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Boiling Point

The Campus Climate Movement Plays Political Hardball

I met up with Marc Brodeur outside New York University’s student center on a muggy day in mid-August. Brodeur, a wiry, fresh-faced blond, had just ridden his bike from Brooklyn across the Manhattan Bridge, something he’d made a habit of doing as a student at NYU. He graduated in May 2007 and now works at Solar One, a solar-powered building on the East River at 23rd Street where students and residents of New York City learn about energy conservation.

“One of the cool things about the environmental movement is that you can come at it from two equally valid but very different angles,” Brodeur says. “There’s both the humanitarian-sweatshop angle – a sweatshop is almost certainly also an environmental disaster. But you can also take a very hard-line economic angle, and come up with very, very similar results.”

As an example, Brodeur cites wind energy. He says that while one person may be in favor of installing wind turbines to reduce dependence on petroleum, another may support wind power to reduce air pollution, while a third may argue that the investment will save money otherwise spent treating asthma. Regardless of the individual’s specific concern, the same solution applies.

This convergence of disparate interests is driving the campus climate movement, a diverse array of student activists working to address global warming. I arranged to meet Brodeur to try to understand what is propelling this force. There were many questions I was eager to explore: Is the climate change movement a movement? How are student activists reconciling the tensions between their hopes for grassroots change and the apparent need for top-down solutions to a global problem? How do campus activists fit within the larger environmental community, which is also struggling to balance the interests of businesses and the needs of the biosphere?

For Brodeur, as it turns out, there is no easy answer. The fight against climate change, he says, “has started to include more mainstream reasons because you can’t base reasons for altering an entire economy on beauty. But you can base it on a combination of that and serious fiscal policy.”

I heard similar ideas from May Boeve, a recent graduate of Middlebury College and a 2006 Brower Youth Awards winner who helped launch Step It Up with her college cohorts and author/activist Bill McKibben. “This issue is bringing in more people than traditional conservation did,” she says. “I think that more and more people see global warming as an issue that actually impacts them and so they want to be able to take action. … You’re starting to see a lot of these traditional environmental groups put all their campaigning focus on global warming because they realize it’s impacting all the other issues that they try to work on. A lot of groups that are working on land conservation or water quality or air quality see this as so linked up with [climate change], with such a ticking-time-bomb quality to it, that I think a lot of people are saying, ‘Okay, stop everything, we have to really try to develop a plan to address global warming.’”

Boeve and Brodeur are in many ways the face of the campus climate movement – at once impassioned and pragmatic, visionary and down-to-earth. Eager to usher in a sweeping ecological transformation, they are struggling with the need for compromise as they build the broad-based coalition necessary to deal with climate change. Their ability to juggle the competing demands of big-tent politics will determine the success of the US campus climate movement – and the fate of our planet’s atmosphere.

Stepping it Up

In just the last few years, climate change-related activism at US colleges and universities has exploded. In the spring of 2004, the Energy Action Coalition – one of the larger campus-based climate campaigns, with more than 40 organizational partners – sponsored a day of action to raise awareness about global warming. Students at some 130 schools across the US and Canada participated. A subsequent “Energy Independence Day” during the fall election season attracted support on 280 campuses, as activists gathered 30,000 signatures to deliver to the presidential candidates and state governors. The coalition’s Campus Climate Challenge now claims involvement with more than 500 campus groups. Six thousand student activists attended the coalition’s Power Shift conference, a three-day gathering in November to give young activists basic skills in running campaigns.

The campus activity is making tangible progress. Campus Climate Challenge partners have secured more than 200 campus carbon reduction policies, including 28 renewable energy purchase agreements, 22 “green fee” project funds, and 16 sustainable transportation policies.

The student-led Step It Up Campaign has been equally successful. In April 2007, the group organized events – involving students and non-students – in 1,400 communities in 50 states. The actions – ranging from routine rallies to highly creative actions involving cyclists, scuba divers, and people dressed as polar bears – had a simple message: an 80 percent reduction in US greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. Step It Up’s November 3, 2007 day of action was even larger, with 71 members of Congress attending. So far, all the major Democratic candidates for president have endorsed the group’s goals.

“One of the exciting things about starting from a place of organizing on college campuses is that these institutions of higher education and higher learning really can serve as physical models for the rest of society – for cities, for buildings, for politicians – but also as research centers and education centers for developing new technologies,” says Josh Lynch, one of the coordinators of the Energy Action Coalition. I met Lynch – thin, blond, and by turns sincere and sardonic – at the group’s West Coast headquarters in the boho-grunge Mission District of San Francisco. Lynch helped start the group in 2004 with Yale dropout Billy Parish (also a former Brower Youth Award winner), who has helped raise millions of dollars for the coalition’s work. “The initial concept was that none of us had enough power individually or enough resources or grassroots to affect the problem in a timescale to stop global warming and to create the kinds of solutions that we wanted. But together, if we focus our efforts and come with one message and pick our targets strategically, we can have a much stronger impact.”

I asked for more details about the coalition’s strategy. Lynch told me: “We are pushing the presidential candidates and Congress to enact strong climate legislation that ensures green jobs that can lift people out of poverty, that ensures strong renewable energy standards, and will be a real response to climate change – that’s the political arm of it. We are also pushing for an end to all new coal mining and all new coal construction – that’s the community and corporate angle of our campaign.”

