Local teens organize climate change rally outside West Orange Town Hall

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WEST ORANGE, NJ  West Orange residents gathered outside Town Hall on Feb. 20 for a climate change rally led by students, complete with a composting demonstration by Roosevelt Middle School’s Environmental Club. Spurred on by the rockslide that caused the Ron Jolyn apartment complex to be evacuated after flooding from the remnants of Hurricane Ida swept the northeast in September 2021, a climate action pledge was presented to the West Orange Township Council, asking for action on a number of climate issues.

“A lot of them are climate adaptation,” Svanfridur Mura, the Newark Academy sophomore from West Orange who organized the rally along with Golda Och Academy junior Daniel Shapiro, said in an interview with the West Orange Chronicle at the event. “It’s less about reducing carbon emissions, because climate change is already here. We’re going to have more rain and flooding, so we need to adapt to that and fix it after.”

The 13-item pledge asks the council to preserve the Mount Pleasant forest and the Hecker Carriage House, create a stronger tree ordinance that reduces the number of trees to be removed, ban the sale and planting of invasive species, ban construction on steep slopes and ridge lines, ban gas-powered leaf blowers and trimmers, demand that Essex County define the boundaries of the Turtle Back Zoo, use the town’s Open Space and Recreation Trust funding for land preservation only, reduce carbon emissions by electrifying town vehicles and finding clean energy sources for municipal buildings, join an energy aggregation program, promote a walkable and bikeable town, build electric charging stations for cars, establish a plan to reduce carbon emissions, and end permits for new construction heated by fossil fuels.

Mura started engaging in climate change activism when she was a student at RMS. She skipped school to protest outside Town Hall, demanding action on climate change. She was inspired by Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg, now 19, who began a school strike for climate change movement in 2018. RMS Principal Lionel Hush put her in touch with local organization Our Green West Orange, which advocates for local climate action.

“When I first started, I struggled to find anyone,” Mura said about encouraging other people to participate in her protests, which have since grown in size. “I’m glad we’re bringing other students now, and they’re bringing their parents. We’re making it intergenerational.”

Councilman Bill Rutherford, who is the council’s liaison to the West Orange Open Space and Recreation Commission, didn’t speak at the rally but was in attendance.

“Every movement for change is led by youth,” Rutherford said in an interview with the Chronicle at the event. “They bring an urgency to it that is needed.”

He signed the pledge, while also saying he wasn’t able to commit to banning gas-powered leaf blowers and trimmers or ending permits for new construction heated by fossils yet. Rutherford said there is room for conversation and compromise when discussing climate change initiatives.

“The type of change we need won’t happen overnight,” Rutherford said. “But we can talk about it. I think we need uncomfortable conversations. There’s a lot of goodwill in West Orange. How do we come together to focus on the work?”

Mura understands some people might not understand the science of climate change — or the gravity of its consequences. But she said it’s easier to grasp than most realize.

“We focus on commonsense issues,” Mura said. “A lot of it doesn’t take much education to understand. I think some people think it does, but if you show up and listen it can be really easy.”

Photos by Amanda Valentovic