SF’s youth ready to ‘turn and burn’ for the planet’s future

There are a lot of problems with Fleet Week but the environment doesn’t have to be one


As Fleet Week expanded San Francisco’s carbon footprint at Mach 2-speed last weekend, young people gathered for the second annual Bay Area Youth Climate Summit. The moment felt like a simultaneous glimpse of the past and the future.

Given our megadroughts, historic wildfires and destructive oil spills, a celebration of polluting 20th-century machinery is grossly out of touch. But that doesn’t mean we have to lose that lovin’ feeling for Fleet Week — at least, when it comes to the event’s environmental impact. It’s possible to satisfy the need for speed with sustainable planes. To make this hope a reality, San Franciscans should follow the example of our younger generation.

“Over the past few years, we’ve all been witnesses to terrifying climate change,” Amelia Fortgang, a senior at Lick-Wilmerding High School, said at the start of the event on Saturday. “It is up to us to demand that we have a healthy, green and just future.”

This isn’t only talk. During the summer of 2020, as COVID-19 forced students to separate, Fortgang worked 40-hour weeks to develop a youth activism network. The result was the first virtual Bay Area Youth Climate Summit, which united 280 people from 88 schools, 14 states and five countries. In recognition of these efforts, Fortgang was one of four Bay Area students who won Action for Nature’s 2021 International Young Eco-Hero Award.

“If I wasn’t doing anything, it would make me feel really hopeless,” Fortgang told me. “Youth have a lot of power. We can be leaders, we can mobilize each other and we can do something about the climate crisis.”

Agreed. In the fight for our planet, this columnist would be honored to serve as a wingman to San Francisco’s youth. In addition to being able to quickly mobilize, I’ve seen young people challenge traditions and push us away from the environmental danger zone time and again.

At Grattan Elementary’s 2019 Eco Action Conference, for example, kids encouraged each other to give up Nutella made with palm oil and destructive Amazon shopping. Last year, Fortgang’s sister, Harper, was part of a team of Proof Middle School students who won the OurEcho Challenge grand prize for their work to address climate change with native plants. And a few weeks ago, hundreds of Bay Area students, including Fortgang, marched for climate action.

All of this highlights a willingness among young San Franciscans to forgo a “normal” life and embrace a new “abnormal.” Climate change isn’t something to be feared or fought — it’s a reality. Choosing not to run and hide from this truth opens the door to solutions. In fact, Fortgang told me that taking climate action has given her a more positive view of the future.

“I’ve been able to meet so many amazing people from youth to experts who are working on sustainable technology,” she said. “I think meeting this huge range of people who are all working on solutions is giving me a lot of hope.”

Older generations of San Franciscans should take note. It’s nonsensical to blanket our giant sequoias with foil and then cheer as a United Airlines plane circles The City belching carbon. And while some may find it exciting to watch the Blue Angels practice aggressive vertical moves and high-speed, inverted dives, these so-called marvels are powered by fossils. They no more represent the future than an article full of “Top Gun” references.

There are a lot of problems with Fleet Week, but the environment doesn’t have to be one. We need to listen to Bay Area youth, recognize the climate crisis is happening now and demand immediate action. There are numerous solutions already being developed to make air travel more sustainable, including Wisk. The Mountain View company makes autonomous electric planes.

Fortgang said she was too busy with the summit to pay much attention to Fleet Week. Perhaps other San Francsicans can help her out. Updating traditions like Fleet Week represent an opportunity for those of us not in school, not applying to colleges and not already organizing to address the climate crisis. Fortgang and her generation are doing enough. They are the planet’s best. They make The City proud.

Robyn Purchia is an environmental attorney, environmental blogger and environmental activist who hikes, gardens and tree hugs in her spare time.

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