What does Lynch mean by a “real” solution to climate change? This is where it gets tricky. Everyone, it seems, has a different idea of what a solution might look like. In one way, that’s an asset, as it allows the climate movement to tap into people’s creativity. It’s also a weakness, since it can make collaboration more difficult. Because the threat of global climate change is so all-encompassing, it requires bringing together people from different backgrounds and with diverse interests. Yet creating such a coalition automatically raises tensions. While some organizers may hope to solve long-standing, structural issues of unsustainability and injustice, others may be more interested in fixes that fit within the current way of doing business. As with any social movement, the revolutionaries and the reformers have to find a way to work together.

“You’ve got faith groups concerned about the destruction of creation,” says Step It Up’s Boeve. “You’ve got student groups passionate about improving their future. You’ve got many, many groups who are part of impacted communities who are seeing the impacts of climate change firsthand… I think the challenge is just getting enough people to know that there’s an opportunity here to be involved and that it’s not difficult.”

The Fourth Wave?

Older, more experienced observers of social movements, however, aren’t so sure that the task will be easy.

“The whole business about climate change is so clearly not a local issue that grassroots activism is a little more difficult to assess,” says Mark Dowie, a veteran investigative journalist and one of the co-founders of Mother Jones magazine. “I’m not saying it’s irrelevant – I think it’s important. But since there’s so little that can be done about climate change at the grassroots level, the climate change issue is almost, but not completely, irrelevant to the grassroots-driven part of environmentalism.”

In 1995, Dowie wrote Losing Ground: American Environmentalism at the Close of the Twentieth Century, a book that warned of impending irrelevance for the green movement. Although the book was largely pessimistic, it retained a touch of hopefulness in its call for a “fourth wave” of environmentalism. The youth-based campus climate change movement – with its emphasis on social justice – may be that “fourth wave.” As Dowie described it more than a decade ago, “The central sentiment of the next generation is, quite simply, a sense of justice, which until very recently has been almost completely absent from the American environmental imagination. Environmental equity will gain real meaning as rich and poor, white and non-white, mainstream and grassroots realize that all are living and toiling in the same environment. At that point, environmentalism will begin to become a truly ‘social’ movement.”

The campus climate movement’s commitment to ensuring that a transition to a sustainable economy includes low-income and people-of-color communities may help create exactly the kind of social movement Dowie has written about. As Boeve puts it: “What motivates a lot of people in my generation to be involved is that we want to be able to remake a more just society and use this particular challenge [climate change] as the way to do that… We have to make sure that in trying to create a new green economy, we’re not leaving the same people out, and instead we’re putting those people at the center of what needs to change.”

But it’s precisely this economic element of the climate change movement that raises complications. As more and more corporations adopt the language of “green” and “eco-friendly,” the climate movement runs the risk of being swallowed up within the existing system – and losing its transformative message. The economics of climate change – the long-term cost savings of reducing and mitigating carbon emissions – have made it easier for grassroots activists to discuss the problem with political and corporate leaders. But it makes the job of discussing a social revolution more difficult.

“Environmentalism is a tough one because almost every environmental initiative is up against an equal and opposite economic imperative,” Dowie says. “And it’s going to take longer to bring about the world where global warming and climate change will no longer be an issue.”

I asked him just how long that might take. “I think it’s going to take 50 years from when it started, and it started in the late ‘70s, early ‘80s, but it’s building up, it’s building force.”

Growing Pains

Hillary Lehr is part of that “building force,” another activist – just like Boeve, Brodeur, and Lynch – trying to reconcile the opposing forces of change. A recent graduate of UC Berkeley, Lehr is part angry rabble-rouser and part quiet intellectual. She is co-founder of The Phoenix Coalition, a collection of several Berkeley student groups advocating for democracy, social justice, and ethnic diversity on campus.

In May 2007, Lehr helped lead student protests against the university’s plan to work with BP on biofuels research (see “Taking Care of Business,” page 55). Upset that the supposed solution to climate change involves allying with a corporation that has spurred global warming, Lehr is worried that the agreement is not a real way out of the environmental crisis.

“They were able to slightly change ideas like development to encompass an idea like sustainability and feel like that’s a good patch,” Lehr told me over a cup of fair trade coffee. “Similarly, BP can say, ‘We incorporated a few ideas of sustainability,’ and a discourse of green that has permeated the business world. … It’s a nice idea, but it doesn’t involve profoundly transforming the structures of our society.”

In such complaints, one hears the growing pains of a nascent movement still trying to figure itself out. The campus climate campaigners are young, and have time yet to discover the right balance between demanding big changes and accepting the compromises American politics are based on. Maybe the movement doesn’t need to find one single answer to these loaded questions. Social change, after all, is a process, not a destination.

“Of course, to be ‘significant,’ a social or political movement need not be triumphant or even finished,” Dowie has written. “Social movements are, arguably, never finished.”

For the thousands of activists in the campus climate movement – activists who are just getting started – those may be words to live by.

Kiki Namikas is a San Francisco-based science and environmental reporter who graduated from Claremont McKenna College in 2006. She is a staff writer for California magazine at UC Berkeley.


This painting is by Miss Charlie Sullivan, a 12-year-old UK artist who won the United Nations Environment Programme’s 16th International Children’s Painting Competition.


A thousand middle-school students stepped it up in Park City, UT.

Chris Pilaro / Working Films


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