Attempts to Call Students to Climate Action Fall Short

Danielle Parenteau

Hundreds packed McKenna Theater earlier this month for the final day of Climate Action Week at SF State, drawn in by famed climate change activist Bill McKibben. However, many left after his speech when people were asked to join discussion groups, each led by a different environmental advocacy organization.

In his first appearance here, McKibben speaks about efforts to protect the environment globally and at SF State. He calls the university’s student-led move toward divestment, “one of the high points in this global campaign.” SF State is the first public school and the first university in the world to engage in fossil fuel divestment, in which entities refuse to invest in oil companies.

The understanding of climate change has grown over time. Twenty-five years ago, McKibben says, we knew about global warming, but we had no idea how bad it would get or how fast it would spread. We still have trouble comprehending what a profound impact an apparently small temperature increase can have. A one-degree change may not seem like much, “but measured in [certain] ways, it’s an immense amount,” McKibben says. The world may be headed for even greater temperature gains. “For me, the scary part is were just at the beginning of this process…” he explains, adding that scientists predict a four to five degree jump over the next century. With the devastating effects a one-degree rise in temperature has had, it is scary to imagine the sort of havoc four or five degree more could wreak.

Demonstrations are held worldwide to take a stand against what McKibben describes as “the first truly global problem we’ve faced.” He shows photos of people in a wide variety of locales such as Ethiopia, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, South Africa, Wheaton, Illinois, China, the United Arab Emirates, the United Kingdom, Bhutan, Washington, D.C., the Philippines, Mexico, Thailand, Somalia, Brazil, Vietnam, Italy, and San Francisco. McKibben reports that people from “every country in the world except North Korea” have demonstrated on behalf of 350.org, which encourages grassroots climate activism. In some of the photos, people stand together to write out “350.” In Yemen, the zero is composed of women in black burqas. These efforts to raise awareness about climate change bridge deep schisms. At the Dead Sea, Jordanians form the three, Palestinians, the five, and Israelis, the zero. Some pictures depict a humorous take on the potential consequences of climate change like the one that shows people sitting in a makeshift living room on a beach because of the rising sea levels that threaten to wipe out some low-lying coastal areas.

McKibben proclaims that current college students “will be in the prime of your lives” as the worst outcomes of climate change begin to be felt. He closes to lengthy applause before most of the crowd streams out of the exits.

After McKibben’s speech, representatives from the following five environmentally-minded organizations each describe his or her group’s mission: Fossil Free SFSU, the Green Initiative Fund, 350 Bay Area, Idle No More, and the Citizens Climate Lobby. The idea was to people have spend a session with one group of their choice and then join a second session with another, but only one session is held because so many had left.

Idle No More, an indigenous activism organization, believes in connecting with people and respecting the Earth. “Mother Earth does not negotiate,” declares group leader Pennie Opal Plant. “We can pray, we can ask, we can tell her how sorry we are, but her system is her system.”

The more people who join the movement against climate change, the better. “What we really need is billions of people in the streets,” insists Plant. Unfortunately, this event did not prompt much growth. Jason Schwartz, an environmental studies major and one of the leaders of Fossil Free SFSU, admits the weak response from students is “disappointing.” He indicates a small stack of clipboards clasping mostly empty sign-up sheets, saying he had anticipated recruiting many new members out of the hundreds in attendance. Instead, “we got three,” he groans. Still, he hopes to see more people becoming active on campus even if they are not focused on the environment. “I would really like to organize students around whatever they want to work on,” Schwartz says. “I would like to see students feel like they have a voice.”