11,000 Students Flood Washington with Demand for Bold Climate Action

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There’s an electric current rushing through our nation’s capital today, and it’s not from the future stimulus-funded smart grid.

Right now, more than 11,000 young people from all 50 states, Puerto Rico, and 16 other nations are barnstorming Washington, D.C., for Power Shift 2009 – the largest youth summit on climate and energy policy in history.

In the massive D.C. Convention Center, student organizers are partaking in an extended weekend of workshops, training sessions, speeches, concerts, rallies and even a huge direct action slated for Monday. With big shots showing up like House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson, Congressman Ed Markey, activists Majora Carter, Van Jones and Billy Parish, and musicians like Adam Gardener of Guster and the hip-hop group The Roots, Power Shift feels like a mix between Kyoto and Woodstock.

Students are here, in essence, to take the message of bold, comprehensive and immediate federal climate action directly to Capitol Hill. 

They are leveraging the momentum the youth movement has built locally through the Campus Climate Challenge, their first national mobilization, Power Shift 07, and their recent electoral engagement campaign Power Vote to pressure political leaders to take the action their generation’s demands.

“It’s our future,” they proclaim – and they’re going to fight for it.

Power Shift is designed to not only deliver the youth message of change to elected officials, but also to continue to strengthen the climate and clean energy movement by infusing the nation’s young leaders with new ideas, skills, connections and opportunities for employment and action. Workshops cover the spectrum, from dismantling oppression to corporate accountability, environmental justice to high school organizing, international impacts to domestic policy to new media.

“Just seeing so many activists united is a life-changing experience,” says Keith Brown, a junior from the University of California, Berkeley.

“When you’re an environmentalist or an activist, you often get it drilled into you that you’re going it alone, that you’re on the fringe, that the changes you’re fighting for are impossible. Well, as a first-time Power Shifter, I can’t imagine how powerful it’ll be for me to see 12,000 fellow bright, passionate young activists around me–it’ll be living proof we aren’t on the fringe, but that it’s our future, and we are going to take it back.”

They wouldn’t have been able to pull off such a gigantic feat of organizing without using their generation’s most defining feature: mastery of the web.

350.org‘s online organizer, Jon Warnow, talks about the new tools and media power youth are wielding in 21st century politics:

“Power Shift represents a ground swell of youth uniting around a common cause and harnessing a toolset that didn’t even exist a few years ago. From building a buzz on Twitter to remixing CSPAN clips for online recruitment videos, the Power Shifters are reshaping the nature of activism and advocacy for a new era of American politics.”

Power Shift has a strong political component. Monday is entirely dedicated as a lobby day, and 6,000 students will be undergoing intensive lobby strategy training the day before. Contact information for each representative has been available on the Power Shift site for months, and central organizers have succeeded in getting meetings (at least with congressional aids) for student groups from nearly every state.

Madeline Garner, Partnerships Director for the Energy Action Coalition, explains:

“Our generation voted in the new administration – now we are letting them know loud and clear that this is the year to fix our economy with green jobs and secure our future from catastrophic climate change.”

Garner has been working for months getting hundreds of recruiters from ally organizations to commit to signing up 10 students each for the conference. As of today, more than 11,000 students were registered, and the numbers may top 12,000 before the weekend is through.

Not all the Power Shift participants are here to lobby in suits. Activists from several major organizations have been working for months to plan the Capitol Climate Action, a gigantic act of civil disobedience where thousands of people, across generational lines, will stage a sit-in at the Capitol Power Plant.

Strategically speaking, this is a cherry-picked target – the plant powers Congress with dirty energy from coal, and “symbolizes a past that cannot be our future,” youth leaders say. They plan to use the action as a rallying cry for a clean energy economy that will protect the health of families, climate, and the future of the planet.

The action is endorsed by a long list of public figures and institutions – from climate scientist James Hansen to author Bill McKibben to singer Michael Franti to consulting firms like Wind Power Solutions. As veteran youth organizer and forthcoming author Jared Duval says:

“This Power Shift conference, featuring the largest lobby day and direct action in environmental history, shows that the climate justice movement is here to stay and is the great social progress movement of our generation. If we thought Power Shift 07 was landmark, this direct action going to ratchet up the pressure exponentially.”

To get some perspective on how Power Shift 07 has shaped this year’s summit, I talked to University of Maryland Senior Joanna Calabrese, who was a regional organizer of the 2007 conference and served as a congressional intern for Rep. Ed Markey at the time. Markey was a significant contributor to Power Shift 07, giving both a keynote speech and opening a congressional hearing of the Select Committee on Energy Independence & Global Warming, which 300 students attended and five were allowed to testify. Calabrese recalls:

“Students packed the room. After witnessing youth leaders like Billy Parish testify, the representatives and senators present were floored. They hadn’t ever seen this degree of youth engagement on federal energy policy, and promised they’d take action.”

So will this year’s Power Shift be even more effective in provoking the landmark climate legislation we desperately need?

Power Shift 2009 can already claim one victory. With the Capitol Power Plant civil disobedience still a few days away, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi wrote a letter to the architect of the capitol yesterday calling for the plant to be switched from coal to gas. (The protest is still on – its target is dirty coal nationwide, not just the Capitol Power Plant.)

The congressional leaders wrote that the plant’s switch away from coal “would be an important demonstration of Congress’ willingness to deal with the enormous challenges of global warming, energy independence and our inefficient use of finite fossil fuels.” 

That’s the right attitude. Now, the 11,000 students and environmental activists standing on Congress’ doorstep want to see the next step from their government: bold, comprehensive and immediate climate action.


See also:

Video: White House Joined at the Hip with Power Shift