(Photography by Danny Fulgencio.)

“We must take action,” says East Dallas high school senior and climate change activist Jonathan Cartwright. “It’s the defining issue of our time. It’s about Homo sapiens’ survival, our survival.”

Cartwright walks the walk, heading to Dallas City Hall every Thursday after classes at Townview High School to protest the pace of the city’s climate action plan. He also helped organize a citywide protest last December and is planning more large-scale demonstrations. He intends to pursue a career in environmental science.

Cartwright traces his concern for the environment to first grade when he heard about the greenhouse effect.

“I really didn’t understand the concept at the time, but I was aware the planet was warming up and that was not normal,” he says. 

He still has a drawing he made at the time. It’s a little blue planet with the caption, “The Earth is heating up!”

As a child, he heard about the Keystone Pipeline and other issues, but climate change was never at the forefront until the United States pulled out of the Paris Climate Agreement in 2017, prompting March for Science protests and uproar from environmentalists.

Soon after, Cartwright read an article in which physicist and cosmologist Stephen Hawking warned about the threat of the climate crisis, labeling it “the biggest problem facing humanity.” 

Food insecurity, extreme weather, social injustice, global physical health and mental health are all at risk, Cartwright says.

The student made changes in his lifestyle: biking more, timing showers, handwashing dishes, switching to reusable straws and bamboo toothbrushes. 

Then a feature in Time magazine last spring changed everything. He discovered Greta Thunberg, whose teenage activism was in its infancy. Her lonely protests on the steps outside Parliament in Stockholm would eventually inspire millions of people worldwide to listen and take action.

“I had never heard of her before, but I was completely inspired because this was someone my age,” he says. 

His plan had been to become an environmental scientist as an adult and “solve” climate change. 

“What I hadn’t considered was that by the time I was an adult, it would be too late to stop this crisis,” he says.

Cartwright embraced civil disobedience. Since August, he has gone to City Hall every Thursday with a sign that reads, “City Council: Declare a Climate Emergency.” He is sometimes alone, sometimes accompanied by a couple of friends whose signs say, “System Change, Not Climate Change” and “Honk for the Environment.”

Reactions to the protests vary, but most are positive. During one protest, he got more than 200 honks. He receives thanks from pedestrians and engages in serious conversations with as many people as possible. He always urges folks to vote and to contact their representatives about taking action.  

Others curse at and taunt the young activist. He recalls one interaction when a skeptical passerby asked him, “What’s wrong with the climate?” Cartwright explained his science-based position, only to have the person respond, “Where’d you learn that? The Al Gore school?”

Cartwright is armed with facts. He studies reports from Time, National Geographic, the BBC and NPR. He can explain all about the iceberg that broke off the Larson C ice shelf in Antarctica, the consequences of a 3-degree warming world and how much time before our “carbon budget” is spent. Answer: eight years.

Cartwright’s future plans include continuing his weekly protests, helping plan a giant Earth Day march in April and attending Dartmouth College in the fall. Dartmouth will not be immune from his activism. He plans to protest the school’s endowment holdings from fossil fuels. Ultimately, he hopes to work as a scientist for the Environmental Protection Agency.

For now, Cartwright urges small, but helpful, actions: turn off lights and water, eat less meat and dairy, reduce, reuse and recycle. Become informed about candidates and vote. 

“Engage in civil disobedience,” Cartwright says. “Join the next climate strike. Take a sign down to City Hall and demand change. We don’t have much time.”

Click to sign up for the Advocate's weekly news digest and be the first to know what’s happening in Lakewood/East Dallas.