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Youth Climate Strike protesters pack downtown Portland as organizers call for climate action from city leaders

UPDATED: Fri., May 20, 2022

Several thousand young people marched through the streets of Portland in a "climate strike," demanding political leaders take action on climate change, on Fri., May 20, 2022.  (Dave Killen)
Several thousand young people marched through the streets of Portland in a "climate strike," demanding political leaders take action on climate change, on Fri., May 20, 2022. (Dave Killen)
By Kale Williams The Oregonian

Thousands of young people, many students from local high schools, protested Friday in downtown Portland, calling for action on climate change and demanding accountability from city leaders.

Organizers of the Youth Climate Strike asked local and regional officials to sign a pledge committing to take no money from fossil fuel companies, to oppose new fossil fuel infrastructure and to “advocate for young people’s right to a safe and sustainable climate throughout their lives.”

Lori Stegmann, a Multnomah County commissioner, was one of the first to sign.

“We need to speed up our climate action plan. There needs to be greater urgency,” Stegmann said. “We know how to stop it, the question is, do we have the political will? Well, these young people prove that we do.”

State Rep. Khahn Pham, D- Portland, joined Stegmann among several politicians to sign the pledge and spoke to the crowd gathered in front of City Hall.

“They are going to tell you that you’re being idealistic, but if they think we’re going to get out of this with the same old thinking, then they are the ones being idealistic,” Pham told the crowd to cheers.

Damaris Cowles, a 17-year-old senior at Cleveland High School, said seeing older people and those in power pledging to take more aggressive action on climate change was meaningful.

“It’s really important that we have their support for this movement,” Cowles said. “I hope that other people see how important it is to come out and stand up for what you believe in.”

From City Hall, the crowd marched through downtown as speakers railed against four organizations and agencies the protest organizers dubbed the region’s biggest “climate villains” — NW Natural, Zenith Energy, the Portland Business Alliance and the Oregon Department of Transportation. The strike organizers say the four are contributing to or have stymied efforts to curb the impacts of climate change.

In a statement Friday morning, Zenith Energy touted its storage of “renewable diesel,” which the company said “emits up to 80% less carbon than traditional fossil fuels.”

“The renewable diesel we store serves many local governments and transit agencies in Portland and surrounding areas, helping the state reduce its carbon footprint,” said Grady Reamer, a vice president with the company. “Our plan is to fully replace traditional diesel with renewable diesel, utilizing existing infrastructure to advance the region’s climate goals.”

In statements, the Department of Transportation said it was “committed to working with our state and local partners to reduce our statewide carbon emissions from transportation” and NW Natural said it supports “policies that promote collaboration with the private sector to innovate and invest in clean technologies,” according to KOIN News.

Oregon has seen its share of climate-influenced disasters in recent years. The Labor Day fires of 2020 destroyed thousands of homes, mostly in southern Oregon, and killed eight people. Nearly 100 people died in the state when temperatures spiked last June, reaching 116 degrees in Portland and breaking records across the region. For the past several years, many parts of the central and southern parts of the state have seen expanding drought conditions.

Adah Crandall, a sophomore at Grant High School and one of the organizers of the protest, said she was pleased with the turnout, but that Friday’s event was just the beginning of a “season of action.”

“We have more events planned throughout the spring and summer,” Crandall said. “This march is not the end. It’s just the beginning.”

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