“We can and should do more at every level to address the impact of climate change”: UWL students rally against the university’s climate change response


Photo taken by Alexia Walz.

Alexia Walz, Multimedia Editor

On Monday, Dec. 13, Citizen Action of Wisconsin hosted a climate rally under the Hoeschler Clock Tower. The rally organizers were University of Wisconsin-La Crosse students and Citizen Action interns Cassidy Hansen and Erin Pierce.

According to Pierce, the rally was hosted to start a campaign and receive petition signatures. “UWL needs to be doing everything in its power to take action and become a climate leader by both hiring a sustainability coordinator and creating a climate action plan,” said Pierce.

Citizen Action of Wisconsin is an organizing group that focuses on four issues: climate change, universal healthcare, social justice, and election protection.

Rep. Jill Billings planned to attend but was unable to make it. Citizen Action read a statement written by Billings on her behalf: “We can and should do more at every level to address the impact of climate change on communities across the state. I would encourage UW-La Crosse to take the next steps to address climate change on campus and in our community, to hire a sustainability coordinator, and create a campus climate action plan. Thank you.”

In the statement, Billings announced that she is authoring new legislation that would “help provide training to the next generation of leaders, researchers and those implementing the solutions.” The Forward on Climate legislation package was co-authored by Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes and other colleagues of Billings’.

After the statement by Billings was read, Hansen read the action plan of Students for Sustainability (SFS), a student organization focusing on promoting sustainable living and climate action at UWL. In the plan, the organization said that SFS created a petition during the 2018-19 school year that received signatures from about 25 percent of the UWL student population. The petition was for the hiring of a sustainability coordinator.

UWL senior and SFS co-waste coordinator Christina Mehrkens said the petition did not lead to the hiring of a sustainability coordinator due to financial limitations. She said she will continue to speak out about the lack of a sustainability coordinator even though the UWL administration declined to take action. “I’ve kind of seen that we’ve been trying and it’s failing and really the only thing that we can do now is just speak up louder, keep pushing them, show them again that there’s a community around what we’re doing and make them scared,” said Mehrkens.

The first speaker of the rally was UWL biology student Abby Siakpere. Siakpere said, “Climate change is here and the effects are being seen all over the driftless region. Yet, local and state officials have done nothing to protect the citizens of Wisconsin from future disasters. The climate action plan should have already have been drafted, approved, and implemented because the research has already been done.”

Teaching professor in environmental studies at UWL, Alysa Remsburg also spoke at the climate rally. She said that other institutions with a climate action plan and a sustainability coordinator on staff reach sustainability goals effectively.

“Places like [Western Technical College] and [Gundersen Health System] are exponentially more effective at reaching these kinds of goals. UWL has a Green Fund that has inspired these other campuses…but it could really benefit from long-term follow-through of a sustainability coordinator who has a vision for a bigger program here on campus. And while UWL has a strategic plan and a strong one, it should really incorporate sustainability and climate as part of our priorities,” said Remsburg.

Remsburg said she has plans to help individuals affected by climate. “We know that climate change is affecting people around the world with different intensities and different times, but it’s often those who are with the least privilege or the least power who are affected by the first and the worst by climate change. So I plan to work with our community and campus to be welcoming climate refugees to our area in the future,” she said.

Adverse and unusual weather has been occurring frequently across the nation this month. On Dec. 10, tornadoes led a path of destruction in Illinois, Tennessee, Missouri, Arkansas, Mississippi, and Kentucky. The tornadoes were reported to have caused a 200-mile-long path of damage.

Freshman member of the Common Council of La Crosse Mark Newman said he was watching the news because he has a brother that lives in Kentucky, one of the affected states. Newman was the last speaker at the climate rally.

Newman said his son asked him a question in regards to climate change. “For a dad of an adolescent, when your son asks a question, you listen because a lot of times, they’re not forthcoming,” he said. Newman said his son asked, “Dad, how is it that my generation has to deal with the leftovers of your boomer generation? Why is it that we have to pick up the pieces and try to make good of [the land] you should have been taking care of?”

Mehrkens said it is important for young individuals to organize about climate change because of older generations. “We can see the problem easier than the older generation and so we need to stand up as a generation that is really going to fix something,” she said.

Newman concluded his speech with this statement: “Certainly we hope that the future of our planet will be better but hope is not a plan. Our planet is sick and hope is not a plan. Certainly, we want to be optimistic but we can only be optimistic if we know we are doing the hard work of dealing with the problem and not burying our heads in the sand. It’s time.”

Remsburg said there are organizations in La Crosse that are advocates for climate action including, Citizens Climate Lobby, Solar on La Crosse Schools, Sustainability Institute, and Coulee Region Group of Sierra Club.

To stay informed about climate action in the La Crosse area, follow Citizen Action of Wisconsin Driftless Co-op on Facebook and UWL Students for Sustainability on Facebook and Instagram (@sfsuwlax).