Char­lotte’s ‘Greta’ to meet teen cli­mate ac­tivist here

The Charlotte Observer - - FRONT PAGE - BY BRUCE HEN­DER­SON bhen­der­[email protected]­lot­teob­server.com

A visit to Char­lotte on Fri­day by 16-year-old Swedish ac­tivist Greta Thun­berg will fo­cus new at­ten­tion on cli­mate change. But for months, a lo­cal stu­dent has also clam­ored for ac­tion in lonely vig­ils out­side the city’s halls of power.

Each Fri­day since Feb­ru­ary, My­ers Park High School ninth grader Mary El­lis Stevens, 14, some­times joined by a few friends, has held “cli­mate strikes” out­side the Char­lot­teMeck­len­burg Govern­ment Cen­ter.

The strikes be­gan in a freez­ing rain in Feb­ru­ary. Peo­ple she tries to en­gage of­ten walk past her ar­ray of home­made signs while point­edly avoid­ing eye con­tact. Some­times, Mary El­lis said Thurs­day, “it’s dis­cour­ag­ing and lonely.”

She found in­spi­ra­tion in pic­tures of Thun­berg skip­ping school to sit out­side Swe­den’s Par­lia­ment. “So this is like com­ing full cir­cle,” she said of Thun­berg’s visit.

Mary El­lis’ strikes are part of a global phe­nom­e­non. An es­ti­mated 4 mil­lion young peo­ple world­wide, in­clud­ing hun­dreds in Char­lotte, poured into the streets for cli­mate protests on Sept. 20. Fri­day’s event will be from noon to 2 p.m. out­side the govern­ment cen­ter.

Thun­berg’s visit fol­lows her voy­age to New York aboard a sail­boat, to avoid planet-warm­ing car­bon emis­sions, and her ad­dress in Septem­ber to the U.N.’s Cli­mate Ac­tion Sum­mit, where she

scolded world lead­ers for in­ac­tion. Her trip to Char­lotte comes with new warn­ings about cli­mate change. More than 11,000 sci­en­tists from around the globe re­cently is­sued a re­port say­ing the planet “clearly and unequiv­o­cally faces a cli­mate emer­gency,” the Wash­ing­ton Post re­ported this week.

Thun­berg and Mary El­lis were aware of each other through so­cial me­dia, Mary El­lis said, but not un­til Wed­nes­day had they di­rectly com­mu­ni­cated: I’m com­ing to join you in Char­lotte this Fri­day, Thun­berg wrote in a mes­sage.

Char­lotte City Coun­cil mem­ber Dim­ple Ajmera, who led the coun­cil’s now-dis­solved en­vi­ron­ment com­mit­tee, first met Mary El­lis on that frigid day in Feb­ru­ary. The teen po­litely de­clined her in­vi­ta­tion to move her strike in­side the build­ing, Ajmera re­calls. The two have met fre­quently since then, and Ajmera will speak at Fri­day’s cli­mate strike.

“I call her our lo­cal Greta,” Ajmera said. “What Greta has done cross the world, Mary El­lis is do­ing in our city.”

‘SOME­THING WE CAN­NOT IG­NORE’

Mary El­lis, who en­joys rock climb­ing and white­wa­ter kayaking, has al­ways been drawn to na­ture, said her mom, Natalie Stevens. Plopped once on a blan­ket in the back­yard as a tod­dler, her par­ents turned in time to see her hold­ing a snake.

Her in­ter­est in cli­mate change be­gan when, as an eighth grader at Trin­ity Epis­co­pal School, she had to choose a year-long re­search project.

“She found Greta on the in­ter­net, and through her re­search got the gut feel that we’re in trou­ble, that we have to act now,” Stevens said. “See­ing Greta gave her the courage to do the same thing.”

In March, Mary El­lis at­tended Cli­mate Re­al­ity Lead­er­ship Corps ad­vo­cacy train­ing with former Vice Pres­i­dent Al Gore.

Her schools have been some­what ac­com­mo­dat­ing of her skip­ping class, Mary El­lis said. As a Trin­ity Epis­co­pal stu­dent, she was al­lowed to be at the govern­ment cen­ter from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. each Fri­day. Af­ter start­ing at My­ers Park High this fall, she had to switch to a 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. sched­ule.

