Monday was the hottest September 16th ever recorded on Maui. The 97-degree high joined the list of record-breaking temperatures felt during this summer’s heat wave, which set an extraordinary 68 state records from May through August and tied 74, making it hard to ignore: Things are heating up.
But as the mercury rises with warming weather conditions, so too are the youth rising to take a stand. There is perhaps no greater example of this than the Global Climate Strike planned for Friday, Sep. 20. Led by 16-year-old Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg and inspired by her “Fridays for Future” strikes from school, the international day of action is part of a larger week of climate activism where “millions of us will walk out of our workplaces and homes to join young climate strikers on the streets and demand an end to the age of fossil fuels,” states the website Globalclimatestrike.net. The Friday demonstrations will happen before the United Nations Climate Action Summit on Sep. 23, when world leaders will gather in New York to discuss curbing greenhouse gas emissions.
“We are the younger generation, we are the ones who are going to be affected, and therefore we demand justice,” says Thunberg in a video call to action. “Everyone should mobilize for the 20th and the 27th of September because this is a global issue which actually affects everyone. We are all in the same boat so everyone should be concerned about this.”
The message of urgency and call to mitigate impending climate catastrophe is not lost here on Maui, where the impacts of climate change include hotter days, erratic weather, disruption to the local food supply, increased hurricane frequency and intensity, rising sea levels, coral reef bleaching, and loss of biodiversity. These dire consequences of inaction and business-as-usual have ignited youth on Maui to take action – youth like 13-year-olds Sage Campbell, Georgia Eyerman, and Siena Schwartz.
The time to act is now, the three eighth-graders told me when I caught up with them on that record-breaking, sweltering Monday to catch up about the upcoming Global Climate Strike and the progress they’ve made toward climate action. I first met the girls outside the Kalana O Maui (County) Building on a Friday in early May, when they skipped school to educate passersby about climate change and to demand action from the leaders and officials entering and exiting the building. “Why go to school if we don’t have a future at all?” they asked, with an acute sense that the effects of climate change, if left unchecked, could rob them of a future.
Since then, the three have met with leaders including Mayor Michael Victorino, and have become a part of the organization Fridays For Future. The organization is organizing Maui’s participation in the Global Climate Strike, in partnership with the Climate Reality Project, Hawaii Youth Climate Strike, Maui Huliau, Sierra Club Maui Chapter, UHMC Student Ohana for Sustainability, Citizens Climate Lobby Maui, and 350Hawaii.org. The Sep. 20 event will include a student climate strike outside the Kalana O Maui Building from 9am-1pm, and a rally and march with speakers and informational booths at UH Maui College from 4-6:30pm.
As we sat down to talk story, Campbell’s mom, Tamara Farnsworth, asked the teens if they wanted a drink from the cafe. The maternal moment was a sudden reminder that despite the tremendous responsibility these young people have shouldered to rescue a planet facing crisis, and despite the poise and thoughtfulness they put into their efforts to educate and organize – they are, indeed, still minors. It was a sudden reminder that we adults have harmed the planet, and are leaving young people and future generations with a world that will be less vibrant, livable, and safe. But it was also a reminder that now, as in desperate times throughout history, we are all called to do what we can to save and protect what we must.
“It makes me feel hopeful,” said Farnsworth about the students’ activism. “It’s been very inspiring to see them planning and see them so engaged in community and paying attention to what’s really happening on the planet Earth.” Since joining the movement, her daughter has been exploring and encouraging ways to decrease their family’s carbon footprint, she said.
Farnsworth isn’t concerned about her daughter missing school, nor are the parents of the Eyerman and Schwartz. Some of them have even been recruited to participate on Friday as well.
“As they say, why go to school if their future’s threatened by the climate crisis?” Farnsworth said. “That’s very real. It’s more real than than any conceptual theories they might learn in school. This is really important. They’re learning civic engagement. They’re learning organizing skills; they’re learning how to speak in a more articulate way. So all the things that you’re supposed to be learning in school, they are now applying in real life.”
Still, reception among the general public is mixed. While New York City’s public schools are excusing students’ absences for participating in the Global Climate Strike with parental permission, and organizations like Amnesty International have written letters in support of student strikers, the Hawai‘i Department of Education has taken a more conservative stance.
“The Hawaii State Department of Education supports students’ constitutional rights to a peaceful assembly and free expression,” wrote the department in a statement to MauiTime Tuesday. “Our goal in responding to walkout plans and other forms of peaceful assembly is to support student and staff safety and keep the focus on teaching and learning. Students who voluntarily leave school to participate in non-school related events are marked with an unexcused absence unless determined otherwise by school administration.”
