On Friday, Feb. 13, 50 students gathered to recognize the 400,000 people killed annually as a result of climate-induced disasters, such as drought, famine, typhoons, and flooding. This vigil was hosted by Wes, Divest, a student organization that wants the University to divest from fossil fuels and move toward alternative resources.
“I hope I can speak on behalf of all of us here when I say that we refuse to let these stories go forgotten, to let them vanish beneath the tides of history,” said Sam Curry ’17, one of the organizers of the event. “We refuse to blindly assign statistics to real human suffering.”
This was one of the focal points of the evening, and various group members emphasized the importance of altering one’s perspective toward the implications of climate change.
“There’s been an exciting shift in the climate movement over the past few years, from talking about science to realizing who’s dealing with it right now,” said Wes, Divest member Maya McDonnell ’16.
After Curry’s opening words, during which he distributed tea lights to those who had gathered, students were then welcomed to share any stories about climate change victims that were on their minds.
The discussion also focused around the statement written on a banner hung from the wall of the 24-hour study space in the Exley Science Center: “Climate change is racist. Climate change is classist.” Many of the stories shared addressed environmental racism, and how impoverished and minority-rich communities are at a severe disadvantage when fighting their climate-induced disasters.
One member brought up a snow storm that hit Middletown a couple of years ago. The University was able to recover fairly easily, but many of the surrounding areas faced much greater struggles. Another member discussed the drought in California and the subsequent displacement of jobs for Mexican migrant farmers. Some present raised the point that such communities are already unequipped to battle the effects of climate change, and because their members are often minorities, they tend to be ignored and denied outside help.
The gathering coincided with Global Divestment Day, and Wes, Divest members used the day to apply their school-wide mission to a larger scale. The stories shared at the vigil made for a reverent atmosphere, and many participants remained silent, nodding along in agreement and bowing their heads attentively.
“It’s nice to gather people in a protest-type thing that’s not angry,” McDonnell said. “It’s more respectful and it’s more of a recognition, and then we take that and create action based off of that, which I think is a really big part of the intention of Global Divestment Day, to get people thinking and to use that as the call to action.”
Curry also spoke about his personal ties to the cause having grown up in New Zealand, a region under an immense threat of rising sea levels and village displacement. A large portion of the country’s culture is rooted in its connection to the land.
“To lose [one’s land] is to not only lose your home, but to lose yourself, to lose who you are,” Curry said.
The group then had a four-minute period of silence to reflect on attendees’ reactions to these tragedies, to remember the lives lost by climate-induced disasters, and to consider what can be done for those who are currently suffering. Afterwards, McDonnell led the group in a call-and-response song. Students chanted phrases such as “the people will rise,” and “we believe that we will win” throughout the lobby.
Members of Wes, Divest seemed pleased with the result of the evening.
“I think we struck a pretty good tone, holding the truth of climate change that’s often easy to forget because it’s far away both in time and space,” Sophie Sokolov ’18 said. “I think it’s really important to have spaces to open and feel and think more about that.”
Mira Klein ’17, another attendee, commented on the universality of the issue.
“I like the fact that there are hundreds and hundreds of other groups doing this today all around the world, really showing solidarity and supporting one another and drawing attention to the fact that this is such a global issue,” Klein said. “Even though what’s going on with Wes, Divest is really important, the reason that Wes, Divest is doing what it is doing is because of global victims.”