MTV Rocks the Planet A Major New Campaign to Organize Campuses to Fight Climate Change

Everyone knows the “M” in MTV no longer stands for just “music,” but now it also stands for “Mobilization” of America”s youth. MTV recently launched Break the Addiction Challenge with Energy Action Coalition (EAC), a student-created partnership of 30-plus organizations dedicated to clean energy.

The connection makes sense, considering the recent MTV/CBS poll that asked America”s youth, “Which is the most important problem your generation will have to deal with?” For the first time ever, the environment was the number one answer. An overwhelming 81 percent also said that steps need to be taken right away to counter global warming. Together, MTV and the EAC are challenging high schools and colleges from across North America to implement 100 percent clean energy policies.

In May 2006, MTV launched a “pro-social initiative” called think MTV, with the motto “Reflect-Decide-Do.” It addresses five issues of concern to young people: education, sexual health, environment, discrimination and global concerns. But because the poll showed the environment to be the most pressing issue, it”s getting the most immediate attention.

According to Van Toffler, president of MTV Networks Music Group/Logo and MTV Films, “The think MTV initiative will be a new way to connect young people with the world around them in a variety of ways—from on-air programming to online resources to grassroots efforts in their own communities. If our audience wants to get more information on an issue they care about, and learn how they can get involved in that issue locally or globally, they will be able to turn to think MTV for all the tools they need.”

The Break the Addiction Challenge offers cash prizes to schools, colleges and universities with outstanding achievement in reducing global warming emissions and reversing their schools” bad energy habits. Break the Addiction also offers chances to appear on air at MTV, and a chance to join rapper Jay-Z in New York City for a screening of his new documentary, Diary of Jay-Z: Water for Life.

Billy Parish, Washington, D.C.-based EAC coordinator (and a former student activist who dropped out of Yale to pursue climate work full time), recently took time to speak with E editor Jim Motavalli about the Break the Addiction Challenge on a live broadcast on Connecticut”s WPKN-FM.

Why don”t you tell me how the Campus Climate Challenge came to be working with MTV on “Break the Addiction?”

At the end of last year, we were getting ready to launch a really big new campaign, the Campus Climate Challenge. We”ve been able to bring together more than 30 organizations, from Greenpeace to National Wildlife Federation to Indigenous Environmental Network, into a broad coalition to try to unify the youth generation around global warming. We created this campaign to work with students to make their own schools into models of sustainability.

As we prepared to launch the campaign, we started conversations with MTV, which had just done some polling of its demographic group ranging from 12 to 24 years old. It found that the number one, long-term concern of young people is environmental issues, specifically global warming. So I think that was a real wake-up call for MTV—the numbers had changed a lot.

MTV”s polling showed that young people have a strong level of interest in doing something about climate change, and a fairly high level of understanding. But what they don”t know is what they can do to help stop it. So MTV had heard about the campaign we were getting ready to launch, and they wanted to build a partnership with us around it.

It’s really interesting that young people have zeroed in on environmental issues. Is that fairly new, would you say? Because global warming consciousness seems to have really been shooting up, and I think you probably have to give Al Gore”s An Inconvenient Truth, as well as books by Eugene Linden and Tim Flannery (and E itself) some of the credit for that. In 2006, there seems to be pretty strong awareness of climate change, and in particular on college campuses.

Absolutely, things have changed dramatically. And I think the media is now reporting it not as a two-sided story, but as a “This is a major problem; what are we going to do with it” kind of story. So I think the media has gotten a lot better. There have been a lot of great initiatives launched. And An Inconvenient Truth has been very, very powerful. I can”t tell you how many people I”ve met who have said that that movie changed their lives, and was a real wake-up call for them.

You actually tie in your Break the Addiction Challenge with getting press coverage. Why don”t you explain how that works, and how the schools would take part in this.

The Break the Addiction Challenge is a year-long partnership with MTV to promote student involvement in global warming issues, and to reward them for the work that they”re doing at their schools. In the fall, there”s a series of prizes that we”ll be giving out for student groups that get the best media coverage of their campaign.

We already have a number of submissions from student groups about the events they did to launch the campaign. We need to get these stories of young people making change out into the media. I think it”s not only young people who don”t know what they can do to be a part of the solution. A lot of people in this country really want to be involved. And these stories of the work that young people are doing are really inspiring. The students are transforming their schools in so many different ways. I think they”re really models for the rest of society.

Why don”t you give us some of the more inspiring examples from campuses around the country?

Some models are emerging. At Middlebury College, for example, they”ve done a lot of things already, including purchasing clean energy and making green building policies for the whole school. Right now they”re working on a campaign to make Middlebury climate neutral. They look at all of the emissions that Middlebury creates, and through a series of conservation, efficiency and renewable energy purchases, basically offset all of the school”s emissions, making it a climate-neutral campus. I love that example.

I believe Middlebury actually took its Science Center apart, as opposed to just demolishing it, and re-used all the building materials.

That”s right.

What are some other campuses doing?

