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By Artemisio Romero y Carver
1st Place, Social Issues Article, 2020 NMPW Contest. What responsible adults look like in the age of climate crisis.
On Oct. 30, we walked into the Roundhouse, New Mexico’s state Capitol building, with very little to lose.
With us were members and supporters of our group, Youth United for Climate Crisis Action (YUCCA), a youth-led initiative of Earth Care; the Albuquerque-based Fight For Our Lives; and the New Mexico Climate Strikers: high schoolers and recent college graduates, all linked by a sense of urgency and desperation.
“We are going upstairs to the governor’s office, and you’re welcome to come with us,” Faith Pennell-Sutton, one of YUCCA’s leaders, shouted with purpose. People drained out of the rotunda and funnelled up the stairs. Teenagers with signs and songs led the way for adults and elders to follow — an intergenerational parade for climate justice.
We reached the third floor, where we met 21 of our allies, seated in position on the ground in a circle, arms linked, with large images of clocks at the 11thhour hanging from their necks and displayed on banners, superimposed over images of the California wildfires.
In the circle, I caught the eye of older woman named Mary, whom I’ve come to know quite well. We smiled at each other, two generations linked by a common cause: saving the planet we call home.
Four weeks earlier, our coalition of youth activists had planned the Sept. 20 climate strike at the Capitol and in the streets of Albuquerque. We had successfully turned out thousands of young people and thousands of allies. We promised ourselves then that our strike would become a movement.
Ten days later, we returned to the Capitol to fulfill that vow. On Sept. 30, we had delivered a letter to Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham during a public press conference. Included in that letter were our demands:
In that letter we promised we would return in a month, either to thank the governor for protecting our futures, or to share our disappointment and outrage. Throughout the month of October we held rallies every Friday in the tradition of activist Greta Thunberg’s Fridays for Future and delivered weekly messages to the governor.
For a month we hoped. And at the end of that month, nothing had happened.
Nothing of note, anyway. Five days before our deadline, Secretary of the Environment James Kenney told us the governor was unavailable to meet but that he and the secretary of energy wanted to share their work as the co-chairs of the governor’s Climate Change Task Force.
In that meeting we learned that the report from New Mexico’s Climate Task Force, directed by executive order to be released on Sept. 15, did not yet exist in finished form. We learned that the report does not include anyintention of achieving carbon neutrality for our state nor any trackable path to achieve the obligations of the Climate Alliance and the Paris Agreement goals to reduce carbon emissions by 45 percent by 2030 compared to 2005 levels. The plan does not address how to transition from our dangerous dependence on oil and gas revenues in the Permian Basin and includes no plan to put an end to fracking.
The meeting was meant to reassure us of the governor’s commitment to address climate change. Instead, we left with confirmation that our leaders are not acknowledging the crisis we are all in and that we’re speaking two different languages. When I shook Kenney’s hand at the end of the meeting, I felt my generation had been abandoned.
I carried that sense of fear with me on Oct. 30 as we filed into the hallway, packed shoulder to shoulder as we shouted chants and protest songs.
All your children
If you hear us
Join us now.
A kind of impromptu stage formed in front of the circle of allies, and young people began to share their stories. We spoke of fracking spills, fires and fears. Kids my age and younger, scared for their lives, cried in front of the New Mexico State Seal. I cried a little myself. I saw the door to the governor’s office as an impossible barrier between us and our future, and I wondered if anything will ever change.
Then, something did.
A Capitol employee warned us we’d have to leave when the governor’s office closed at 5. Ten minutes later, he told us, “You need to leave now.’’
“No,” someone replied. And just like that, our sit-in began.
Among the allies refusing to leave the building were Mary and her husband, Bill, older citizens who put their bodies and their freedom on the line for the young people of New Mexico.
Earlier that day, Mary showed me the oversized red wool hat she wore. Her kids, as beginning knitters, had made it for her as a purse, but it was so big she thought it worked better as a hat. We both laughed. Her children have grown and moved away, but wearing the hat reminded her of them — and of why we can’t afford to give up hope.
As our allies stood firm in the Capitol, YUCCA and the remainder of our supporters headed to a policy hearing being held by the environment department, the next part of our two-part action.
The hearing’s purpose was to break the news to New Mexicans that our state government is working with the fracking industry to address its toxic waste problem by developing ways for the radioactive wastewater to be dumped in our waterways and used in our agricultural fields. The industry calls these chemically contaminated substances “produced water” — a term that is only a euphemism for poison. You can’t “produce” water any more than you can manufacture air.
The hearing was being held in the St. Francis Auditorium of the New Mexico Museum of Art, which is built in the tradition of a missionary church, complete with rigid wooden pews, religious iconography and a palpable air of mourning.
As I sat in the second pew from the front, an older man leaned toward me. “So far,” he said in a deceptively calm voice, “I count 10 officers.”
I straightened my back and tried not to look like a teenager.
I looked up and recognized on stage, the face of Cabinet Secretary James Kenney. We’d packed the pews, and the crowd we brought with us was feeling empowered. Among us were community members from Sandoval County and Eastern Navajo Agency who know firsthand the horror of fracking.
We reached crescendo after crescendo of booing, shouting and chanting. Community members asked pointed questions punctuated by applause, and organizers unraveled banners that they had snuck in. We had one question: “Why are we making fracking easier and more lucrative for the industry when we need to find a path to end our dependence on the dangerous practice?”
The government officials never seemed able to provide an answer.
Back at the governor’s office, a very different kind of adult leadership was being modeled.
Mary, wearing her children’s purse-hat, and the others faced down eight state police officers, each replying “yes” when they were asked one last time if they refused to leave. They were placed under arrest.
After being escorted out of the building, they received citations for criminal trespass and were told to leave. They now face months of court proceedings. I pray that Mary, Bill and every other member of the YUCCA 21 know how deeply I, along with my entire generation, thank them for standing in solidarity and making a sacrifice to save our future.
It’s hard not to compare people like Mary and Bill to people like Secretary James Kenney. Too many in power now would rather continue with business as usual than tackle the complex questions, quagmires, and sacrifices necessary to save a future they won’t be around to face.
In my lifetime, I have seen the climate crisis parch the land, flood cities and burn millions of acres of forests and homes.
I have also seen it push apart generations. A tragic reality is that the people who have caused the worst effects of climate change are several generations older than the people who will bear the consequences. It’s a hard distance to travel. A hard betrayal to undo. A hard wound to heal.
But on Oct. 30, on the floor of the Governor’s office and in the hearts of those who sat in protest, I experienced, for the first time in my lifetime, adults rising to that responsibility, and an opportunity for us to come together, young and old, in defense of future generations.
Tumbleweeds’ Noisy Acorns column promotes volunteering, legislative action and other advocacy steps on behalf of children and families. Send us your ideas: email@example.com.