Responses by Austin lead VL Gaffney. Interview conducted by UT student Carlos Anchondo.
Can you remember when you first learned about climate change and what it was?
My first learning moment with climate change and our growing environmental issues was during the summer before third grade. I was away for camp and saw how dry the lakebed was in our cove, and how far we had to walk downhill to reach the waterline when we went kayaking. I asked a counselor if the lake had always been this empty, and she showed me the cliffsides on the other side of the lake that we could see from camp, and she told me how you could tell how high the water should be based on where the plants grow. Texas had been in a drought that lasted another several years, and I was always very mindful of the lake levels from then on.
How did you feel when you first learned about climate change and what will happen if it’s not properly addressed?
I felt sick to my stomach. My first thought was to wonder how the lake could ever get so low. The cliffsides were huge, the lake had been very deep and was now shallow enough to drive an SUV through some areas. Knowing that the lake could go dry for good made me want to cry, knowing I may be one of the last campers to see and use the waterfront.
How did you come to be involved with Youth Climate Strike?
When I learned that Greta Thunberg’s school strike movement was expanding to the US, I immediately googled how to get involved and found the registration form. I’ve been very politically active over the last few years, so getting into the swing of things with a new group was no sweat. I know I should do everything I can, so I will do everything possible to help this movement and work to protect the environment I love and respect so much.
Walk me through what will happen at the Capitol on March 15, if you could.
On March 15, Climate Strike Texas is inviting everyone of all ages to the Capitol for a rally calling upon our representatives to push legislation that will protect Texas’s natural resources and the environment we all call home. Texas is one of the largest exporters of crude oil and natural gas in the world, so we need also be the forefront in responsible environmental use and protection. We cannot be driven by money, we must be driven to survive and keep our home hospitable.
In your own words, how would you describe your objectives as “strikers” ?
The objective of the Climate Strikes around the world, and especially in Texas, is to make the message abundantly clear that environmental protective action must be a priority for legislators. We will not go quietly, and neither will our planet. If left unchecked, fossil fuel usage will burn the face of our Earth violently and continually until there isn’t enough Earth left to survive on. There is nowhere to run to when our natural resources and global environment are destroyed.
Additionally, climate change and environmental destruction disproportionately affects impoverished and already damaged communities. A large portion of Texas is rural and declining, leaving the cities and suburbs as the only place to go. Affordability becomes an issue. Space becomes an issue. Quality of life is at risk not only for humans but for our animals. Our state and national parks are struggling, our animal habitats are on the line, and for what? Bigger trucks? Texas cannot allow itself to become synonymous with financial gain at the expense of our lives. As is famously said, “Only when the river runs dry will it be realized that we can’t eat money.”
We won’t be able to see our “big and bright” stars if we stay on this path we’ve laid.
Have you, or are you currently, learning about climate change through your school education? If so, what courses are you learning about climate change in?
Climate change and protection are heavily emphasized in Environmental Science, Environmental Systems (AP), and Aquatic Science. Knowing that students are being given this information and taught how it impacts their lives is comforting, but those same students must be willing to use the knowledge they’ve gained. This movement is us putting those lessons to work. It’s a common argument that student activists should “stay in school,” but it is school that taught us what we are striking for.
Why do you believe climate change has become such a politically polarizing issue? How should it be talked about?
Unfortunately, climate change has become to politically divisive due to the nature of conservative and Republican politicians being more likely to represent the communities that are built on oil and gas production. The hardworking people of rural Texas towns in the fossil fuel industry know what it means to quite literally “pull yourselves up by your bootstraps,” work for every penny and possession with little to no recognition, and are less likely to subscribe to the more-left ideals that people deserve support, “handouts,” government aid, or that alternative energy sources will be beneficial. It is not a strange phenomenon to have pushback from these communities when the very things that Democrats and lefties are fighting for in the Green New Deal would put these towns “out of business.” They have every right to be anxious about their livelihoods and wellbeing if fossil fuel will no longer be their employers. For a long time, Republican politics have stood for being “self-made,” not relying on help from anyone, and that is rural culture.
It can be a very isolating existence to work in the crude oil and natural gas-driven areas of our nation. Knowing the demographics of city-dwellers versus rural residents creates an “othering” effect. Urban people may never know the difficulties and physical strain of living and working hours outside of metropolitans – so it shouldn’t come as a surprise to any suburban kid that their rural counterparts may hold some resentment toward them. It is our duty as strikers to reach across party lines and make it abundantly clear that Democrats and liberals don’t seek to destroy the way of life in rural America, but seek to rejuvenate it in a sustainable way. The oil and gas deposits will run dry, the earth will go barren, the trees will burn and the riverbeds will be bare, but we can prevent that future if we are willing to work together.