Tennessee is a hotbed of student climate organizing right now. There are a number of schools that have passed student fees on clean energy. Students are essentially voting to assess themselves as part of their student activities fee, anything from $1 to $10, to pay for the school to be purchasing clean energy. There are about eight schools in Tennessee that have voted or are about to vote this semester to purchase substantial amounts of clean energy for their campus. The University of Memphis is about to pass a 100 percent clean energy fee.

Why Tennessee, in particular?

One thing we”ve learned in supporting this movement is that it can help to have full-time organizers working with students. We”ve had great organizers working with student groups, leading training sessions throughout Tennessee, and helping them build a network.

And I believe Wesleyan in Connecticut is also a campus that”s buying a lot of clean energy. Is that one of the leaders?

Wesleyan is a leader. Yale has also been making great strides too with building policies and clean energy purchases. One of the next steps is looking at university endowments. There is more than $300 billion in college and university endowments, and most of it doesn”t have any screens to filter the investments. They aren”t specifically invested in climate-responsible companies, or clean tech or clean energy. So our student volunteers will be working to create those kinds of screens and to move the endowments into a more responsible path.

You can also take a look at what universities do to generate their own power. In some cases, don”t universities have power plants?

Absolutely. There”s a lot of work to get on-site renewable energy. There are some schools that have built their own wind farms and many that have put solar panels on buildings. Some schools have cleaned up their power plants that already exist, moving them to much more efficient cogeneration. And they”re also just trying to reduce the burden on those plants through conservation and efficiency.

Do you think the connection with MTV will really increase the profile of your work? Is that what you hope to get out of it?

Yes, and it already seems to be happening. I think the biggest thing for us is being able to reach beyond the students who are already working on these campaigns to a much broader segment of the youth population. We feel that containing global warming, and getting on a more sustainable and just path, are the key challenges of our generation. MTV gives us a sort of platform and a megaphone to project these messages to millions of young people. We were on Total Request Live, and there were students profiled on the show talking about the work they were doing on their campuses. The network is running ads everyday. So I think it is increasing the profile of this type of work and helping us get these ideas out there.

You’re hoping schools compete for a series of awards. The five schools that garner the most media coverage for the issue will get $1,000 awards. Two schools that achieve a 100 percent clean energy policy will win $5,000 to throw a MTV Break the Addiction party. The two schools that go the furthest and the fastest to reduce their school”s global warming pollution down to zero will win $10,000 for an eco-renovation of their school”s student lounge. When is the final exam, as it were?

The deadline for submissions is towards the end of the spring semester, so any school can participate, any high school, college, graduate or technical school. So anyone out there who has children in school, or are in school themselves, can get their school registered with the Campus Climate Challenge, and into this competition to have a chance to win these prizes.

You mentioned that there is a college campus that actually has a wind farm. What college is that?

Carleton College in Minnesota has put up wind farms. There are number of others. Some colleges have leased their land to wind developers, who have put up substantial wind farms. That”s a good model. A lot of schools have large land holdings that could be put to use for wind energy or solar power.

Since one of your goals is to press coverage for this issue as obviously that will increase awareness, I was wondering what you thought, as a veteran organizer, of the tactics of groups like PETA or Greenpeace that have realized you have to be sensational to get media coverage in the U.S. In other words, it”s not enough to stage a peaceful rally and hold up signs. In PETA’s case, it might be going naked; in Greenpeace”s case, it sometimes means hanging banners from buildings or bridges. Would you encourage groups to do things in a dramatic fashion to get press coverage?

I encourage groups to use whatever tactics they think are most effective in their situation. I think sometimes those sorts of tactics are essential to getting your point across. I”ve been encouraging students to be very bold in what they”re asking for. We”ve come to a point where we can”t be asking for very small, incremental steps. We face a monumental challenge, and it needs to be met by truly bold and visionary solutions. That”s why we”re pushing for 100 percent clean energy at schools. We”re pushing for climate-neutral schools. So if it takes those kinds of tactics to win those policies, then so be it.

I think, unfortunately, in the MTV generation, it does take that. When you say 303 campuses, is that how many schools are signed up for the Campus Climate Challenge?

Yes, there are 303 schools registered with the campaign in almost every state and in all 10 Canadian provinces. We were running the campaign on a test basis last year. This is the first year of a three-year campaign; we”re hoping to register 1,000 schools.

Some of these colleges are thought of as liberal schools, including Wesleyan, Yale and Middlebury. But do you find that it cuts across ideology? There”s nothing particularly ideological about clean energy, so do you find that you”re signing up many different types of schools?

Absolutely. One of our newest coalition partners in the Energy Action Coalition is a group called Restoring Eden. It works with a network of about 40 different groups at Evangelical Christian colleges. There has been tremendous interest from those students in working on these issues, coming from a totally different perspective from the students working at Wesleyan or Middlebury.

In addition, there was a major gathering of Latino leaders in Los Angeles to come up with a political platform for the Latin community. Many of the student groups there are interested in running the challenge. And now there”s a Campus Climate Challenge group run by Latinos at Pepperdine University, one of the most conservative campuses in the country. So there are many different kinds of student groups working on these issues for many different reasons. And that”s what a movement looks like to me.