Sage Campbell, Georgia Eyerman, and Siena Schwartz remain undeterred. Here are some excerpts from our conversation, which touched on their goals for Friday, reasons for skipping school, dealing with skeptical peers and adults, the dire moment in history we’re in, and their inspiration for taking part in a historic movement. It has been edited for length and clarity.
Axel Beers: What’s happening Friday?
Siena Schwartz: We’re striking school this Friday for climate action. There’s going to be a big event, and we’re going to try to host teach-ins.
Sage Campbell: So at different times, different knowledgeable speakers are going to lead a group discussion about what’s going on with the climate crisis, what’s going to happen, and what we can do as an overall community. We’re also dealing with grief.
SS: We are also going to be sign waving in front of the County Building and we are going to be handing out flyers to people who walk in.
AB: Who are you excited to see speak?
SS: Tara Owens [a UH Sea Grant coastal processes and hazards specialist assigned to the Maui County Planning Department, who studies sea level rise].
SC: Jenny Pell [a permaculture designer]. And we also have a former school counselor who would like to talk about the psychology surrounding the climate strike.
AB: Why a counselor?
SC: Because there’s a lot of people thinking about this and people are stressed out about it, especially students, because this is our future.
Georgia Eyerman: I know, I’m worried about the fact that the Earth is burning.
SS: I remember I was on the phone with Georgia and I’m like, ‘Why did this have to happen to us?’ It isn’t our fault.
GE: It’s probably a good idea for some of those feelings to be opened up and talked about.
SC: Then people can resolve their feelings towards it, and they can actually think about it. And it would be healthy to have a former school counselor to talk to about that.
GE: So instead of just crying about it, you could put those feelings aside for a little bit and work toward getting something done.
AB: What’s your goal for Friday?
SS: We’re not just doing this Friday, we’re also doing it on the 27th.
GE: Part of it is to raise awareness to people around us who don’t really understand climate change at the moment.
SS: Another part is to get our councilmembers to understand how big of an issue this is, and how important it is to declare a climate emergency. We’re not just calling on our elected officials from Maui, we’re putting our future in the hands of all of the world – Hawai‘i, the United States of America, everywhere.
SC: We are just overall passionate about it, because it is our future.
AB: It sounds like, as young people and members of the next generation, you can show adults and community leaders what’s at stake. When I met you in May you said you had a meeting scheduled with Mayor Victorino. How did that go?
SC: We’ve met twice since our last strike, and we’ve just been discussing the climate.
GE: We did bring up declaring a climate crisis the last time, and he said he’d look into it, which is great. It was a lot of progress since the first meeting.
AB: So things changed between your first and second meeting with the mayor. What was the difference?
SC: The first time we were less prepared. We didn’t really know what was coming; we didn’t know what to expect. We were going into a new environment. The second time, we knew what was coming, and we knew how to talk with him to get things sorted out – we knew how to express our points.
SS: Also, I think the mayor also was more prepared, ‘cause I’m not sure he knew what was coming the first time. He wasn’t aware of how much of a voice just a few 13-year-olds can have.
AB: What did that experience teach you about communicating with adults and people in positions of power?
SC: We needed to get our point across without coming on too strong, or trying to be like, ‘We need this, this, and this.’
GE: We needed to have more examples and reasoning.
AB: In May, you also mentioned some challenges with people at school, both students and faculty. Has that changed?
SC: Actually, yes. People have been more accepting and now they know more about it.
SS: A few people have been more accepting, however some opinions haven’t changed. And some just don’t think about it or don’t really care. I’ve been talking to my peers a lot, and they were like, ‘Well, yes, the climate crisis is a big thing that we need to worry about but I don’t know how much impact I can have being a 13-year-old.’
SC: They have the mindset that because we’re just children, we can’t do anything. But we keep trying to tell that that we can do things. Just because we’re children doesn’t mean we can’t make a difference.
AB: Do you think it’s harder to share your ideas with adults or children?
SS: Being their peers, kids are more hard-hitting. Adults are more respectful.
SC: Kids are also biased by what their parents believe instead of having actual experiences and an open mind.
AB: Would you say your message to students is different from your message to adults?
GE: Maybe the way we talk to them, but our message is the same. The way we talk to peers is more loose and about explaining what’s happening.
SC: Whereas adults, we’re trying to explain to them what we want to do, because they already know about climate change and the climate crisis. So for adults it’s an issue of inaction, but for young people it’s more about education.
