Chris Lang performs a land acknowledgment to kick off the Climate Strike March. An environmental studies graduate student encouraged organizers with the words “let’s get creative and let’s get to work.” Photo by Maria Cordova

Just days after a U.N. Climate Action Summit saw world leaders fail to meet the urgency of a hotter globe, over 200 UC Santa Cruz students joined thousands of residents from across Santa Cruz County in an afternoon-long strike, march and protest against climate apathy. 

The Sept. 27 demonstrations came at the end of a weeklong series of teach-ins, die-ins and walkouts staged by the near two dozen climate action groups that dot the Santa Cruz area. Simultaneously, countless youths across the world took to the streets, coinciding with the U.N. Climate Summit.  

“Being in that joint action was incredibly inspiring, and I’m much more hopeful,” said Kelsey Gage, UCSC second-year and youth activist with the local chapter of the Sunrise Movement — famed for its frequent pickets of Capitol Hill. “I want these kids to be much more hopeful, I want them to understand that it’s not over yet, and that their actions are going to play a significant role in what happens next. They are the future. Their futures are the most at stake.”

Gathering en masse at the Quarry Plaza at noon, the contingent of slugs marched down Hagar Drive and Bay Street. They then met with hundreds of students from Cabrillo College, Soquel High, Monarch High, Harbor High, Santa Cruz High, middle schools Kirby, Mission Hill and Branciforte and all-manner of political advocacy groups in the parking lot of Wells Fargo Bank.

The diverse coalition of students, activists and townspeople were in agreement in their calls for a Green New Deal, carbon taxes on big firms and the declaration of a climate emergency by the federal government. 

“We have to put pressure on the government to declare a climate emergency and create a citizens’ assembly made of climate specialists and strategists who will work with politicians to create policies that help marginalized communities,” said Louis Marshall, a student at Cabrillo College and member of the UK-based climate group Extinction Rebellion. “[…] There are a lot of marginalized communities, people of color, that are going to feel the heat first.”

These aren’t trivial pursuits. Santa Cruz and its surrounding areas will be among the worst-hit communities in the U.S. if sea levels continue to rise significantly. According to a planning document released by the City of Santa Cruz, a four-inch rise in global levels would put about 70 buildings at risk for flooding along the Santa Cruz coastline. 

Santa Cruz city planners have already had to dump tons of rocks by the bluffs of West Cliff Drive to prevent erosion in late 2018. This doesn’t even touch the laundry list of other local risks associated with the climate crisis, like the increased odds of wildfires, droughts and groundwater loss.

“Everyone knows that agriculture in California has been using too much groundwater, and that this will cause the ground to sink,” Sunriser Kelsey Gage said, “but a lot of people don’t realize that if you’re on the coast, that saltwater can get into your groundwater as you’re pulling it out, and then you’ve ruined the groundwater permanently. And that would completely fuck the city of Santa Cruz.”

At the Sept. 27 march, the hundreds-strong throng made their way from Wells Fargo to the Amazon office on Cooper Street and Pacific Avenue, then to the offices of tech startup Looker on Church Street and Commerce Lane and finally to the parking lot behind the University Town Center. There, marchers manned stands for a county fair-style Green Commons. 

Indy Reid-Shaw, a UCSC graduate student and co-founder of Sunrise Santa Cruz, said the march route was planned to target the local firms with the strongest ties to the fossil fuel industry. 

“We looked at the three groups that were either taking the most fossil fuel contributions or were emitting the most in Santa Cruz County,” Reid-Shaw said. “Looker was just bought by Google, and Amazon as well.”

Sunrise argues that while firms like Google and Amazon aren’t burning coal to power their robots, they are tied up with big polluters like Shell, ExxonMobil and the U.S. military in a complicated web of contracts, loans and venture capital dollars. 

To put it all into perspective — according to a June 2019 article published in ScienceDaily, if the U.S. military were its own nation, it would rank as the world’s 47th largest emitter of greenhouse gases, purchasing the equivalent of about 269,230 barrels of crude oil per day in 2017 alone. 

But faced with a battle against corporate and state interests, the youths of the Sunrise Movement remain optimistic about the future. 

“A lot of my pessimism [about the climate crisis] disappeared as soon as I joined a collective that was making change,” Gage said. “[…] As long as we’re still fighting, there’s still reason to be hopeful. You can’t see hundreds of Sunrisers in the streets singing and think of doomsday.”