COMMENTARY: Student Powered

A New Way to Focus the Nation on Climate Change

University of Vermont was one of more than 1500 colleges to hold teach-ins on global warming as part of Focus the Nation.© University of Vermont

During the last week of January, the University of Vermont became one of more than 1,500 institutions to participate in Focus the Nation (FtN), the largest national teach-in on global warming solutions. Though considered an educational initiative, Focus the Nation was also a mass organized effort of civic engagement, promoting action as well as awareness. There are lots of global warming solutions, but one clear goal: 80 percent cuts in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

On the national front, FtN offered an interactive webcast on its homepage. The webcast, called The Two Percent Solution (for cutting emissions two percent annually), was broadcast live on January 30. Featured guests included renowned climate scientist Stephen Schneider and eco-jobs advocate Van Jones, as well as celebrity endorsements from actors Ed Norton and Woody Harrelson. The webcast was sponsored by the National Wildlife Federation and Earth Day Network.

Participants were prompted to cast ballots online for their favorite solutions to global warming. Among the choices were a coal moratorium, mass implementation of solar panels in homes across America, and a renewable investment program. "Invest in the Clean Energy Revolution" marginally won as the top proposed global warming solution, with 13 percent of the vote, with other options, such as creating super-efficient cars, gaining a fair number of votes as well (12 percent). FtN will also award three $10,000 scholarships to students who have authored the best solutions proposal.

At UVM, dozens of workshops explored issues affecting levels of greenhouse gas emissions, including coal mining, transportation, population, waste, agriculture and policy. The topic of the keynote speech was coal and carbon and was presented by Judy Bonds, who is a 2003 winner of the Goldman Environmental Prize and the outreach coordinator of Coal River Mountain Watch, a nonprofit that calls attention to the travesty of mountain-top removal in the Appalachias.

Bonds began her activism when she saw her young grandson standing ankle-deep in a blackened stream with a fist full of dead fish. Standing at the UVM podium, she began by apologizing for the actions of her generation, for leaving us to contend with a degraded and dangerous planet.

"We partied on your future. Shame on us," she said. She then asked us to urge our parents and professors to get to work helping us complete the environmental movement they started in the 1960s.

Bonds illuminated the atrocities suffered by the people of Appalachia, including myriad health disorders and cancers, constant harassment and assault by the coal industry and eventual displacement. The Appalachian region provides our nation with 52 percent of its coal supply, she said, a majority of which is extracted by MTR methods of exploding mountain-tops. Coal is also the most polluting of our fossil fuel resources and a prime culprit in global warming.

Activist Judy Bonds spoke out against coal and mountaintop removal mining.©

The solutions offered by Bonds were simple: grassroots activism and awareness and switching our energy grid to renewables instead of fossil fuels. Ironically, even though the mining industry was traditionally a major employer in the Appalachian region, those jobs are leaving as MTR relies on machinery over manpower. Bonds believes green construction and maintenance jobs could make up for any more jobs lost as we switch to a clean energy economy.

"There are no jobs on a dead planet," Bonds stressed.

Focus the Nation addressed at length the advent of the green-collar job phenomenon and the new revolution of renewable energy. Many discussions centered on making and maintaining this trend in the mainstream for the long-term.

Perhaps the most astounding aspect of FtN was the willingness of younger generations to embrace the concept of conservation as an innovation in itself.

During a UVM Town Hall meeting held near the end of the week, several faculty members and local representatives of sustainable initiatives held a panel discussing the potential of carbon offsets to help mitigate emissions dispelled by travel and energy usage. Though the consensus was that "luxury emissions" are a real issue, the bottom line was that we can’t enable that discussion to delay us from getting to the real problem: our nation’s comparably superfluous, even gluttonous, use of natural resources.

Most of today’s college kids understand that it was the frenetic drive for expansion and "progress" that led us to this impending disaster. A lot of them are advocating a simpler, less energy-intensive life as a way of stemming the adverse effects of climate change.

Students were nodding vigorously when Judy Bonds thunderously exclaimed that if someone takes issue with coal and MTR than the most powerful thing to be done is "shut off the lights!" At the auditorium, students had reusable water bottles sporting stickers saying "One Less Plastic Bottle." At the Town Hall meeting, tables were set up by student representatives with billboards urging us all to eat less or no meat, buy organic and shop local.

The message of Focus the Nation and its companion movements, such as PowerShift and Step It Up, is that our nation’s youth will not be taking a backseat on the issue that defines our generation. We are ready and willing to make profound sacrifices and create strong solutions for the salvation of the planet. Let us hope the older generations and those in power will follow our lead.

Judy Bonds ended her speech with a reference to a Hopi tribe saying: "You are the one that you’ve been waiting for."

CONTACT: Focus the Nation

LAURA KIESEL is an environmental writer and first year graduate student at the Natural Resources department of the University of Vermont.