Energy Action

Victory by Degrees

Earth Island News

Blaine O’Neil believes he and his friends are onto something big – namely, saving the world.

“Climate change is more than a life-or-death issue – it’s a life-or-death issue for the next infinite generations,” says the 19-year-old, a biology major at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania. “We need to show Congress that we need climate legislation now and that green jobs are the way to go. We can’t keep living off of this short-term fossil-fuel energy. We need immediate and aggressive change; it’s simply the only choice we have left.”

O’Neil, along with 30 others from Swarthmore, was among an estimated 12,000 people – mostly college students – who descended on Washington, DC the first weekend in March to demand that Congress start limiting the country’s greenhouse gas emissions.

The three-day Power Shift conference – organized by Energy Action Coalition – featured dozens of training sessions in media tactics, organizing skills, and legislative strategies, along with speeches from Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and Congressional climate champion Ed Markey. On Monday, March 3, some 4,000 students visited nearly every congressional office in what organizers called “the biggest lobbying day on climate and energy” in the country’s history. An energetic rally on the South Lawn of the Capitol punctuated the mobilization’s hopeful mood.

The grassroots energy displayed in the Capitol marks an important turning point for the environmental movement. Climate change – for many years the concern of a narrow circle of scientists and inside-the-Beltway policy wonks – seems to have finally birthed a broad-based citizens’ movement. The numbers prove the point. The original Power Shift gathering, which occurred just 14 months earlier, attracted 5,000 students; the first such meeting of campus climate activists, in 2005, had fewer than 200 attendees.

photo of people wearing green hardhats at a demonstration; US Capitol building in the background, young woman with a megaphone in foregroundCourtesy Energy Action Climate change – for many years the concern of a narrow circle of
scientists and policy wonks – seems to have finally birthed a
broad-based citizens’ movement.

For author-activist Bill McKibben – whose seminal book about global warming, The End of Nature, was published before many of the Power Shift participants were born – the emergence of a muscular social movement demanding carbon dioxide reductions is long overdue.

“I’ve been waiting 20 years to see what the climate change movement would look like, and it looks great,” McKibben says. “We’ve got a lot to do … to give [President Obama] the political space he needs to maneuver, to show him that people care. Because the fossil fuel industry doesn’t want to give him any space.”

The popular pressure is coming just in time. In December, leaders from around the world will gather in Copenhagen, Denmark, to negotiate an international treaty to replace the Kyoto Accords. With greenhouse gases continuing to accumulate in the atmosphere, and ecosystems already showing stress from rising temperatures, environmentalists warn that the Copenhagen negotiations will be a do-or-die.

There is unlikely to be any meaningful progress at the talks unless the US plays a leadership role. Green groups, therefore, believe it’s essential for Congress to pass some kind of ambitious climate legislation before the world’s leaders arrive in Copenhagen.

Gus Speth, a former environmental advisor to Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, and now dean of the Yale School of Forestry, says that 2009 will be a “hinge of history.”

“Far too many members on the Hill don’t feel sufficient political pressure,” he says. “They [members of Congress] get the science – that’s not difficult. I think what we’ve been missing is a protest movement in this country, a powerful welling of grassroots support. Real citizen power – that has been the missing ingredient.”

The students swarming the congressional offices seemed determined to prove that they are ready to make the sacrifices demanded for success. The previous night had yielded three inches of snow, and temperatures throughout the day were frigid, punctuated by occasional flurries. But the climate activists were undeterred by the storm.

Many of those at the Capitol rally seemed heated by a feeling that the political dynamics are turning in their favor. Last year, for example, environmentalists scored a major victory when Democratic lawmakers removed longtime auto-industry ally Rep. John Dingell from his chairmanship of the powerful House Energy and Commerce Committee. The December coal slurry spill at a Tennessee Valley Authority power plant has put the coal industry under heightened scrutiny and is raising new questions about coal’s dangers, from extraction to ignition to disposal. President Obama has signaled that his administration will play a leading role in crafting any agreement that comes out of Copenhagen.

At the same time, the fossil-fuel industry is preparing for a major political fight. An alliance of utilities, coal, and mining companies has pledged $40 million to influence climate change legislation. Some 770 companies have hired more than 2,300 lobbyists to work on climate issues, which means that there are four climate lobbyists for every member of Congress, according to the Center for Public Integrity.

“Yes, it’s an uphill climb, but we believe the tide has turned,” says Jessy Tolkan, executive director of the Energy Action Coalition, an Earth Island Institute project. “We know the polluting industries will always have more money to put lies on television and to stuff money into politicians’ pockets. But we have something more powerful – we have numbers.”

Tolkan notes that 23 million members of the millennial generation voted in the last election and were a key force in bringing Obama and a fortified Democratic Congress into power. Of those, 340,000 people signed the “Power Vote” pledge setting climate change and green jobs as their top political priorities.

During the March 3 lobbying, students used those statistics to warn legislators that if they ignore climate change, they could lose their jobs.

“We have a chance right now to make it clear that we have the ability to vote these people in and out of power,” Tolkan says.

Tolkan’s optimism will be tried later this year when Congress and President Obama turn their attention to climate policy. The economic crisis appears to have moved climate lower down on the agenda (a recent Pew poll showed it dead last among the public’s priorities), which could siphon off support.

Even more challenging, climate politics threaten to fracture the Democratic caucus. Otherwise-progressive legislators who come from coal-producing states will likely oppose legislation that goes too hard against coal – the single largest source of the US’s greenhouse gas emissions. They will probably demand government support for so-called “clean coal” technologies, such as carbon sequestration.

Yet for many green groups – including most Energy Action member organizations – the very idea of “clean coal” is anathema. A popular placard during the Power Shift was “Clean Coal is a Dirty Lie.”

“When I hear about ‘clean coal,’ it just breaks my heart,” says Enei Begaye, a Navajo and Tohono O’Odham woman who has fought coal mining on her reservation in northeastern Arizona. “There’s no way we can support [climate legislation that includes coal], because coal is tearing our communities apart and is the root of our suffering.”

These kinds of disputes over tactics and strategies will become increasingly acute as environmentalists get closer to federal climate legislation. But the skills-sharing sessions, trainings, and workshops that occurred at Power Shift show that climate organizers are ready for the long struggle ahead. Without exception, environmentalists said they were excited to return to their communities and put pressure on their legislators, on their home turf, for climate action.

“Climate change and its unpredictable effects on our planet scare me so much,” says Emily Pappo, 18, a New York University student majoring in environmental studies. “I think that it’s beautiful, the fact that so many people are here for one important cause. I’m so happy I could be a part of it. Each of us learned so much. We have to take the skills we learned here and take them back to our communities and our campuses.”

—Jason Mark

A longer version of this article was originally published by the web magazine

Take Action:
It’s imperative that the US Congress passes bold legislation this year to reduce the country’s greenhouse gas emissions. Failure to do so will likely torpedo crucial global climate talks in Copenhagen in December. Call your senators and representatives today and urge them to support measures that create a clean energy economy. The Capitol Switchboard is (877) 666-3393. For more information, visit

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