Climate strikers gather in Jefferson Square Park in Louisville, KY on Friday, Sept. 20, 2019. All photos by the author.

‘You will die of old age. I will die of climate change.’

Louisville’s Climate Strike began in a downpour. On Friday morning, September 20, strikers huddled under thick-leafed trees in Jefferson Square park, across from City Hall, as three teenage climate activists rallied the large crowd from a soaking wet stage. Amy Waters, hiding from the rain beneath a wide-brimmed hat, came from Indiana to join Louisville’s protest. Before the rally began, she was brought to tears by a child’s sign that read: “You will die of old age. I will die of climate change.”

The Global Climate Strike—a week-long, international, youth-led strike from school and work to demand politicians solve the climate emergency—was sparked by activist Greta Thunberg who, in the spring of 2018, began striking from her school in Sweden to protest her government’s inaction around climate change. Her mobilization led to the first international school strike on March 15, and on September 20, adult allies were invited to join in. Over 300 strikers rallied in Louisville, joining an estimated four million people in 163 countries for the biggest climate day of action ever.

Amelia Loeffler, 17, and Emanuelle Sippy, 16, both had to take unexcused absences for leaving their high schools in Lexington, but they say it’s worth it.

A group of young strikers at the Climate Strike in Louisville, KY present their demands to limit or eliminate political donations from fossil fuel industries and for Louisville to join five other cities across the country to declare a climate emergency.

“There’s such ignorance and apathy when it comes to [climate change],” Sippy said. She didn’t learn about climate change in school, and called her 9th grade biology teacher a climate denier who would post her opinions on her social media profiles. “We’re growing up in a world that’s quiet about this, so we have to be loud.”

Loeffler said she had more open-minded teachers, but electing political leaders, including the U.S. President, who are climate change deniers, is a huge problem.

Over 300 strikers rallied in Louisville, joining an estimated four million people in 163 countries for the biggest climate day of action ever.

 “When you have people in positions of power spreading misinformation it can lead to the apathy that is facilitating the backwards steps we’re taking for promoting a greener future,” Loeffler said. Both she and Sippy want to see their local political leaders make big changes that sets an example for the nation.

Along with about 20 other climate strike leads from local high schools and colleges, Kentucky’s youth have two demands:  first, their state political leaders will pledge not to accept any campaign contributions from the fossil fuel industry over $200. Louisville’s Mayor Greg Fischer ceremonially signed the pledge and agreed to advocate for their second demand: Louisville will work to join five other cities around the country in declaring a climate emergency.

A young person readies their sign for the climate strike in Louisville.

Nationally, the Youth Climate Strike Coalition focuses on displaced communities, advocating for “a transition that invests in prosperity for communities on the frontlines of poverty and pollution.” They’re also demanding 100 percent renewable energy by 2030 and to restore 50 percent of the world’s lands and oceans.

Growing up deep in the mountains of eastern Kentucky, Lily Gardner, 16, got a ride with her mom to emcee Louisville’s protest. She calls the climate crisis “the biggest threat to our generation’s future.” She joined the Sunrise Movement—one of dozens of climate organizations in the climate strike youth coalition—via Twitter in 2018. Less than a year ago, her organization went viral when they occupied Mitch McConnell and Nancy Pelosi’s offices to demand a Green New Deal.

“We’re growing up in a world that’s quiet about this, so we have to be loud.”

Gardner began the strike by highlighting the impact Kentucky’s marginalized communities face in the climate crisis: “We’re here because far too many people in our state do not have access to clean water. Farmers are no longer able to grow the crops they’ve depended on for years and Louisville is facing sky-high rates of asthma. For decades working class communities and communities of color have been on the front lines. The first hit by pollution. The first hit by flooding. And that has got to come to an end.”

State representative Charles Booker, who also signed the fossil fuel pledge at the strike, along with senate minority leader Morgan McGarvey, grew up in one such community in West Louisville. He remembers lead paint in his childhood home, the toxic fumes from Rubbertown—a cluster of industrial sites—and the brownfields and contaminated ponds surrounding his neighborhood.

“Ignoring our environment has hurt communities like mine for years,” said Booker. “I think Kentucky has to be a leader in addressing climate change because it affects us so greatly especially when so many families, like in eastern Kentucky, have built their livelihoods off of coal mining. We can’t leave those families behind,” Booker said. He reflected on the weeks-long miner’s protest blocking a coal train in Harlan County after Blackjewel Mine declared bankruptcy and left its employees without paychecks.

“All the grown ups here aren’t going to be around when [the climate crisis] happens. It’s our future,” she said.

According to Booker, a just transition away from polluting industries like coal could transform the statewide economy. He’s begun talking to other elected officials about implementing a Kentucky Green New Deal.

Once the skies cleared, Lily Gardner invited a contingent of elementary schoolers to join her on stage. About 15 kids shot out of the crowd and clumped together, and one by one they introduced themselves and their schools. One little girl, hands clasped, told her fellow strikers the reason she was there: “All the grown ups here aren’t going to be around when [the climate crisis] happens. It’s our future,” she said.

  • About

    Austyn Gaffney is a freelance writer and editor. Her work has appeared in HuffPost, onEarth, Sierra, Southerly, and Vice. You can find her stories at www.austyngaffney.com, and follow her on Instagram and Twitter at @austyngaffney.