“Tina Kotek, listen up! All the youth have risen up.”
This was one of many chants that echoed through downtown streets during the Portland Youth Climate Strike (PYCS) last Friday, September 15. The strike, which saw teens leave school to march downtown, was held on an unseasonably warm September day, with temperatures in the 90s, underscoring the protesters' message: the climate is changing rapidly, and our leaders must act to reduce greenhouse gas emissions—before it's too late.
Last week’s strike, held in solidarity with others around the world for the Global Climate Strike, was the second youth climate strike in Portland this year, and was one of several held in Oregon that day. Young people in Salem, Eugene, Bend, and Florence also left school to participate in climate marches in their city, all of which shared a central demand: Oregon Gov. Tina Kotek must declare a climate emergency.
“A climate emergency declaration would allow the state government to act swiftly to reduce Oregon’s greenhouse gas emissions, as well as address issues such as sustainable housing and transportation,” a press release for the statewide action said.
The local action is part of a growing youth movement across the United States to demand action to reduce the impacts of the climate crisis, for future generations. Last month, a landmark lawsuit saw a Montana judge rule in favor of youth plaintiffs who alleged state leaders violated the young people's constitutional right to a clean, healthy environment, in its process for permitting fossil fuel development.
Portland youths have been hosting climate strikes since 2019 in solidarity with the Global Climate Strike founded by Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg and her organization Fridays for Future. After a break during the pandemic, the PYCS returned in 2021, and the group has since held events at least once a year.
The latest strike saw several hundred attendees, most of whom were Portland-area students. While youth climate advocates led the protest and made up the majority of the participants, they were joined by people of all ages.
"We're really trying to highlight the fact that this is an intersectional, intergenerational movement," 18-year-old Niomi Markel, who has been involved in PYCS leadership for two years, told the Mercury after the march. "The youth are leaders, but we're asking everyone to join in."
"Hey hey! Ho ho! Zenith Energy's got to go!"
In Portland, climate strike organizers rallied against Zenith Energy, a multinational fossil fuel storage and transport company which has an operation center in Portland’s Northwest Industrial Area. While Portland City Council initially denied Zenith a Land Use Compatibility Statement (LUCS)—a permit required for the company to legally operate in the city—in 2021, city leaders approved a LUCS in October 2022.
Portland leaders said their approval was predicated on several commitments from Zenith, including a promise the company will phase out all crude oil transports through the terminal within five years and transition to renewable fuels. The approval decision was made after a lengthy legal dispute between Zenith and the city of Portland in the wake of the initial permit denial.
But Portland climate advocates weren’t happy with the city’s decision to allow Zenith to operate—regardless of the promises the company made. Community groups called on Portland officials to rescind the LUCS, arguing the city didn’t collect public feedback when approving the land use permit. Advocates have also been skeptical of Zenith’s promises to transition to renewables. Some environmentalists argue renewable fuel, which refers to fuels made from animal and plant matter, is not significantly different from standard fossil fuels—especially in the case of a potential oil spill.
The company is located in Portland’s Critical Energy Infrastructure (CEI) hub on the western bank of the lower Willamette River—a seismically vulnerable part of the city. In the case of an earthquake in the Cascadia subduction zone, research has shown materials stored in the CEI hub are very likely to spill into the Willamette on a scale equivalent to the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010.
“One of the reasons we are here is because of the CEI hub on the Willamette River and how when the Cascadia subduction zone earthquake happens, the Willamette River will be flooded with oil and other toxins,” Avery Temple, co-founder of the Healing Underground—an abolitionist, healing justice, and arts grassroots collective in Portland—said at Friday’s strike.
Last week, Street Roots reported the Portland City Auditor is investigating Zenith for potentially violating city lobbying code. Recent reporting shows Portland Commissioners Dan Ryan and Carmen Rubio significantly interacted with Zenith in 2022, corresponding privately with company staff and joining Zenith executives on a boat tour of their facilities. At the time, Ryan oversaw the Bureau of Development Services (BDS) and was responsible for the LUCS decision. In 2023, Rubio took over BDS, and has maintained city involvement with Zenith.
“Our city officials intentionally worked with Zenith to issue them a new permit, allowing them to continue bringing oil tankers down our river and oil trains through our neighborhoods,” Josie Moberg, a climate justice movement legal fellow at Breach Collective, said at the strike.
Many protesters at Friday's climate strike held signs referring to Zenith, calling Portland City Council's permit approval for the company a "backroom deal." Zenith's future is now in the hands of the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), which is responsible for issuing an air quality permit to the company. In August, members of Portland environmental groups Breach Collective, Willamette Riverkeeper, Portland Audubon, Portland Harbor Community Coalition, and Columbia Riverkeeper sent a letter asking the state DEQ to "utilize its existing legal authority to deny Zenith’s pending... permit application."
The Oregon DEQ will allow the public a chance to comment on the draft air quality permit decision before the final decision is made, but it's not yet clear when the public comment period will be.
A broad and active coalition
The PYCS last week saw fewer attendees than in past years, when thousands of marchers have taken to Portland's streets. This year, the number of protesters was in the hundreds. Climate strikes across the world have faced a problem of dwindling participation, even as the effects of global warming become increasingly pronounced—this past summer was the hottest on record.
But even with fewer protesters, the energy remained high and attendees expressed a range of tactics for climate action.
"Our expectation is always zero engagement, so it's always a blessing to have people show up," Markel, one of the PYCS leaders, said.
Local climate action isn't limited to the annual or biannual marches, either. Portlanders have met regularly throughout the last few years to organize around various local environmental initiatives, from community forums against the Zenith permit dubbed "Rumble on the River" to actions against the Oregon Department of Transportation's (ODOT) plan to expand I-5 at the Rose Quarter. (ODOT recently paused plans for the I-5 expansion due to a lack of funds.)
With Portland City Council growing to 12 members in 2025, local climate activists are likely to see new avenues for environmental action in City Hall and organize around supportive candidates. At least three people who have announced a 2024 run for City Council were present at Friday's Climate Strike: Steph Routh, Daniel DeMelo, and Chad Lykins, running in districts 1, 3, and 4, respectively.
Another group of climate strike attendees advocated for a unique path toward climate action: spirituality. Several members of Portland-based EcoFaith Recovery, an interfaith organization that aims to "revitalize communities of faith to make a lasting difference for the healing of the world," showed up to Friday's march to support the youth leaders.
Robyn Hartwig, the founder of EcoFaith Recovery, is the pastor at Spirit of Grace Church in Beaverton. She told the Mercury the purpose of the group is to become grounded in "bigger stories of the earth," using intersectional practices guided in multiple religious traditions and partnerships with Indigenous organizations.
"This capitalist, destructive economy isn’t going to be around forever," Hartwig said.
Solveig Nilsen-Goodin, a Lutheran pastor in Portland, said it's important to form community and protect against the feeling of despair that can come with addressing the seriousness of the climate crisis.
"We wanted to bring deeper spiritual energy to these young people who are looking ahead for decades and thinking, 'How are we going to get through this?'" Nilsen-Goodin said. "We need to act together. Isolation kills us and breeds despair."