Students march to the Capitol asking for a “climate emergency” declaration

Legislative Gazette photo by Erica Ruggiero

Nearly a thousand students, activists and concerned citizens rallied on the West Lawn of the state Capitol in Albany on Friday as part of a global movement to demand action by political leaders to stop climate change.

The global movement reached 150 countries, where students left their classrooms to stage marches and rallies, demanding an end to the age of fossil fuels.

Several hundred students from SUNY Albany and Albany High School marched to the state Capitol as part of the International Student Climate Strike.

Additionally, hundreds of other students from area colleges and high schools marched from 79 Sheridan Avenue — the site of a power plant for the Empire State Plaza — to demand that Gov. Andrew Cuomo declare and act upon a “climate emergency.”

The students were joined by climate activists and other supporters throughout the day.

Last week, just days before the Albany rally, the state Office of General Services and the New York Power Authority announced new plans for the old power plant based on long-standing community concerns about emissions from the plant, just blocks from the Capitol.

OGS and NYPA announced that half of the power needed for the Empire State Plaza will come from a new solar project being developed in Oneida County. Additionally, $96 million in upgrades to generators, chillers and lighting in and around the plaza is aimed at reducing emissions from the Sheridan Ave. plant, which had become a symbol of environmental injustice for climate activists.

The students involved in Friday’s march were joined by representatives from environmental organizations such as People of Albany United for Safe Energy, or PAUSE, which fought the transport of oil to the Port of Albany via train tanker cars.

“We need a WWII-type mobilization to claw back our climate to some semblance of normal in the next 10 years. After that we’ll have reached the tipping point in which all living species including humanity is at risk,” said Sandy Steubing, a member of PAUSE, which has led the fight to promote safe, sustainable energy and fight for environmental justice. “With alarming speed our current trajectory of fossil fuel emissions puts us beyond the tipping point. It is imperative that Governor Cuomo respond to our call for a declaration of a climate emergency in New York state.”

Legislative Gazette photo

As participants were organizing at Sheridan Avenue at 10:30 a.m., various signs, flags and noisemakers were passed out. Others sported green shirts and armbands, while some dressed in costumes.

They practiced chants such as “hey hey, ho ho, climate change has got to go” and “staying alive at 1.5” until the march started at 11:30 a.m. Students and children were in the front with police diverting traffic as they made their way to the Department of Environmental Conservation headquarters on Broadway in downtown Albany.

Once at the DEC, they assembled to demand the stop of permits for new fossil fuel projects and infrastructure.

Their next stop was in front of the state Comptroller’s Office as they called for a divestment of fossil fuel companies in the state pension fund. At TD Bank, the marchers urged the bank to stop funding the Dakota Access Pipeline in North Dakota and other fossil fuel projects. Next, they gathered in front of Public Service Commission to call for a stronger focus on utility projects that incorporate renewable energy.

The march ended in West Capitol Park where students took to the microphone to share their stories of desperation, urgency and fear.

Sophie Schwarz-Eise, a junior at Averill Park High School, 16, was one of the first to speak and address the crowd about their future if the government doesn’t act quickly on climate issues.

“Let me paint a picture for you all of our possible future. The world is grey, huge and unpredictable storms damage nations around the world on a regular basis. There’s constant extreme heat in some places making them uninhabitable,” said Schwarz-Eise. “Hurricane Dorian recently destroyed the Bahamas. Did you know that the Amazon rainforest is one of the world’s best defenses against climate change? Well it’s still burning because of the extreme droughts in South America.”

Others spoke about why they felt compelled to skip classes to take part in the march.

“We are striking because if a social order is obstructed by our refusal to attend school then our system is forced to face the climate crisis and enact change,” said student leader of the march, Audrea Din, 18, a student at UAlbany. “Throughout history, the youth have been on the front lines of every movement, fighting for justice, change, and we’ll do it again for its determining factor, this issue of our generation.”

The students are demanding an immediate ban on all new fossil fuel projects, halting all subsidies for fossil fuels from New York state, increasing state funding to $10 billion annually for renewable energy and Green New Deal initiatives; 40 percent of such funding must benefit disadvantaged communities, converting all public buildings and vehicles to zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2023 and amending building codes to require all new buildings be carbon emission free by 2023.

Legislative Gazette photo by Erica Ruggiero

Austin Ostro, a second year graduate student at the University of Albany and the President of the SUNY Student Assembly, reminded the crowd that everyone has a part in this fight and that college students should participate and come together for those who cannot.

“College students are key because we are the ones who are going to live with the consequences, who have to get out and vote to make sure that our leaders see the issue for what it is and lead our state and our nation to a brighter tomorrow,” Ostro said.

Even though some of the protesters are not yet able to vote, that doesn’t mean that they are keeping quiet. Aeonna Marsico, 15, is a sophomore at Albany High School and uses every opportunity she can find to speak out against climate change. Marsico says she shops for local dairy products, is vegetarian, and engages in sustainability practices every day.

“Even though I can’t vote, this is what I can do about it,” said Marsico. “ The little things add up.”

Maisey Noble-Buono, 21, another UAlbany student, sat at a table during the speeches so she could advocate for the Sunrise Movement of Albany — an organization whose mission “building an army of young people to stop climate change.” She hopes UAlbany will charter the Sunrise Movement as a club.

Simultaneously, her fellow classmate Jack McEachern, 20, a UAlbany student, was making a speech on stage where he said “the future cannot be the same. We are not gods in the Garden of Eden; we are men on Earth, and it’s dying.”

Legislative Gazette photo by Erica Ruggiero

In June 2019, Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the state Legislature passed a Green New Deal for New York called the the Climate Leadership And Community Protection Act, which sets the goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions 85 percent by 2050, and having net zero emissions in all sectors of the economy.

The student activists in Albany on Friday are calling for a federal act to establish similar goals for the nation.

The proposal, introduced by U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-Bronx, and Senator Edward Markey, D- Mass., calls on the federal government to discourage the United States from using fossil fuels and suppress greenhouse gas emissions. It also aims to fix economic inequality between communities and guarantee high paying jobs in clean energy industries.

According to estimates based on power generation, natural gas, and oil consumption data, as of Jan. 8, 2019, U.S. carbon emissions rose by 3.4 percent last year. The proposal says by 2050 there should be net-zero carbon emissions globally and that the United States needs to take the lead in achieving that.

“It is time for all levels of government to treat climate as the emergency it is,” said Mark Dunlea, chair of the Green Education and Legal Fund, which helped organize the Albany Climate Strike. “We need a Green New Deal to move to clean renewable energy by 2030 combined with an immediate halt to new fossil fuel infrastructure. It needs to guarantee living wage jobs and a decent life to all residents.

“We need lawmakers to ensure funding for this transition and to make polluters pay for the damage they have caused.”