As Iowa City Global Climate Strikes Pick Up Steam, Advocates Push Policy Change

Sparked by ambitions of local middle school students, Iowa City Global Climate Strikes have continued to grow in both size and strength while advocates have used the momentum to highlight proposed resolutions. 

Following the Iowa City City Council’s climate crisis declaration in August, local youth have coordinated the weekly strikes, mirroring the Fridays for Future rallies led by Swedish activist Greta Thunberg. The teen spoke in Iowa City on Oct. 4 to over 3,000 strikers consisting of UI students, faculty, and groups like the Iowa City Climate Advocates, a nonprofit organization pushing an emission-reducing bill. The strikes have given hope to many, although there are doubts about the movements’ political staying power.

Climate change issues received international attention after a report last year by the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change claimed society must cut carbon emissions by 45% by 2030 and reach net-zero emissions by 2050 or damages to some ecosystems will be irreversible. The report cited methane and black carbon as two of the main targets for reduction.

Subsequent strikes in Iowa City pushed for the implementation of a “Town-Gown Climate Accord,” demanding 100% renewable energy by 2030 and the shutdown of the University of Iowa’s coal power plant.  On Sept. 20, strikers laid down on the Pentacrest for 11 minutes to signify the 11 years left to take legislative action.

Among those sprawled out in protest was Professor Emeritus Richard Baker.  Baker has been affiliated with the University of Iowa for almost 50 years and has studied Iowa’s vegetative patterns.  He said researchers have been aware of this issue for decades.

“When I look back at my career long, long ago, you know even in the 1980s and 1990s, climate scientists were saying, ‘We’re (going to) have some serious problems,’” Baker said.

Given his background researching the issue, Baker said he was taken back by the support Iowa City has shown at the strikes.

“I don’t think that the university or the city, having seen that, can ignore it,” Baker said.

The movements have also resonated with Iowa City Climate Advocates group leader Eric Johnson, who said he hopes the energy behind the strikes will help push his group’s bill forward. Just a couple weeks ago, the Johnson County Board of Supervisors endorsed the legislation, he said.

Formally named HR 763, the Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act has been in the works for nearly 10 years and was officially introduced in the Senate in 2018. Johnson claimed the policy would reduce carbon emissions in the U.S. by at least 40% in the first 12 years.

He said it would work by putting a fee on carbon emissions, starting at $15 per ton, incentivizing businesses to search out greener alternatives. Money collected from the fee would be equally distributed to Americans every month. This dividend would help offset the increased price of goods produced from greener energy sources, Johnson said.

He added that rallies and demonstrations, such as those in Iowa City, are important to raise awareness for the issue, but it does not stop there.

“When you go to rallies like this, it’s exciting and great, and it gets people motivated, but then there’s kind of not a great action item for the crowd to take, and I feel like that’s where our group comes in,” Johnson said.

The policy is projected to decrease emissions by 90% by 2050 and create 2.1 million jobs over 10 years, Johnson said.

The strikes caught the attention of not only faculty and advocates, but also university students. UI freshman Ellie Chouinard said she was inspired by the youth-led strikes and realized it is her generation that is going to have to make a change.

“Going to these climate strikes and seeing people so passionate and making this united front, I feel like it’s just the energy that we need to tackle such a big problem,” Chouinard said.

She said the event showed her that the world is in an existential crisis, and it was “definitely a splash of cold water” to realize there is only so much time.

Like Chouinard, UI sophomore Maia Grabowski said she was touched by the strikes, saying she cried when Thunberg told the Iowa City crowd, “This is hope to me” after seeing the large turnout at the Oct. 4 strike.  Grabowski added that people should be more willing to speak of climate change as a universal issue not qualified by political or religious affiliations.

“I would hope that by people striking, and the bigger that the groups are, and the more passionate people become, those groups will be taken seriously, and policy change will be enact(ed),” Grabowski said.

Fredrick Boehmke, University of Iowa professor of political science, predicted that the political candidates that would eventually enact such policy change are already using public dialogue on the issue to appeal to voters.

“(This) creates opportunities for candidates to weigh in on this,” Boehmke said.  “The issue’s already gained a large amount of prominence on the Democratic agenda and is a very big part of the current debate and the ways that nominees are trying to differentiate themselves, in a way that it hasn’t been in the past.”

He said while the strikes give the candidates an opportunity in the short-term to contrast themselves on the issue, they will not likely change the candidates’ long-term platforms for the 2020 presidential election or gain the support of legislators outside Johnson county.

“Having a lot of protests happening in one place in the state that already has a representative that’s probably reasonably in favor of doing some of these things is not going to have a big effect on what the Legislature is doing,” Boehmke said.

Boehmke said since other legislators are not directly connected to Iowa City and its people, demonstrations heavily concentrated there will likely not convince them to take legislative action across the state.

In terms of whether Iowans will give their support, Boehmke and Baker had different opinions. Given Iowa’s agriculturally driven economy, Boehmke said he suspected farmers will back climate change resolutions since the state of the land is vital to the work they do.

Baker said since farmers have wiped out vital prairies with monocultures and continue to use harsh pesticides with known detrimental effects, they will not push the state government to take action that could limit their own practices.

“It depends on how the issue gets framed whether or not certain groups are opposed to it [policy change],” Boehmke said.

Despite these challenges, Boehmke said the hope these strikes create will likely increase voter turnout at the polls.

“I think this falls into the category of building momentum, keeping people motivated, and keeping them involved to try and bring about political change to keep this issue moving forward,” Boehmke said.

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