What started as a handful of students striking in a parking lot during the summer of 2019 has become regularly organized strikes during the school year.
“When we started this movement, a lot of people doubted us,” Ethan Bledsoe, a senior at West Lafayette Jr./Sr. high school, said in his speech at a strike Friday. “Many adults said this was just a phase we were going through.”
Two years and nine protest events later, the students helped pass a carbon neutrality resolution for the City of West Lafayette and have now set their sights on state legislation.
When Bledsoe and his friends first walked out of school in 2019, they were asking for climate action. Now they are writing policy for it.
Once again, over 100 West Lafayette Jr./Sr. high school students left class on Friday as part of the global climate strike movement. The group marched to the John T. Meyers pedestrian bridge where students gave speeches and announced legislation they are drafting for the State House.
As part of this initiative, the students, with the support of legislators, will introduce two pieces of climate legislation in the 2022 legislative session, a concurrent resolution and a bill.
The concurrent resolution will acknowledge the climate crisis, establishing a scientific base for Indiana legislators. In this case, the concurrent bill will be used to convey a consensus within both houses on the seriousness of climate change.
The bill aims to create a climate and environmental justice task force by May 2022. The task force would be made up of stakeholders in the state and will include legislators, researchers and energy experts as well as representation from Indiana businesses, farmers and student climate activists.
The task force would be tasked with developing a climate action plan of policy recommendations to the statehouse.
This strike and legislative initiative were organized by Confront the Climate Crisis, an organization working to enact climate change legislation at the state level. Bledsoe, along with fellow students Annabel Prokopy, Lily Shen and Rahul Durai, created the organization with the help of students all around the state.
“Indiana has the highest carbon footprint per capita in the Midwest,” Prokopy said. “If we want to fix climate change we need all of Indiana, not just West Lafayette, to be involved in the solution.”
To extend its movement from the city to the state level, CtCC reached out to state legislators like Republican State Senator Ron Alting. He agreed to meet with the students.
“He has been very receptive and very committed to working with us on this issue,” Durai said. “It really is an issue that he cares about, and we’re very fortunate to be able to have him as a leader in this.”
To help the student succeed in their state legislation effort, Alting described the legislative process to the students. He also introduced them to other senators, stakeholders from around the state and Governor Eric Holcomb. In the end, he volunteered to sponsor the climate legislation that CtCC drafted.
“Senator Alting has been extremely willing to let us be the drafters of the legislation that he’s going to introduce,” Durai said. “He has given us the power to take charge of the drafting process of this legislation.”
This is not the first time Alting has sponsored legislation brought forward by West Lafayette students. Students from Cumberland Elementary school wrote to Alting about making the Say’s Firefly the state insect.
“Although it wasn’t as big as climate change, it was about a state insect,” Alting said. “Indiana didn’t have one. A lot of people laughed when I brought it to the state, I agreed to author it. I even chaired the committee that it was assigned to.”
He said he sees the legislation CtCC has drafted as proof that the next generation will have the solution to climate change.
“It will be your generation that will make a difference,” Alting said. “My generation has failed. The generation before me has failed.”
He said the road to passing legislation may be difficult. The firefly legislation took almost three years to pass, but as long as the students are persistent, he believes it can be done.
“It takes a collaborative effort to get something through like this,” he said. “This is an enormous change. It may take some time to get everybody on board.”
Some people, including teachers at West Lafayette Jr./Sr. High School, were unsupportive of the early strikes in 2019.
“There were some teachers that were talking about how climate strikes are not an effective use of time, and that people just want to get out of school,” Bledsoe said.
Over the years though, as the students have worked to turn their protests into policy, teachers have become more supportive of the strikes.
The students said they try to execute the strikes in a way that minimizes any disruption to the learning environment of the school. All the strikes are approved ahead of time by the school administration and every student who wants to participate has to have a permission slip signed by their parents.
The strikers stressed that at the end of the day, they still prioritize academics.
“We haven’t made this our whole lives, you know, we are still students,” Shen said. “We still do sports and other activities.”
Bledsoe, Prokopy and Shen are all graduating at the end of the school year. Even as their journey as high school climate strikers comes to end, they have high hopes for the movement going forward.
They spent the last year recruiting young members like Durai, as well as creating momentum through the CtCC coalition around the state.
“This campaign will be able to continue because of the amount of support we’ve been able to build up over the past year and the number of students we’ve brought to be passionate about this,” Durai said. “I don’t think it would be possible for this campaign to end anytime soon.”
This reporting is supported by Carbon Neutral Indiana, a nonprofit helping “individuals and businesses clean up their carbon footprints.”