Members of Sunrise Movement PDX
Members of Sunrise Movement PDX Photo by Maddie Maschger

When the school year began a few weeks ago, Lincoln High School student teacher Suzanna Kassouf asked the students in her freshman US history and ethnic studies class if they ever worried about climate change. Every student raised their hand.

“They’re feeling a lot of fear,” Kassouf told the Mercury. “They’re seeing things change right before their eyes, and they’re afraid they’re going to witness the total breakdown of society. Which, if we stay on the course we’re on now, they will witness the total breakdown of society. And they’re just not going to stand for that."

Kassouf shares her students’ concerns. A grad student at Lewis & Clark College, Kassouf fell into a months-long depression last year, after an intergovernmental report estimated the world had about 12 years to curb the effects of climate change before they became permanent. Then, she started organizing.

“After a few months, I said, ‘I can’t live this way anymore, I need to do something about this,’” she said. “I decided there wasn’t any more time for being depressed, so I started going to any action or event I could find.”

But the local environmental action groups Kassouf found at the time were “a sea of gray hair.” So she joined with other young climate activists to create a local chapter of the Sunrise Movement, an American youth-led movement to address climate change. Today, that chapter boasts a listserv with over 400 members, and has about 50 core organizers, ranging from middle school-aged to 35 years old. Kassouf serves as the co-coordinator of its "actions and strategies" team.

This Friday, Sunrise Movement PDX will join a coalition of groups to hold a climate strike in Portland, part of a worldwide day of strikes led by 16-year-old Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg. Other organizing groups include Youth Igniting Change, 350PDX, and the Portland chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America.

Climate strikers plan to meet in front of Portland City Hall at 10:30 am Friday, then march through downtown Portland and over the Hawthorne Bridge. The march will end outside OMSI, where a climate festival goes until 5 pm. According to the Portland Police Bureau, organizers have secured a permit for the demonstrations, which could impact traffic and TriMet routes.

Kassouf said many of her Lincoln High students plan to take part in the strike. Portland Public Schools will give students an excused absence for the strike, as long as they notify their teachers before leaving school.

“Why should these students be in class?” Kassouf said. “Why should they be learning about a future they’re not going to have, unless we take immediate action?”

The striking youths have some demands for Portland city government. They want Portland City Council to establish a “climate test” to apply to any new policy or ordinance being considered, and they want the city’s climate action to specifically address frontline communities, or those communities—often low-income people or people of color—who are most affected by climate change. They also want Mayor Ted Wheeler to abstain from attending a climate summit in Copenhagen next month, arguing that taking action at home—pushing back against Zenith Energy’s crude oil trains, for example—is more important than putting on a show on the world stage.

A new report from the city’s Bureau of Planning and Sustainability (BPS) shows that Multnomah County’s carbon emission reductions have plateaued in recent years, rather than continuing to improve. From the report, which BPS has been quoting on social media leading up to Friday's strike:

“Despite 26 years of climate planning and mitigation in Portland, local carbon emission reductions have started to plateau around 15% below 1990 levels, see Figure 1. This is both a success story, and a warning. The reductions to date are impressive given we’ve welcomed 38% more people and 34% more jobs during the same time. Collectively we have reduced per person emissions in Multnomah County by 38% since 1990, although these reductions have slowed. Despite our successes, our emission reduction efforts clearly need to rapidly accelerate.”

In the week leading up to the climate strike, Wheeler has promised to declare climate change an emergency, and determine next steps for curbing the area’s carbon emissions.

Kassouf told the Mercury that she hopes Sunrise Movement PDX’s member numbers will grow on Friday. She said the climate festival will include trainings and educational workshops, giving young climate activists the chance to channel their fear into action.

“With something like the Women’s March, maybe you get 100,000 people to show up, and they march, and they go home, and maybe they show up to march next year,” Kassouf said. “Our goal with the climate festival is to help people get actually involved in the movement, so they show up to something next week.”