In a moment of silence at the top of Casper’s Washington Park, you could hear the veins of the city, imperfect and anatomical in their execution of the day’s tasks. You could hear the whir of distant machinery, car doors slamming and the ever-present wind over all of it.
On Friday morning, you could also hear Natrona County students, standing shoulder-to-shoulder, speaking for their values and their futures.
“I want everyone to leave today and think about what you can do to make a difference,” Maille Gray told students and community members gathered at Washington Park Friday.
The students, roughly a dozen from Natrona County and Kelly Walsh high schools, were advocating for action on climate change by going on strike from school and holding the rally at the park. Gray, a 17-year-old Natrona County High student, organized the event.
A few long-time climate change activists spoke to the students, including Citizens Climate Lobby representative Dan Cooper. Cooper has been a lifelong environmental activist. He spoke a little about policy, namely about a carbon tax his organization has been advocating for for several years.
But mostly, Cooper was there to listen to the students.
“It is very exciting for me to see young people get involved,” he said. “The young people have got to take the torch.”
Another long-time Casper activist, Jane Ifland, who has run as a Democrat for the state legislature in the past, praised the students’ willingness to break the rules to have their voices heard.
“This is what’s thought of as civil disobedience,” Ifland said of the students skipping class.
But though some did make remarks, the rally consisted mostly of adults asking students questions about policy and how they could help the movement. That movement is part of a global trend of youth taking action on the environment, and they’re finding heroes within their own ranks.
One such person is Greta Thunberg, a Swedish teenager who led a school climate strike last year in front of the Swedish Parliament and has been gaining global notoriety ever since, even speaking before the United Nations. Since her school climate strike last year, students around the world have taken notice and action.
In mid-March, students across the U.S. organized their own national Youth Climate Strike. A school in Jackson participated in that, but elsewhere in Wyoming, youth climate activism has been less overt.
That changed Friday with the strike. Gray organized the event after experiencing the effects of climate change first-hand.
A few years ago, she was camping near Gannett Peak.
“We were using maps from 1991, which really isn’t that long ago,” she said. “According to those maps, I was supposed to be camped on a glacier.”
But the glacier was a mile and a half away, she said. That’s when she realized the gravity of the situation.
“You don’t have anyone unaffected by climate change,” she said.
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She said young people have the most power to effect change because soon, they will be the ones in charge. Other students agreed.
“I think it’s harder for older generations to take the topic of climate change seriously because ultimately they don’t have to deal with the effects,” 18-year-old Kelly Walsh student Kleo Vlastos said.
And living in the Oil City, in a state with an energy-dependent budget, presents its own challenges.
“Wyoming is unique because that’s how people earn their money,” Vlastos said. “So it’s hard to find equal ground.”
She said being able to start small and open the discussion is a good first step, which is why she came to the rally.
Gray said she believes green energy could replace a lot of Wyoming oil and coal jobs, but that she doesn’t think fossil fuels need to be completely eliminated.
“It’s about economic diversification,” she said. She hopes the state will use its existing energy production to help transition to more renewable resources.
Dylan Thompson, a 19-year-old recent graduate of Kelly Walsh, has been worried about climate change since he was 4 years old, when his dad explained it to him.
“The way he explained it to me was that the north and south poles were melting, and pretty soon Santa wouldn’t have a place to live,” he said.
Since then, Thompson has been lobbying government officials and speaking out about the issue. He said sometimes it’s difficult because he feels young people are not always taken seriously. He hopes that more people his age will get involved in politics to counteract that.
Lately, more students have been. Last year more than 100 Natrona County High students walked out of class to show solidarity with mass shooting victims after the shooting at a high school in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people.
The rally Friday morning lasted from 10:30 to 11:30. At 11:11 a.m. Gray asked those in attendance to take a moment of silence and think about how they could take steps to reduce their carbon footprint. The timing was significant because it represented 11 years scientists say remain before the effects of climate change irreversibly ravage the Earth with extreme drought, wildfires, floods and food shortages. That report was released last year by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
Last week, Natrona County School District issued a statement saying it was aware of the planned strike but was not sponsoring it and would not be excusing students who participated.
“Per policy, students who participate in the event will be recorded as absent from school. This ensures the school is able to account for those who are present and/or absent, thus ensuring student safety,” the statement read.
The district said the absences could be counted as parent-excused absences if a parent or guardian called to notify their child’s school.
Gray said this is the last event she has planned, but she is confident it will not be the last time youth in Casper come together over the issue. Gray said more information is available on Facebook and Instagram by searching “Climatestrikewy.”