Pittsburgh climate change activists plan for the future


Sarah Cutshall | Staff Photographer

Leandra Mira (left) and Sarah Hart protest for action against climate change at the Pittsburgh City-County Building every Friday.

By Rebecca Johnson, Senior Staff Writer

Regardless of rain, snow or even loud Christmas carols, 18-year-old Upper St. Clair-native Leandra Mira and Sarah Hart, a senior environmental studies major, can be found advocating for action against climate change at the Pittsburgh City-County Building every Friday.

“The last protest we had [the City-County Building was] playing really loud Christmas music and we asked a cop whether we could turn down the music where the strike was held,” Mira said. “He was like ‘Aren’t you the climate change people? We don’t help you.’ The system isn’t our friend. Our rights are being taken from us and we’re sleepwalking toward a cataclysmic disaster.”

These protests against the climate crisis are part of “Fridays for Future,” a global movement started in 2018 by Greta Thunberg, a 16-year-old Swedish activist. Mira began the Pittsburgh campaign in 2019. She also organized the local branch of September’s Global Climate Strike, which an estimated 1,000 people attended, making it the largest climate rally ever held in Pittsburgh. Now, another large-scale protest is being planned for Earth Day, though Mira and Hart say more people should be participating in protests regularly in order to effectively bring attention to the climate crisis.

While Mira said she was happy with the large turnout of the September rally, she wishes more people would join the cause full-time and alleviate some of her burden.

“I just don’t know what I can do or what I should be doing to get more people to come. Not that six people is a bad number, but it always makes me question what I am doing wrong,” Mira said. “I’m graduating late because I took on organizing. If more young people would get involved I could delegate the work more.”

For her work, Mira was recently awarded a Pittsburgh’s People of the Year Award in the environment category by Pittsburgh City Paper. Lisa Cunningham, editor-in-chief of Pittsburgh City Paper, said Mira stood out from other nominees because of her ability to spark climate activism on a local level.

“Everyone knows Greta Thunberg and the impact she’s had on a national level,” Cunningham said. “Leandra has really brought this to a local level, and I think it shows other young people, or even people afraid to speak out in Pittsburgh, that they can make a difference too.”

Mira said awards like these leave her feeling conflicted, though, especially when not many people show up to the protests.

“Whenever I won the award from the Pittsburgh City Paper, I didn’t even post anything on my social media because it’s mixed signals,” Mira said. “You’re getting told, ‘You’re so amazing. You’re doing amazing work.’ Then when a protest has five people show up, I go home on Friday feeling like an absolute failure.”

When Mira started protesting, she, like Thunberg, was alone. One of the primary reasons Mira started protesting was in response to the health consequences she saw in residents of southwestern Pennsylvania. Last May, 27 cases of Ewing sarcoma, a rare form of bone cancer, were reported to the Pennsylvania Department of Health. The Department of Health, along with the CDC, are studying whether the cases are connected to fracking. 

Mira said other climate organizations taught her this and other facts that cemented her belief that quality of life is increasingly determined by zip code.

“I got really really angry when I learned about the issues impacting us locally, but I didn’t want to sit and wallow in my sadness. So, I decided to join the strikes,” Mira said. “Some zip codes definitely have a privilege. Wealthier townships in South Hills would never have an ethane cracker plant or pipeline.”

Hart eventually joined Mira after seeing an article profiling her in Pittsburgh City Paper. Hart said her work with Mira has helped shape her activism on campus.

“We need to hold Pitt accountable and have stronger green initiatives, not just the bare minimum,” Hart said. “The fact that they are still so invested in fossil fuels is ridiculous to me. They’re contributing to the climate disaster.”

According to the Post-Gazette, 15213, the zip code comprising Oakland, ranks first in total energy consumption in Pittsburgh. 

For students interested in protecting the environment, Hart said she cautions against simply posting on social media or donating a few dollars to aid in the Australian fires, for example. The bushfires in Australia have killed at least 28 people and wiped out more than 2,000 homes, according to the BBC.

“The amount of money going towards relief funds in Australia is great, but you shouldn’t need an entire country on fire to pay attention,” Hart said. “The money is just a band-aid.”

Mira said she believes voting and protesting are more effective and cheaper ways for people to fight climate change.

“We need legislation. We need changes in our government. We need voting. [The presidential election] is the most important election of the century,” Mira said. “If your heart hurts seeing the koalas burned alive and the people running from the fires — strike. It costs no money and it’s more effective.”

Whether people join her in protesting, Mira said, dictates which path the country — and the world — will take.

“Like the Robert Frost poem with two paths, we are literally at that junction. We can go down one path that will have people dying of cancer that is avoidable, people being displaced from disasters that are avoidable and people hurting because infrastructure isn’t what it should be,” Mira said. “Or we can take climate action and get clean water, clean air and clean soil.”