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Climate activists carry out hunger strike in D.C.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Here in Washington, D.C., there's been a climate protest, too. It's smaller and quieter than the one in Scotland. But for the protesters, the stakes have been a lot higher. NPR's Jeffrey Pierre has more.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOTORCYCLE DRIVING BY)

JEFFREY PIERRE, BYLINE: A Capitol Police officer drives past 26-year-old Kidus Girma. He's sitting next to three other people in front of the steps of the U.S. Capitol building. They're all in wheelchairs because they're exhausted, and you could hear it in Kidus' voice.

KIDUS GIRMA: I think as far as group morale, I think, physically, we definitely feel the effects of being on a hunger strike for 13 days.

PIERRE: A hunger strike - no food, only water.

GIRMA: The point is to shake people awake and to bring the gravity of the moment forward.

PIERRE: The group has been protesting to put pressure on Congress, where key bills are being held up that would drastically cut U.S. carbon emissions. The activists say they want legislation that matches the urgency of the climate crisis. Twenty-four-year-old Julia Paramo sits next to Kidus, who is 26. The two came down together from Dallas.

JULIA PARAMO: I'm definitely scared. I'm scared for myself and my friends. I think the fear of what climate change will continue to do to the planet - I think that scares me more.

PIERRE: The organizers start to push the wheelchairs to another location.

ED BROWN: We are walking to the Senate side because Joe Manchin is holding a conference.

PIERRE: That's Ed Brown, a volunteer with the group. He says they want to meet with Senator Manchin. Last month, Manchin said that he would not support the White House's central plan to cut climate emissions, basically killing the proposal. Nikayla Jefferson is 24 and has been an activist for years. She says that when she heard that Manchin blocked the country's most ambitious climate plan, it was a breaking point.

NIKAYLA JEFFERSON: We were like, we got to go. We got to do something right now.

PIERRE: Nikayla and the other activists had started talking after the news broke. Some had lived through deadly winter storms earlier this year that shut down the power grid in Texas. For Ema Govea, who is 18, she saw wildfires rage all summer long in California. She knew that she had to do something big.

EMA GOVEA: Yeah, a hunger strike is a really crazy thing and something that I don't take lightly. But it did feel like a moment where we needed to do something very drastic and very big.

PIERRE: They started their hunger strike on a Wednesday full of energy. They parked themselves on the sidewalk so Capitol lawmakers could see them when they went into work. And they had some small wins. Members of Congress and people working in the White House stopped to talk to them. But their health started to deteriorate a lot quicker than they had expected. By Day 3, Kidus goes to the hospital for dizziness and blurred vision. By Day 5, 20-year-old Abby Leedy is in pain.

ABBY LEEDY: My hips and my knees are in so much pain. And I, like, just was, like, curled on the floor, like, crying.

PIERRE: But then comes the moment that they've been waiting for. The protesters get a tip that Senator Manchin will be in downtown D.C., and they scramble to get there.

LEEDY: Joe Manchin in the United States of America does not cut our emissions...

PIERRE: As the senator approaches, Abby looks at him from her wheelchair.

LEEDY: I have dreams. Young people here have dreams. And if we don't pass...

JOE MANCHIN: Come and see me. You're more than welcome.

LEEDY: If the United States does not pass massive climate action this fall, we are - it is too late. This is our - one of our last chances.

MANCHIN: Come and see me. Please come to my office.

LEEDY: Joe Manchin, I am talking to you right now.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: We can't get in on meeting. We've been calling. We're trying to get a meeting with you.

PIERRE: Manchin leaves as Abby watches a car drive away. On Day 10, Abby's health gets worse, and she has to go to the ER. The next day, another striker has to stop because his pulse is dangerously low. On Day 14, they're forced to end the hunger strike, but Abby says that they're determined to still keep up the pressure.

LEEDY: We decided we - like, we needed to, like, stay alive to do that.

PIERRE: Two days later, still weak from the hunger strike, the protesters head out to the Washington waterfront. They want to confront Senator Manchin again, this time at his houseboat.

Jeffrey Pierre, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.