Student Groups Badger Politicians to Act on Climate

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

Joining a national trend of activism, an environmental youth group is turning up the pressure on Gov. Gina Raimondo to act on climate change.

On Aug. 11 members of the Sunrise Movement delivered a petition and letter to the Statehouse asking Raimondo to stop taking donations from fossil-fuel companies. The activists also wanted Raimondo to sign a “No Fossil Fuel Money Pledge.”

It was the third attempt by the group to hand-deliver the letters to Raimondo.

Similar actions by Sunrise Movement groups took place in California and Pennsylvania as part of a “Heat Weak” campaign held Aug. 5-11. Eight activists were arrested as they protested inside the Manhattan office of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

According to the group, Raimondo has received about $7,500 in campaign donations from fossil-fuel companies.

“I firmly believe that a politician cannot take fossil-fuel money and still call herself a progressive,” said Ella Kilpatrick Kotner, an organizer for the Rhode Island Sunrise Movement.

The group criticized Raimondo for supporting the proposed Burrillville power plant and for her neutral position on the National Grid natural gas liquefaction project proposed for the Providence waterfront.

"We are tired of toxic facilities being built in the backyards of minority and low-income neighborhoods and of the residents of these neighborhoods being silenced and ignored," Kotner said.

The Rhode Island group is one of 19 nationwide. Local members are students from Brown University and the Rhode Island School of Design. Some also belong to the Rhode Island Student Climate Coalition.

The protests are part of a nationwide campaign to make climate change a priority among students and young voters.

According to a recent article in The New York Times, students groups are galvanizing after youth protests against gun violence. Many are inspired by environmentalism and opposition to fracking. The young activists are organizing marches, sit-ins, and voter registration drives.

“I think young people are realizing that we have powerful voices, and are ready for those voices to be taken seriously," Kotner said. 

The youth movement is also active in the courts. Twenty-one plaintiffs, age 7-19, are suing the federal government for violating their rights and failing to address climate change in the case of Juliana v. United States.

RISD and Brown students have organized climate campaigns in recent years. Students from both schools held protests to encourage divestment from fossil-fuel companies. After student actions at both schools, RISD’s board of directors approved divesting the college endowment from fossil-fuel investments in 2015. Brown’s board of directors rejected the proposal in 2013.

“We are tired of the voices of the fossil-fuel industry being louder than ours or anyone else, and so we are using our power and privilege to speak out and demand justice,” Kotner said.