Do you feel as though your school teachers have ever shied away from talking about climate change in the classroom?
I’ve fortunately never had a teacher try to dodge the subject, but I’m sure plenty of other Texas students have. Our curriculum requirements are not sturdy or consistent, and it is easy for parents to make decisions about what their child is allowed to learn or be exposed to. A lot of Texas is like the “Bible Belt,” and our current education policies facilitate parents that would rather not have their children learning other science subjects, so missing out on climate lessons isn’t hard to do. The efforts to keep the public education system of Texas serving as many students as possible has subtly forced TEA to make concessions about curriculum and requirements to please parents.
What do you want political leaders to know about your movement?
It’s better to listen now than to hope we go away quietly. We will not be silent about this or any topic affecting the future of our state, nation, and world. Texas could lead the way in environmental protective action and policy change. As our representatives, it is your duty to speak in our best interest, and these are our interests. You can’t turn your head and pretend you don’t hear us, we are on your doorstep and we will not leave.
Do you feel as though every student in Texas should be learning about climate change through the education system?
Texas students should absolutely be made to stare in the face of environmental damage caused by irresponsible practices and asked to think deeply about their priorities. This isn’t a sad article that can be tucked away and forgotten, this issue is right before our eyes and refuses to be ignored. How much longer will we pretend that breaking 110 in heat is just a “cute quirky Texas thing”? Will our pride leave us, and our animals, to be baked alive?
If you have learned about climate change in school, do you feel like the teacher could have spent more time on the subject or made the unit more robust? Or, was it adequate?
My teachers made sure to put as much emphasis on the climate crisis as they could, but I do live in left-leaning Austin, where our outdoor spaces are very much ingrained in our community culture. The only thing that could have made the curriculum stronger would have been a field trip to the lakes or aquifer to speak with professionals in natural fields.
From your perspective, do you have classmates at your school who know nothing or next to little about climate change?
My district reaches into the rural outsides of the greater Austin area, and many of them are detached from the community culture of being active outdoors. Instead viewing nature as their workplace, not their “playground.” It becomes an experience of protecting only what is within arm’s reach. As long as their land appears to be surviving, “then we must be fine.”
Have you ever heard classmates at your school call climate change a hoax or something similar?
Many students parrot their parents instead of taking the time to research and draw their own conclusions, which has become a negative stereotype as a generational phenomenon. Having representatives on our news media referring to climate change as a hoax leads to students with the same beliefs.
Is getting people to care about climate change personal for you all? If so, why is that?
My work as an activist is very personal. Outside of my love for camping and experiencing the natural world, I am also disabled, and have a sensory disorder that makes extreme weather difficult and uncomfortable. I am dreading the summer heat that will use up my energy and leave me in pain. I used to love thunder storms, but now I can’t handle the air pressure changes. I used to run outside to dance in the rain, but now I can’t stand the uneven sensations. Climate change will give us more and more of these weather fronts in extreme directions and make it harder for me to live.
It speaks to my privilege, and the privilege of my neighbors, who say that I should simply move somewhere without these seasonal experiences. “If you don’t like it, move somewhere else!” But not everyone can afford to abandon their home for more temperate climate, and eventually, those temperate zones will become just as polluted and at-risk as the areas we left behind for the less privileged to suffer in.
Do you ever feel exasperated that other people don’t care enough or more about this issue? Why or why not?
The apathy and detachment from reality does become frustrating, knowing my peers go about their lives without the weight I carry on my mind. I envy those who can simply not think about the impact they are having on their world through microagressions and small actions every day that perpetuate and accelerate our problems. Disposable water bottles, styrofoam lunch trays, fuel inefficient vehicles, food waste, littering — all of these things keep me buzzing and moving while they aren’t even phasing some.
Do you feel as though your movement should give people hope, courage, or something to that effect?
Climate Strike TX has the potential to inspire a positive mindset in the Lone Star State that we aren’t struggling alone in small towns anymore, we are working as a whole to ensure the survival of Texas “throughout the ages long.” Everyone has a chance to speak up right now, this is the time and this is the opportunity. Our communities will die off, or we can give them new life through Green Energy efforts. There is no need to fear the unavoidable depletion of oil wells if we act now.
What are your career goals for the future? Why have you chosen to pursue that career?
Outside of environmental activism, I’m a disability advocate and the Coordinating Director of United Fates Fest, working in education and innovation to create a sustainable future in accessible learning and living. Texas sorely lacks in support for abstract thinkers and disabled students. I suffered through public school, but no one else should have to. I refuse to allow the cycle to continue, so I founded Camp Oak Hallows and I’m sure to involve myself in every opportunity for the betterment of Texas.