North Carolina

An ocean apart, two teens demanded climate action. They meet Friday in Charlotte.

A visit to Charlotte on Friday by 16-year-old Swedish activist Greta Thunberg will focus new attention on climate change. But for months, a local student has also clamored for action in lonely vigils outside the city’s halls of power.

Each Friday since February, Myers Park High School ninth-grader Mary Ellis Stevens, 14, sometimes joined by a few friends, has held “climate strikes” outside the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Government Center.

The strikes began in a freezing rain in February. People she tries to engage often walk past her array of home-made signs while pointedly avoiding eye contact. Sometimes, Mary Ellis said Thursday, “it’s discouraging and lonely.”

She found inspiration in pictures of Thunberg skipping school to sit outside Sweden’s Parliament. “So this is like coming full circle,” she said of Thunberg’s visit.

Mary Ellis’ strikes are part of a global phenomenon. An estimated 4 million young people worldwide, including hundreds in Charlotte, poured into the streets for climate protests on Sept. 20. Friday’s event will be from noon to 2 p.m. outside the government center.

Thunberg’s visit follows her voyage to New York aboard a sailboat, to avoid planet-warming carbon emissions, and her address in September to the U.N.’s Climate Action Summit, where she scolded world leaders for inaction. Her trip to Charlotte comes with new warnings about climate change. More than 11,000 scientists from around the globe recently issued a report saying the planet “clearly and unequivocally faces a climate emergency,” the Washington Post reported this week.

Thunberg and Mary Ellis were aware of each other through social media, Mary Ellis said, but not until Wednesday had they directly communicated: I’m coming to join you in Charlotte this Friday, Thunberg wrote in a message.

Charlotte City Council member Dimple Ajmera, who led the council’s now-dissolved environment committee, first met Mary Ellis on that frigid day in February. The teen politely declined her invitation to move her strike inside the building, Ajmera recalls. The two have met frequently since then, and Ajmera will speak at Friday’s climate strike.

“I call her our local Greta,” Ajmera said. “What Greta has done cross the world, Mary Ellis is doing in our city.”

Myers Park High student Mary Ellis Stevens, 14, at one of her Friday “climate strikes” outside the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Government Center. Courtesy of Marilyn Stevens

‘Something we cannot ignore’

Mary Ellis, who enjoys rock climbing and whitewater kayaking, has always been drawn to nature, said her mom, Natalie Stevens. Plopped once on a blanket in the backyard as a toddler, her parents turned in time to see her holding a snake.

Her interest in climate change began when, as an eighth grader at Trinity Episcopal School, she had to choose a year-long research project.

“She found Greta on the internet, and through her research got the gut feel that we’re in trouble, that we have to act now,” Stevens said. “Seeing Greta gave her the courage to do the same thing.”

In March, Mary Ellis attended Climate Reality Leadership Corps advocacy training with former vice president Al Gore.

Her schools have been somewhat accommodating of her skipping class, Mary Ellis said. As a Trinity Episcopal student, she was allowed to be at the government center from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. each Friday. After starting at Myers Park High this fall, she had to switch to a 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. schedule.

“I am no longer accepting things I cannot change,” her Twitter bio says. “I am changing the things I cannot accept.”

In an email to The Observer in March, in the fourth week of her strike, Mary Ellis said she wanted “to send the message that this is something we cannot ignore.”

“We are skipping school to demonstrate because something needs to be done now. Why should we study science when politicians are not listening to the smartest brains in science telling them we are destroying our planet?” she wrote.

“Our planet needs climate action that includes 100% clean energy by 2050. I am in 8th grade and I want the planet to be healthy not only for my generation, but also for my children and grandchildren.”

Examples of courage

Her advocacy in Charlotte has come amid mixed signals from city leaders.

The City Council, in 2018, passed a resolution calling for deep reductions in carbon emissions by 2050. Last December, Charlotte was named one of 20 cities to take part in a $70 million program to fight climate change sponsored by the philanthropies of billionaire Michael Bloomberg.

But Mayor Vi Lyles also dissolved city council’s environment committee in March, merging it with two others, to the dismay of advocates.

Sarah Haley, chair of the Charlotte chapter of the Climate Reality Project, said the student strikes make a statement — “why should children go to school when they don’t see a future?” — but also help make them part of the decisions that will affect their future.

The City Council’s climate resolution, she said, “helps to hold our elected leaders accountable that we’re watching, that these are not just aspirational goals but that we’re acting toward them.” Advocates are pushing county commissioners to adopt a similar resolution, she said.

Mary Ellis says the relationships she formed with Ajmera and council members Larken Egleston and Braxton Winston, all former members of the environment committee, showed that she was having an impact.

“The goal is for Charlotte to be a (low-carbon) leader, and for other cities to see us and notice our actions and take similar actions themselves,” she said.

Ajmera said that while studies show that coastal cities in Asia are most likely to be inundated by recently-revised projections of sea level rise, local studies have found that Charlotteans also feel environmental impacts. The Charlotte-based advocacy group Clean Air Carolina has reported that the same air pollutants linked to climate change threaten the health of residents in Charlotte’s historic West End.

Clean Air Carolina will honor the work of both Mary Ellis and Ajmera at its State of the Climate event on Thursday night.

We live in unprecedented times, Ajmera said, making it important that local governments address climate change. She called the student activists energizing and “the example of courage.”

“When young people speak up it’s more impactful, and the reason is that their age has a lot to do with it,” she said. “They have nothing to gain from this except leading a good quality of life.”

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Bruce Henderson writes about transportation, emerging issues and interesting people for The Charlotte Observer. His reporting background is in covering energy, environment and state news.