“I am no longer ac­cept­ing things I can­not change,” her Twit­ter bio says. “I am chang­ing the things I can­not ac­cept.”

In an email to the Ob­server in March, in the fourth week of her strike, Mary El­lis said she wanted “to send the mes­sage that this is some­thing we can­not ig­nore.”

“We are skip­ping school to demon­strate be­cause some­thing needs to be done now. Why should we study science when politi­cians are not lis­ten­ing to the smartest brains in science telling them we are de­stroy­ing our planet?” she wrote.

“Our planet needs cli­mate ac­tion that in­cludes 100% clean en­ergy by 2050. I am in 8th grade and I want the planet to be healthy not only for my gen­er­a­tion, but also for my chil­dren and grand­chil­dren.”

EX­AM­PLES OF COURAGE

Her ad­vo­cacy in Char­lotte has come amid mixed sig­nals from city lead­ers.

The City Coun­cil, in 2018, passed a res­o­lu­tion call­ing for deep re­duc­tions in car­bon emis­sions by 2050. Last De­cem­ber, Char­lotte was named one of 20 cities to take part in a $70 mil­lion pro­gram to fight cli­mate change spon­sored by the phi­lan­thropies of billionair­e Michael Bloomberg.

But Mayor Vi Lyles also dis­solved the City Coun­cil’s en­vi­ron­ment com­mit­tee in March, merg­ing it with two oth­ers, to the dis­may of ad­vo­cates.

Sarah Ha­ley, chair of the Char­lotte chap­ter of the Cli­mate Re­al­ity Project, said the stu­dent strikes make a state­ment — “why should chil­dren go to school when they don’t see a fu­ture?” — but also help make them part of the de­ci­sions that will af­fect their fu­ture.

The City Coun­cil’s cli­mate res­o­lu­tion, Ha­ley said, “helps to hold our elected lead­ers ac­count­able that we’re watch­ing, that these are not just as­pi­ra­tional goals but that we’re act­ing to­ward them.” Ad­vo­cates are push­ing county com­mis­sion­ers to adopt a sim­i­lar res­o­lu­tion, she said.

Mary El­lis says the re­la­tion­ships she formed with Ajmera and coun­cil mem­bers Larken Egle­ston and Brax­ton Win­ston, all former mem­bers of the en­vi­ron­ment com­mit­tee, showed that she was hav­ing an im­pact.

“The goal is for Char­lotte to be a (low-car­bon) leader, and for other cities to see us and no­tice our ac­tions and take sim­i­lar ac­tions them­selves,” she said.

Ajmera said that while stud­ies show that coastal cities in Asia are most likely to be in­un­dated by re­cently-re­vised pro­jec­tions of sea level rise, lo­cal stud­ies have found that Char­lot­teans also feel en­vi­ron­men­tal im­pacts. The Char­lotte-based ad­vo­cacy group Clean Air Carolina has re­ported that the same air pol­lu­tants linked to cli­mate change threaten the health of res­i­dents in Char­lotte’s his­toric West End.

Clean Air Carolina hon­ored the work of both Mary El­lis and Ajmera at its State of the Cli­mate event on Thurs­day night.

We live in un­prece­dented times, Ajmera said, mak­ing it im­por­tant that lo­cal govern­ments ad­dress cli­mate change. She called the stu­dent ac­tivists en­er­giz­ing and “the ex­am­ple of courage.”

“When young peo­ple speak up it’s more im­pact­ful, and the rea­son is that their age has a lot to do with it,” she said. “They have noth­ing to gain from this ex­cept lead­ing a good qual­ity of life.”

Cour­tesy of Mary El­lis Stevens

Mary El­lis Stevens started her “cli­mate strikes” out­side the Char­lotte-Meck­len­burg Govern­ment Cen­ter in Feb­ru­ary. On Fri­day, the My­ers Park High ninth grader will meet her in­spi­ra­tion: 16-year-old cli­mate ac­tivist Greta Thun­berg from Swe­den.

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