COMMENTARY: Climate Change: The Next Generation

Mobilizing voters and college climate leaders at Powershift 2007

College students have sincerity. It’s a little quality noticeably absent from Internet discourse on everything from politics to celebrities to run-of-the-mill idiot bashing. College kids are often disregarded by candidates and mainstream news outlets for the same reason: They aren’t expected to have any actual impact, and their issues of concern are considered unlikely to travel beyond the confines of their campuses. The Millennials deserve a pat on the head, but it’s the Boomers who really matter.

At Powershift, the college students got active about climate change.

Whether as a journalist, a blog reader, a talk show radio listener or a city dweller, you get used to this rather high level of cynicism. So it was with some sense of detachment that I approached the Powershift 2007 conference at the University of Maryland two weeks ago (November 2 to 5). Honestly? I would have expected a lot of students to attend simply to party somewhere new for the weekend; to make friends, escape embarrassing hook-ups, or find new connections for pot. Not, I guessed, to actually learn.

But I met student after student who cared passionately about climate change. Student after student who could talk at length about why we need to cut carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions by 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050, without making "clean coal" part of the mix. Kids had traveled from across the country to attend this conference, listen to speakers, attend workshops and petition their Congresspeople, and the most potent thing they drank were enormous cups of coffee. (If there was any sign of hedonism, it was in the multiple coffee joints, one of them a Starbucks, that surrounded the UM building where the conference was held.)

Campus Role Models

At one of the many workshops scattered around campus that Sunday, a room was packed with students learning how to bring solar technology to their campuses, following a model by student organizers at the University of Colorado. It was titled "Anatomy of a Victory: How CoPIRG Students Brought the Fifth Largest Campus Solar Project in the Country to Denver." Through student chapters of the Colorado Public Interest Research Group (CoPIRG), these students had developed the largest solar energy project on a college campus outside of California. CoPIRG campus organizer Cory Nadler had dark curls and a short, thick beard and wore both a Campus Climate Challenge T-shirt and a "Stop Global Warming" wristband. He talked enthusiastically about how many kilowatt hours of electricity were offset by the solar project (three and a half percent of the college’s total, not a huge amount, but still a big step).

See, the thing these college students get is that campuses can serve as perfect renewable energy role models for other institutions, and from there, for cities and states. And they understand that, as tuition-paying students, they have a huge amount of leverage in influencing their campuses to "go green." By purchasing solar and wind power, these campuses prove that there is indeed a real market for alternative energy, and businesses that produce that energy are motivated to set up shop.

Back in 2001, the University of Pennsylvania made the largest retail purchase of wind energy in the nation—buying 75 percent of what two local 24-megawatt wind farms produced annually. Four years later, the Spanish company Gamesa, one of the largest wind turbine manufacturers in the world, changed its plans to locate its headquarters in Texas, opting instead for the Keystone State, the new wind energy hotspot. It brought with it a manufacturing plant and 1,000 new jobs.

"I was a student at Penn State," says Maura Cowley, who’s now the national campaign director for the Sierra Student Coalition. "And when [the college] bought five percent wind energy, we changed the market price in Pennsylvania… We changed the price of wind power and changed the whole dynamic and evolution of the state’s energy."

Their message was threefold: green jobs, CO2 reduction and no new coal.

Now consider that the Campus Climate Challenge is a movement spanning more than 540 colleges and growing. You can begin to see the widespread effect individual college initiatives can have on states, and the country as a whole. If the federal government is not going to act on curbing emissions and creating green jobs, these college students are saying, we will. What’s more, they took their clearly articulated demands to the U.S. Capitol that Monday—timed a year before the Presidential elections—to let Congress know just how serious they are. Today’s movement is nothing if not intensely focused and directed. The students" demands, under the 1 Sky Platform, are threefold:

1. A Clean Energy Corps: Create five million green jobs.

2. Reduce U.S. CO2 emissions at least 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050, and reduce emissions by 30 percent by 2020.

3. Transform energy priorities to renewables, with a moratorium on all new coal plants.

Creating Climate Change Champions

At Monday’s hearing before the House Select Committee on Environmental Independence and Global Warming chaired by Edward J. Markey (D-Massachusetts), members of the youth climate movement testified, with another 2,000 young supporters packing the room. "It was amazing," says Sean Miller, a representative from the Energy Action Coalition (which backed Powershift) and also director of education for Earth Day Network. "We had over 300 meetings with congressional leaders. It was the largest youth lobby effort ever on global warming. We timed it to be a year before the next election to let [these leaders] know they’ve got a year to get out a climate bill."

With the success of the conference behind them, youth leaders on college campuses across the nation are targeting specific congresspeople who aren’t meeting their three demands. They call the initiative "Adopt a Congressperson," according to Brianna Cayo Cotter, communication director for the Energy Action Coalition. They want legislative leaders to know college kids are going to the polls, and the Millennials" issues matter.

Climate change, says Cotter, "is being redefined. Not as an environmental issue, but as our generation’s issue. It’s health, justice, resource wars, access to food and water. There is no issue that doesn’t have a connection to climate change."

A straightforward message aimed at serious carbon reduction unites the movement.

According to Cowley, the activists have really mobilized voters on the 500-plus campuses that adopt their initiatives, racking up 85 to 90 percent student voter turnouts. To ensure those numbers, Earth Day Network gathers the names of students interested in registering voters on campuses, as Student PIRG’s New Voters Project lures the youngsters to the polls with cardboard cutouts of candidates, climate change stickers that involve Paris Hilton crying, and text message reminders.

"We’re looking beyond the elections," says Ellynne Bannon, director of the New Voters Project. "We’re trying to build a cadre of young people to do civic engagement."

Back to School

Earth Day Network just made a big announcement with the help of a friend in high places. Former President Bill Clinton announced a partnership between his organization, the Clinton Foundation, Earth Day Network and the

U.S. Green Building Council to green all of America’s schools within a generation. This applies not only to the building structures, installing efficient lights, windows and the like, but creating healthier play areas and serving sustainable, nutritious food for students in K-12 schools.

"Every child deserves a healthy school," says Miller. "And the Bill Clinton Foundation will be a pivotal player, to nationalize and formalize the movement."

While the climate change movement sweeps across the nation’s campuses, EDN’s effort to green schools, especially those in low-income communities, can begin to make an immediate environmental impact where it matters most.

CONTACTS: New Voters Project; Earth Day Network; Campus Climate Challenge; Powershift 2007; Energy Action Coalition

BRITA BELLI is the managing editor of E.