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April 13, 2023

Philadelphia high school students plan climate strike for Friday

Teens from four different schools will walk out of class to participate in a demonstration at LOVE Park at 12:30 p.m.

Protests Environment
student climate strike File Photo/PhillyVoice

Students at four Philadelphia high schools, who advocate for more aggressive climate change solutions, are planning to protest on Friday. Pictured above, students participate in a similar student-led, environmental demonstration in Center City on Sept. 20, 2019.

For high school sophomore Clara Hensley, an oil drilling project in Alaska was the last straw.

When news broke that President Biden had approved construction of the controversial Willow Project last month, Hensley felt "so powerless" and "unheard." The Science Leadership Academy student had written to City Council, had "done all the things they tell us to," and still her hometown of Philadelphia, like the rest of the nation, continued to run on fossil fuels.

Not yet old enough to vote, she decided to take action by mounting the Philly Student Climate Strike instead, recruiting teens from four city schools for a Friday demonstration.

At 12:30 p.m. on April 14, the students will gather at LOVE Park to protest, some ditching class for bullhorns and banners. By Hensley's count on Tuesday, roughly 100 protestors had promised to join her from Central High School, Julia R. Masterman School, Academy at Palumbo and Science Leadership Academy, some of which are operating on half days for professional development.

"Obviously we should be in school, obviously we should be learning about what to do with our futures," she said. "But it's not really as important if we feel like we don't have a future on this planet.

"We need to make our voices heard. We haven't been listened to."

Before the COVID-19 pandemic struck, Philadelphia students took part in the largest demonstration for climate action in history. In September 2019, thousands of demonstrators gathered in Center City as part of a worldwide strike that included participants in 139 countries. The School District of Philadelphia warned striking students they would be marked absent, drawing outcry from parents and teens who believed they should be excused without penalty, like teen protestors in New York City. The district reversed its decision for a climate protest later that year.

The School District of Philadelphia did not offer a comment on whether striking students would be marked absent for participating in Friday's protest.

Hensley characterized this strike as "more radical" than past iterations in terms of its demands. As outlined on the Philly Student Climate Strike's Instagram page, protestors are seeking these three, wide-ranging actions from City Hall:

1. Restricting and prohibiting the creation of new fossil fuel projects in Black and Brown communities, and holding fossil fuel companies accountable for their current carbon footprints.

2. Providing safe school buildings for students that do not have asbestos and lead, and have proper air conditioning, accessible entrances, and better emergency training for faculty and staff.

3. Prioritize green and sustainable developments that benefit our communities such as funding to renewable energy projects that can be used to provide energy to communities currently relying on nuclear power, coal, and natural gas.

The students particularly want to see more solar power development, Hensley said. Pennsylvania currently ranks 45th in the nation in terms of renewable energy production, generating just 3% of its power from renewable resources including solar.

"It's really inaccessible to a lot of folks because of the initial pricing," she said, "which is really something the city could help with, and help create funding for those projects."

Hensley also expressed concerns over the PES oil refinery, which infamously caused a fiery explosion in Southwest Philly in 2019. Although the refinery has been shut down ever since, the current owners of the site have suggested its tank farm might return.

Philadelphia has set a goal for its government operations and municipal services to reach carbon neutrality by 2050, and generate or buy renewable energy for 100% of its electricity by 2030. The latest data indicates the city is still far off the pace to meet those deadlines, as it reduced carbon emissions by just 20% between 2006 and 2019. Officials say these numbers still place them on track for their ultimate goals.

Regardless of whether the student strike sparks a response from those same officials, the protesting students have plans beyond Friday's demonstration, including transforming some of their ideas into legislation. Hensley says they are currently "working to get a couple connections started" with local lawmakers to realize this goal.

"We really are fighting for safe schools, a fossil free city, renewable energy and we're just going to keep pushing for those demands," she said.

This story has been updated to reflect that some of the schools with striking students are operating on half days.

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