There’s Nothing Quiet About Campus Climate Activists

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In just about every corner of the country, youth climate advocates have been building a grassroots apparatus that would have even David Plouffe salivating. Their regional, state and national networks have powered aggressive and successful campaigns, such as the American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment, and they are now critical to implementing the policy commitments they’ve secured.

These networks are as powerful as they are prolific. Students are influencing national policy on a scale never before seen in youth activism.

Before I get into the thick of it, I want to point out that things have changed a bit since young activists were demonstrating against the Vietnam War or even against South African apartheid. Student organizers today are more often behind their laptops, launching virtual actions, spreading congressional phone numbers, gathering petition signatures, and Twittering, Facebooking, Myspacing and emailing their peers into action.

On-campus meetings are still a staple, but students have realized that collective power is where the punch is, so they have constructed deep networks of regional organizations.

Here’s a look at the current state of affairs in these youth climate networks.

One of the oldest and strongest green student networks in the country is the California Student Sustainability Coalition, which happens to be my home state’s brainchild. It was born on a happy day in 2000, after student organizers coordinated a multi-campus, nine-month campaign to secure a solar energy purchasing policy from the University of California Regents. The campaign was the first time UC sister campuses coordinated their work so directly – they even placed a student mole in the UC President’s office to field information.

The group’s leaders chalked up a quick victory, then looked around and realized what a sizable grassroots infrastructure they had on their hands. They wondered … “What if we keep this thing going?”

Nine years later, the CSSC is model for the nation with active chapters on eight UC campuses, five state universities, and an increasing number of community colleges. “The CSSC does a really good job of mobilizing students from across the system to lobby administrators to address all kinds of sustainability issues—everything from green building codes to food and finance policies that incorporate social justice and environmental sustainability,” says CSSC member Christina Oatfield.

It’s certainly easy to envision a grassroots sustainability and climate coalition growing out of a fertile state like California, which has contributed strongly to the modern environmental movement with visionary activists like David Brower and climate policy-happy governors like Arnold Schwarzenegger. But what about other states?

How do other regional networks shake out?

The Northwest’s Cascade Climate Network, a young but incredibly active coalition, boasts membership from over 20 universities across Oregon and Washington. Beyond just winning campaigns, the CCN is a model for the types of innovative new organizations and initiatives that can come out of regional organizing networks.

CCN students launched NICE, or the Northwest Institute for Community Energy, last spring with the help of the Slingshot grant. NICE is a think-and-do tank that focuses on transporting innovative student ideas beyond the walls of the university and into the community. For their first project, NICE students designed and began developing a community-owned thermal energy utility.

In the South, the Southern Energy Network is leading a fight against mountaintop-removal coal mining and nuclear energy in its 12 member states, alongside campaigns like the Campus Climate Challenge.

The opponents these networks face aren’t always dirty industries – sometimes legislatures and university trustees are in the way of meaningful action on campus. But vigilant organizers armed with everything from economic feasibility studies to savvy media campaigns to calls for civil disobedience are making tremendous headway. Even former President Bush’s home state is on board the clean energy transition with a Re-energize Texas summit this spring.

More about the regional networks and their leaders can be found on the Energy Action Coalition’s web site, which gets me to my next point.

What has all this regional networking produced?

It has helped create the “Captain Planet” of the movement — a coalition made up of “all our powers combined,” the Energy Action Coalition. Now running at 48 coalition partners strong, EAC has taken student climate activism and organizing to a new level: the national one.

The EAC took Congress by storm in 2007 when it sent 5,000 students and teens to lobby on the Hill for Green Jobs, 80% by 2050 and No New Coal. Powershift 2007 was the largest youth climate summit in U.S. history, and it finally earned the movement a significant voice in the climate debate. EAC’s executive director, Jessy Tolkan, appeared on Hardball to debate Pat Buchanan about climate policy a few days later. “Pat,” she said, “with all due respect, I think you’re living in the past.” Al Gore has become a strong ally of the movement, as have Van Jones, James Hansen and other top influencers.

EAC’s stated mission is to “leverage our collective power and create change for a clean, efficient, just and renewable energy future.”

Now slated to throw 10,000 young people at the Capitol’s doorstep in just three weeks, EAC plans to exponentially increase Powershift 2009’s impact. Organizers are using blogs like It’s Getting Hot In Here and other new media tools to spread the word and deliver unprecedented recruiting levels.

Regional and national youth organizing networks have succeeded in obtaining a true national voice for young people calling for change.

More on Powershift 2009 soon to come.