AB: What have people from school said about the upcoming day of climate action on Friday?
SC: Some of our peers are joining us, and they’re very passionate about it. They’re very happy about it and so are their parents.
SS: But some of our peers are saying it’s stupid to strike school since we’ve already talked to the mayor.
SC: They say that we’re wasting our future and that we’re wasting our time doing this, but really we’re fighting for our future.
GE: There’s a few teachers that we’ve told about this and they’ve been supportive, but they can’t really tell us ‘good job for skipping school.’ [Laughs]
AB: Why do you think striking school for the climate is more important than attending school?
GE: There’s no point in learning and building up for the future if we don’t really have anything to build up to.
SS: Right, why go to school and strive for the future if we aren’t really gonna have one at all?
SC: Why do our very best in school, to get into college, to have a job, to have a career, to have a family – if that’s all on the line right now. We can make a difference right now, instead of making a difference in the future when there is no time. We’d rather do what we can now so we can have that great future that everybody in life aims for.
AB: Was there a specific moment that made you realize how important it was to take action for the climate?
SS: First of all, we’ve had record-hitting heat over the summer. Of course, when we started, I was passionate about it because I’ve watched videos and I’ve heard and read over the news about it, and how dire it is. But it really hit me when we had the fires and record-breaking temperatures over the summer. This is because of climate change. Think about how hard it would be to survive that every single day – that wouldn’t be living, necessarily. It’d be surviving.
SC: I’ve had a lot of moments, but a really harsh one was during the summer when I was traveling a lot, and I would see trash literally everywhere that I went. On the streets, on the beaches, even up in the mountains. It just broke my heart a little bit. Every single place, I would see trash: in the waters, on the rocks, in the trees, flying around the streets. I also saw birds picking up plastic, taking it away. I just didn’t want that. This is our future – not only ours, but also everybody else’s: the environment and the species. So many species are going extinct every single day, and I don’t want that. This planet is amazing. There are so many things that we still haven’t even discovered that we might never discover anymore, because of climate change and pollution.
GE: It was a lot of things building up. Of course, I was very concerned about the planet. I read articles, and we all learned stuff together. But it’s the fact that things just keep getting worse in a short amount of time. Like the record-breaking heat during the summer, the tons of fires in just one month. I went off-island this summer and when I came back, it was so much worse. Even in that one month, they’ve gotten so much worse with all the fires and the record-breaking heat. It’s just insane how drastically it’s changed in such a short amount of time, and the fact that it’s going to keep getting worse is really scary. Since I was a little kid, I’ve been planning my future and what I want to do when I grow up. The fact that this is happening so fast, and that I might not be able to get there, is really scary and sad.
AB: That is scary. But if there was one thing you think everyone on Maui can do to help, what would it be?
SC: There’s so much we can do, from not using plastic to recycling. But I think one of the main things that people can do is research and educate themselves. If they educate themselves about the topic, then a lot will change. That will be really good option, because not everyone can make huge changes in their lives because it might not be easy for people, especially if they’re not economically stable. They can at least research to learn about what is going on, what is happening, how this is going to change things, and how this is going to affect every single living person and living thing on this planet.
GE: Yes, educating yourself is a huge part of it. That’d be amazing, if everyone could just do their research about what’s happening. There are a lot of little things they could do. One thing that would be huge is if just everyone in the whole world went vegetarian for a few days a week because the meat industry is a huge part of of greenhouse gas emissions, even more than cars. And go to the climate strike. They can’t fire everyone and they can’t expel everyone from school. If everyone would just strike that one day, it would raise so much awareness. People would learn so much just by walking out one day. Educating yourself is a huge part.
SS: There are so many things, like recycling and all that. But right now, I feel like it’d be amazing if everyone just strikes for climate action this Friday, because that’d be a giant movement. If everyone on Maui did that one thing, it’d make such a difference. It would get everyone so much more aware. Not only that, but I feel like if everyone knew what climate change was and how it was affecting us, and believed that we can make a difference, that they would start to make small changes in their everyday life, to make Maui a better place to live.
The Climate Strike will happen on Friday, Sep. 20. From 9am-1pm, all are invited to demonstrate outside the Kalana O Maui (County) Building with “signs and spirit.” From 4-6:30pm, a rally and march will be held at UH Maui College, including speakers and entertainment. Learn more at Fridaysforfuture.org, Globalclimatestrike.net, Youthclimatestrikeus.org, Climaterealityproject.org, and 350.org.
Photos 1, 2 and video by Axel Beers