striking this summer, Mira was far from alone on Friday. The group of roughly 300 could be heard singing through the streets before the event.
“I woke up this morning with my mind set on striking,” the crowd sang. “I woke up this morning with my mind set on justice.”
Mira, the first speaker at the event, told the crowd she’s ashamed by Pennsylvania’s environmental policy, saying it’s failed the state’s residents when it comes to issues like air quality.
“I’ve lived here for 10 years, but it wasn’t until last May that I found out that the air in Allegheny County is toxic,” Mira said. “It’s so toxic, that just living here I’m more likely to get cancer than people living in other parts of the U.S.”
Instead of addressing the public health crisis, Mira said, current environmental policy in western Pennsylvania will only serve to turn the region into a hub for plastic production. Many local environmental groups have spoken out about the ethane cracker plant under construction in Beaver County, which President Donald Trump visited last month.
“I strike because communities in western PA are screaming and shouting for help, but are being ignored,” Mira said. “I strike because those communities aren’t white enough or rich enough for our politicians to care about them.”
Striking has shown her that protest is the only way that citizens can make their voices heard, Mira said, and she has no plans of stopping. Mira said that she is going to continue striking until she sees a change in environmental policy that prioritizes human life.
“I have been striking for 17 weeks,” Mira said. “I’m going to strike for 17 weeks after that and 17 weeks after that.”
The event highlighted young voices, with seven out of the nine speakers aged 18 or younger.
The youngest speaker was 5-year-old Crafton native Malachi Brown, who said he was fed up with the ways Americans recycle — or more specifically, the ways we don’t recycle.
“I want clean air and clean water,” Brown said. “I want the turtles and birds and fish to live!”
Brown said the country’s lack of compassion for the environment is not only destroying natural ecosystems, but it is killing and displacing humans as well.
Maria Isabel Villegas, a Pitt first-year student and another speaker, said she’s felt this firsthand. A native of the U.S. Virgin Islands, Villegas’ home was hit hard by the hurricanes Irma and Maria in 2017.
“These storms took everything,” Villegas said. “They killed thousands, took families, they tore us down to our very bones. We lived for months without knowing when our basic human needs would be met. We didn’t have access to clean water and food. There were times where I genuinely questioned whether I was going to make it.”
According to Villegas, the solution to climate change will not come from waiting for politicians. The solution to climate change comes from every person that protests, she said.
“People tend to think of climate change as a catastrophic event occurring ages from now,” Villegas said. “I am standing here today, a survivor of the climate crisis, telling you that I have seen the apocalypse with my own two eyes and it is happening as we speak.”
Benjamin Gutschow, a 17-year-old Squirrel Hill native, echoed Villegas’ call to action to remedy the inaction of politicians.
“We put dollars above dignity, greed above need, we annihilate nature’s necessity as though it’s money from a credit card, accumulating debt after debt not paid in money but in the extinction of our children and grandchildren, life as we know it,” Gutschow said.
Several local politicians attended the strike, including State Rep. Sara Innamorato, D-21, and, briefly, Mayor Bill Peduto — who claimed earlier this week that he would sign permission slips for students missing school for the strike, but later backed down.
“We need to have students that organized locally and organized globally,” Mayor Peduto said. “The pressure needs to be on a constant basis from the bottom up. In every election from school board to president, the question of what you are going to do to help climate change must be asked.”
Once every speaker was given the opportunity to make their voice heard, Mira and Hart led the crowd in a march around downtown Pittsburgh before returning to the City-County Building and the steps where Mira has sat every Friday since May.
It has been a long journey from where she started, Mira said, but change is the only thing that could make her stop striking.
“I’m going to strike until Pennsylvania declares a climate emergency. I’m going to strike until Pennsylvania makes a plan to reduce fossil fuel emissions and makes a plan to run on 100% renewables by 2030,” Mira said. “And I’m going to strike until I live in a Pittsburgh where families don’t have to worry about lead in their water and carcinogens in their air.”