One person addresses a crowd of young people. The crowd is holding a sign reading this is an emergency
Youth gathered outside of City Hall during the 2021 Global Climate Strike. Isabella Garcia

A growing group of climate activists is calling on Portland leaders to pledge stronger action against climate change with a planned school and work walkout and march this Friday. The march will specifically call out four “climate villains” in Portland that activists say are hindering the city’s climate goals.

“A lot of people that I know have a very utopian vision of what they think is going on around them [in Portland],” Maia Lippay, one of the youth organizers of the strike, said. “They see a lot of things as external threats, but I think it's important to bring attention to these things going on at our doorstep.”

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The strike—organized by the Portland Youth Climate Strike, 350PDX, Sunrise Movement PDX, Breach Collective, Extinction Rebellion, and more local environmental organizations—intends to underscore ongoing calls for environmental action from various climate campaigns that have still not been met by leaders, like the demands for rapid decarbonization delivered at last year's Global Climate Strike. The strike is also naming four local climate villains: Zenith Energy, NW Natural, the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT), and the Portland Business Alliance (PBA).

“The four villains that the strike has identified are local reasons why the climate crisis has been exacerbated,” Dineen O’Rourke, an organizer with 350PDX, said. “There are culprits. There are entities where we can place blame for these catastrophic events.”

Zenith Energy and ODOT are familiar targets for environmental activists in Portland. Zenith, a company that transports crude oil by trains and ships the oil out of a facility in Northwest Portland, is currently undergoing a legal battle with the city of Portland over its operations. In 2021, after significant pressure from local activists, the city determined that Zenith’s operations were not compatible with the city’s climate goals and denied the company permits it needed to operate, triggering an unprecedented legal battle with the oil industry. However, Zenith is still allowed to operate while contesting the city’s decision in court, a process that could last years.

Environmental advocates like Sunrise Movement PDX and No More Freeways have protested ODOT’s planned expansion of Interstate 5 through the Rose Quarter, arguing that the proposal will only create capacity for more cars and, by extension, more carbon emissions. Approximately 40 percent of Oregon's carbon emissions come from transportation within the state, making electrifying Oregon’s transportation system and incentivizing people to drive less a critical step towards limiting the impacts of climate change.

NW Natural and PBA are a more recent focus of climate activists. NW Natural is the largest fracked gas supplier in Oregon, but environmental advocates say the company has escaped scrutiny due to greenwashing, a type of marketing that presents companies as more environmentally friendly than they truly are. The company has set a goal to become carbon neutral by 2050, but environmental organizers argue that the region should try to move away from using fossil fuels altogether. Strike organizers are demanding city leaders stop any expansion of new gas infrastructure and create a plan to convert all buildings to be gas free by 2040.

“NW Natural has been exceptionally successful for many, many years running a marketing campaign to convince people that they're a green company,” said Nick Caleb, an organizer with Breach Collective. “Even their name makes them sound like an organic grocer rather than a fracked gas supply.”

NW Natural did not respond to the Mercury's request for comment.

PBA, a lobbying group representing over 100 businesses in Portland, has been labeled a climate villain by the organizers because of the group’s opposition to various climate-conscious programs and lobbying influence the alliance has in City Hall. In 2020, PBA strongly opposed a city proposal that would have taxed major greenhouse gas emitters—several of whom belong to the group—as a way to limit emissions in the city. In response to the opposition, city leaders tabled the carbon fee proposal for further discussion later this year.

“Our city council should be working for the people of Portland, not for corporate interests,” Adah Crandall, a youth strike organizer, said.

The alliance has also opposed the Portland Clean Energy Fund, which uses a surcharge on major businesses to fund green energy projects, as well as the recently opened Better Naito project, which has increased biking access along the Southwest waterfront.

Strike organizers are calling for Portland leaders to "cut ties with the PBA and publicly rebuke the organization for its anti-democratic activities."

PBA did not respond to the Mercury’s request for comment.

Friday’s march will start at Portland City Hall, where march organizers have invited all of the city commissioners to sign a pledge committing to urgent action to mitigate the impacts of climate change. The pledge asks leaders to oppose new fossil fuel infrastructure, refuse monetary contributions from oil, gas, and coal industry representatives, and to advocate for effective and just climate policy “at every possible opportunity.” Read the full climate pledge here.

Commissioner Carmen Rubio and a staff member from Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty’s office plan on meeting with the march at City Hall to receive the pledge, according to their respective offices. Hardesty has helped the organizers obtain permits for the march, but will be out of town during the event.

Commissioner Mingus Mapps is unable to attend the strike to sign the pledge, according to his office. Mayor Ted Wheeler and Commissioner Dan Ryan did not respond to the Mercury’s inquiry on whether they are planning to sign the climate pledge.

“It'll be interesting to see who signs and who refuses to sign and who doesn't show up at all,” Crandall said.

After delivering the climate pledge at City Hall, the march will stop by NW Natural and PBA headquarters before ending at Revolution Hall for a climate festival featuring live music, speakers, and resources on how to get involved with various organizations and climate campaigns in the city.

Organizers hope the event serves as a way to thread together the various ongoing environmental campaigns in Portland, as well as underscores the urgency of the climate crisis.

According to the most recent United Nations climate report, greenhouse gas emissions must peak by 2025 and halve by 2030 in order to avoid excessive global warming that will worsen existing climate disasters. The report concludes that countries no longer have time to gradually wean off fossil fuels and current actions by global leaders are not nearly aggressive enough to meet the timeline.

When environmental activists, and more specifically youth activists, have called on city and state leaders to make drastic and aggressive changes—like demanding a freeze on major freeway expansions in Portland or speeding up the city's timeline to become carbon neutral—the demands have often been dismissed as unrealistic.

According to O’Rourke, dismissing the general public by saying that they don’t understand the complexity of an issue has been a “key tactic in the playbook of government” for decades.

“That is the opposite of democracy,” O’Rourke said. “That's a really dangerous move for elected officials to take, to dismiss young people and to dismiss any of their constituents and their intellect.”

To Crandall, youth demanding more immediate and significant action is appropriate given the unprecedented climate crisis.

“It shouldn't be the youth's responsibility to write the step-by-step plan of how we're going to fix things,” Crandall said, “that is what our leaders should be doing.”

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