Climate Change Power Shift

Climate Change Power Shift

Thousands of students came together to infuse the largest citizen conference ever to address climate change with energy, enthusiasm and a new vision for the future.


Climate Change Power Shift Thousands of students came together to infuse the largest citizen conference ever to address climate change with energy, enthusiasm and a new vision for the future. Anya Kamenetz | Thousands of students came together infuse the largest citizen conference ever to address climate change with energy, enthusiasm and a new vision for the future. ANYA KAMENETZ

Nearly 6,000 young global warming activists from across the country have converged on the University of Maryland-College Park, and they all have about forty minutes to grab lunch at the Stamp Student Union. Many resort to the union’s convenience store. The student behind me in line is holding a box of PopTarts and a foil-wrapped King Cone. He explains that he’s a vegetarian.

There will be time for organic greens and brown rice later. Fast results could have been the weekend’s motto. Power Shift 2007, from November 2 to 5, was not only the largest student conference but the largest citizen conference ever to address the single issue of climate change, and its agenda was both pragmatic and urgent. If these youth succeed at even a fraction of what they’ve set out to do, they’ll transform our environment and our economy while redefining the environmental movement in a mainstream and populist direction. But first they’ll have to transform the perception of their own generation.

Power Shift drew its platform from the 1Sky campaign, a new attempt–officially launching next month–to build a broadbased nationwide movement around three policy changes, or “asks”: 1) The creation of a 5 million-strong Clean Energy Job Corps, 2) The reduction of greenhouse gases to 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050, which scientists say is the baseline for mitigating the worst effects of global warming, and 3) A moratorium on new coal plants and divestment from fossil fuel and highway subsidies.

The actions sound radical but the movement, by and large, is not. On Monday, Power Shift culminated not in mass civil disobedience on the White House lawn but in an official hearing before a highly sympathetic Ed Markey, chair of Congress’s Select Committee on Global Warming. A thousand students clad in green hard hats then lobbied their senators and representatives, asking for support for their platform as already contained in existing legislation: the Sanders-Boxer Global Warming Reduction Act in the Senate and the Waxman Safe Climate Act in the House. (As of this same weekend, when Hillary unveiled her environmental platform, these commitments are the positions of each Democratic presidential front-runner as well.)

As Markey told the students, on climate change, “You are right and they [corporations, recalcitrant politicians] are wrong!” The mandate of these youth leaders, as they communicated it to each other this weekend, is to organize the largest living generation, turn themselves out to vote, and keep the pressure on politicians to uphold their commitments to solve the biggest problem facing the earth.

“I feel like we are emerging from Power Shift with really clear goals and messages as a movement,” said Billy Parish, the 25-year-old coordinator of Energy Action, the largest student environmental coalition, which organized Power Shift and is a cofounder of 1Sky. “Young people as a whole are overwhelmingly progressive, and they’ve craving a vision that takes in the environmental movement, ending the war, and economic opportunities. They’re savvy enough to see the movement building potential of this 1 sky strategy. Every speaker emphasized the three clear planks of 1Sky. Every speaker emphasized the potential of the youth movement and our power. I bet you can grab anybody here and they’ll tell you it’s been a lifechanging experience for them.”

Most students said that the jobs plank held a special appeal, for two reasons. First, they were electrified by the message of environmental social justice embodied by Van Jones, a 39-year-old African-American activist who led the crowd in a chant of “Green Jobs, Not Jails!” “It has to be an inclusive movement if we want it to be successful,” said Carlos Rymer, 20, a member of Power Shift’s student planning committee. A senior at Cornell, he immigrated from the Dominican Republic in 2001. “It has to help society overall and improve people’s lives. It’s a new dream.”

The student delegations included strong presences from Appalachia, where they are fighting the mountaintop removal method of coal mining; the drought-ridden Southeast; Alaskan native fishing villages; and the Katrina-affected Gulf Coast. In all of these areas, material survival is at least as pressing as environmental protection. “A lot of low-income people get trapped in environmentally unsafe situations because they need their jobs,” said Brittany Cochran, a pharmacy doctoral student at Xavier University in New Orleans, who testified at Monday’s hearing. “The transition to green jobs will be one of the major incentives [to join the movement].”

Altruism aside, students are facing their own economic pressures, and many felt the need for job assistance themselves (the detailed version of their green jobs “ask” includes $10 billion for a green national service program.) The conference included a career fair with recruiters from all the big environmental organizations, as well as many career skills workshops among the affinity groups and organizing bull sessions. “I think we’re busier than students were in the 60s,” said Katie Souris, a junior from UNC-Asheville, explaining that many of her classmates skipped the lobby day in favor of class on Monday morning. “We’re paying all the money we can to go to school so we can join this system at the same time that we’re trying to change it.”

This practicality can be seen as a measure of the mainstreaming of environmentalism. Students showed up from all 50 states, Canada, and Puerto Rico, from large state schools and two-year colleges as well as the usual liberal arts and Ivy League suspects. A group of activists from historically black colleges and universities met at the conference and are forming a network. A session on “How to Get Average Students to Care About Global Warming,” according to its leader, Sasha Rosen of MassPIRG, was mobbed and had to be moved out to the lawn.

Many attendees were talking about an October 10 New York Times column by Thomas Friedman headlined “Generation Q,” (for quiet) blasting 20somethings for failing to do exactly what they were trying to do this weekend. “They can’t e-mail it in, and an online petition or a mouse click for carbon neutrality won’t cut it,” Friedman wrote. “They have to get organized in a way that will force politicians to pay attention rather than just patronize them.”

Friedman probably didn’t Google Energy Action. The group does have a blog, YouTube videos, and Facebook pages.

But it also has a physical presence on a fourth of the nation’s 4,100-odd college campuses. These activists have secured commitments to carbon neutrality from 426 college administrations as part of the Campus Climate Challenge. Students at UC Berkeley and the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, to name two, have voted on increases in their own fees, creating dedicated funds for research and projects to green their campuses. They’re also organizing for Focus the Nation, a national teach-in on January 31, 2008, where every US congressperson, US Senator, presidential candidate, governor, mayor, and state representative will be invited to speak to students on campuses in their home districts and outline what they will do to stop global warming.

They may be patronized by politicians and pundits alike, but several thousand students are coming off this recent weekend eager for the work they have cut out for them.

“I think people read [Friedman’s piece] and thought, maybe we need to be louder,” said Souris. “At the same times, we want to say really impactful things if they’re going to be loud. Instead of just shouting, people have been listening and seeing how big and all-encompassing this can get. We’re excited. It’s clicking for us in almost a spiritual way–this is what we have to do.”

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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