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12,000 Environmental Activists Come to DC | The Nation

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12,000 Environmental Activists Come to DC

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Te-Ping Chen

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Tune in all day Thursday to watch Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, Sherrod Brown and others at the New Populism Conference.

The third in a series of debates between The Nation and The National Review, moderated by Roll Call.

March 4, 2009

Juan Martinez says he can remember the first time he ever saw stars.

Growing up in south-central Los Angeles, Martinez recalls his neighborhood as "gangs and concrete, not a lot of trees." It took a school-sponsored trip to the Grand Tetons as a teenager to show him what a clear night sky and the natural world looked like, and Martinez still recalls the memory with a kind of reverence.

"I was rejuvenated," says Martinez, who emigrated from Mexico at age six. "I'd found something that I loved."

Inspired, he began working with groups like the Sierra Student Coalition. But it's only today that Martinez, 24, has started to feel truly comfortable in the environmental movement.

"People used to talk about global warming and show pictures of polar bears drowning. I'd think, 'I can't take this back to my community,' " says Martinez. Today though, he says, as the push for green jobs has accelerated, "I have the confidence to tell people it's not just about ice caps, but about how to bring people out of poverty, too."

Last week, Martinez joined over 12,000 youth who descended on DC to train and lobby for climate action as part of Powershift '09--and celebrate how their movement has expanded. All 50 states were represented, as well as youth from tribal lands, Canada, Tanzania, China, Lebanon, and the United Kingdom.

Since 2007, when the Energy Action Coalition hosted the inaugural Powershift, much has changed. A growing base: the number of participants (mostly college students) has near-tripled. A new administration, one that owes no small part of its victory to youth voters and organizers (many Powershifters are fresh off the Obama campaign). An economic crisis, one that's given calls for green jobs greater vigor.

And as recent research points to even bleaker findings on climate change, EAC's demands have likewise expanded. Organizers are pushing for a ban on coal, immediate action on climate legislation this year, investment in green jobs and a 40 percent carbon emissions reduction by 2020. "We really have very little time," Nobel Prize-winning member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Chris Field warned last month.

Yet despite such a grim prognosis, the mood remained upbeat, at times verging on jubilant.

"I'm so excited," said Sara Greenberg, a senior from Clark University, Massachusetts. "It's just really empowering to be here." In between panels and speakers, spontaneous cries of "Powershift" broke out, fists were pumped, and a steady stream of chants (This is what democracy looks like!) ricocheted around the halls.

When engaged, though, participants swiftly turned sober. Sara Pennington, 32, spoke of how her grandfather--a Kentucky coal miner--would be "brokenhearted" to see how mountains in the region have been razed, with the removed earth degrading some 1,200 miles of streams. "I thought it was important that people who are directly affected are represented here," she said.

Ely Katembo, a 29-year-old Vanderbilt University student, spoke about how climate change spurs displacement and conflict in Africa. "I'm here to thank students," said Katembo, who grew up in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. "It's important they know people are listening and seeing what they do."

Many Shades of Green

For Apollo Alliance president Jerome Ringo, who served as the United States' only black delegate during the Kyoto negotiations, the weekend was a highly emotional one. Ten years ago, says Ringo, it was "unheard of" that the Sierra Club would link causes with unions. "It was always jobs versus the environment. Now, the call is jobs for the environment," says Ringo. Van Jones' Green for All was a major supporter of the conference; SEIU was among the groups funding Powershift. "In my 25 years in the environmental movement, I've never felt the kind of united energy as I do now."

Organizers have plenty of recent successes to tout. Last month's stimulus package set aside $50 billion for the nation's energy economy, focusing mostly on renewable energy, including $5 billion to make homes more energy efficient. Another $500 million was specifically allocated for green jobs. The administration has pushed to eliminate Yucca Mountain nuclear waste storage, and in his address to the joint session of Congress, Obama asked members to deliver legislation to support caps on carbon pollution and investment in renewable energy.

"When I heard that, I thought, 'Obama's talking to us," says EAC executive director Jessy Tolkan. "Obama needed us in the election, and he needs us now to help push Congress and pass the strongest clean energy bill we can."

This Monday, thousands of Powershift youth made their message reverberate on Capitol Hill in some 370 meetings with Congressional members and staff. Rooms were at capacity, with representatives holding sessions at intersections outdoors to accommodate the crowds.

On a frosty street corner by the Russell Senate offices, a stiffly bundled set of staffers from Sens. Warner and Webb's offices listened as some 50 Virginia students presented their appeal. "We can't say we speak for everyone," said Lea Lupkin, a Roanoke senior. "But we can absolutely tell you that this is the issue of our generation."

In the months to come, Powershift youth will step up local pressure in advance of December's UN-led negotiations in Copenhagen on climate change. Town hall meetings in numerous Congressional districts are being planned for April, and 350.org is spearheading an October series of global actions.

As youth lobbied members of Congress on Monday, blocks away, some 2,500 protestors--a decidedly more mixed-age crowd--participated in an independent act of civil disobedience at the Capitol Power Plant, which heats Congressional offices and derives 35 percent of its energy from coal. Though Pelosi announced last week that the plant would move toward natural gas, stealing some of the protest's rhetorical thunder, the event went forward in symbolic protest as planned. Led by veteran activists like Bill McKibben and NASA climate scientist James Hansen, hundreds of protestors marched to barricade the plant's gates, bearing signs such as Clean Coal is a Dirty Lie. Energetically marching with the crowd was Erika Shriner, a retired Maine stockbroker. "We're all in this together," said Shriner, who says she's cut her energy consumption by 30 percent over the past two years. "If a 60-year-old woman can change her lifestyle, anyone can." (Shriner was prepared to be arrested that day; in the end, no arrests were made.)

Two blocks west of the Capitol building, a woman and a tow-headed boy wearing a red sweater peeked out of their row house's doorframe, watching the noisy pack go by. Join us! Join us! the crowd cried. The woman waved, but remained inside. Gradually a new cry took shape: This is for you! This is for you! The child eyed the marchers, face inscrutable. Finally he edged behind the woman, who smiled and waved once more. The crowd, young and old, moved on.

Originally from Oakland, California, Te-Ping Chen is a December 2007 graduate from Brown University. She currently lives in Washington, D.C.

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