Environmental club petitions VCU to declare climate emergency

Protesters holding up a sign. Photos by Katie Farthing

Katie Farthing, Staff Writer

Barry O’Keefe, a VCUarts adjunct faculty member, walked alongside students, faculty and community members through campus to VCU President Micheal Rao’s office while carrying his two-year-old daughter. 

O’Keefe’s daughter held a sign that read “No tuition on a dead planet.” 

“It [VCU] has an enormous responsibility to decarbonize itself, which it’s entirely shirked for most of its history,” O’Keefe said.  

VCU has yet to divest from fossil fuels, while the University of Richmond is now generating 100% of its power from renewable energy, according to O’Keefe. 

“It’s [VCU] a beautiful school. I’m very committed to it, and that’s why I’m out here,” O’Keefe said. “Dissent is the highest form of patriotism.” 

After marching through campus, approximately 30 protestors gathered on West Franklin Street for songs and speeches. Student organization Green Action! promotes climate justice and organized the protest, according to its leadership. 

Aaron Hart, VCU vice president of student affairs, accepted the coffin on behalf of Rao, who was unable to be present, according to Hart. 

Hart said Green Action! has been given priority in communications and meetings for the future. 

Richmond City Council previously declared the city in a state of climate emergency in 2021, according to a previous article by The Commonwealth Times

Green Action! created a petition that has surpassed 2,000 signatures, and it outlines steps for VCU to become a more sustainable university, according to Caroline May, communication arts and environmental studies student and events coordinator for Green Action!. 

Declaring a climate emergency involves acknowledging climate change as an issue and requires institutions to be held accountable and address it, according to May. 

Some steps are reducing VCU’s greenhouse gas emissions by 50% by 2030, being more transparent about their emissions and moving away from fossil fuels, according to May. 

The aim of the protest was to encourage Rao to declare a climate emergency at VCU, according to Lee Finch, founder and co-president of Green Action!

“Declaring a climate emergency is not just a statement,” Finch said. “But holding VCU accountable for their unsustainable partnerships and practices.” 

Finch showed the crowd of protestors a small coffin with an earth ball inside while a protestor played funeral music on a trumpet. Organization officers later on left the coffin at Rao’s office.

“Today we march with this coffin containing the earth to this funeral music to show the gravity of our situation,” Finch said. “Combating climate change is not political, it is necessary.” 

Green Action! has been in contact with Rao several times before on this topic, according to Carolyn Hindle, an environmental studies student and co-president of the student organization.

“Last semester, he said he ‘didn’t want to get political,’” Hindle said. 

Hindle said that VCU impacts not only students but the Richmond community.   

“It [VCU] owes all of its students and all of the Richmond citizens an opportunity to have a clean future,” Hindle said. 

Mark Wood, a professor in the school of world studies and advisor for Green Action!, delivered a “farewell to a way of living on the planet that is killing to earth” to protestors. 

“Our health, well-being and joy depend fundamentally on doing all that we can to replenish and protect the biodiverse ecosystems that nourish our lives,” Wood said. “VCU can lead the way in this effort.”

Woods said caring for the earth is necessary to care for ourselves. 

“Our health depends on the earth’s health,” Wood said. “Care for the earth must take priority over the bottom line and making profits for the few.” 

Ollie Walker, an environmental studies student, protested with the club and said that some effects of climate change are irreversible at this point. 

“I think universities as institutions are creating the next generation of people in the workforce, and they have a certain responsibility there in upholding things, like protecting our world,” Walker said.  

VCU is currently developing a sustainability plan that may address points mentioned in the Green Action! declaration, according to a joint statement from Hart and Meredith Weiss, vice president for administration. 

“We know that for plans this important to work, the entire community needs to be included in the development and implementation,” Hart and Weiss stated.

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