WASHINGTON, D.C.—Just blocks away from Capitol Hill, a new conversation is sweeping the streets. Within the crowded sidewalks and cafes along H and 7th Streets, certain words likely will catch your ear: environmental sustainability, green economy, direct action, colonization, coal power plants and capitalism.
All weekend, more than 12,000 college and high school students have traveled across the country for the second Power Shift conference, a meeting-of-the-minds for students serious about taking leadership roles in not only confronting climate change, but also taking on Washington attitudes and business-as-usual.
As a blizzard pounds the East Coast, students are preparing to take the Capitol by storm Monday.
The day begins with scheduled meetings with their elected officials — many of them in their first trip to the Capitol — in what organizers are calling “the largest-ever lobby day on climate change and energy.” More than 350 meetings for youth lobbying have been scheduled within Congress.
And the day might end in jail for the more than 2,500 students have signed-up to put their bodies on the line to shut down a nearby power plant that uses coal to produce nearly 50 percent of its energy. Climate scientists, such as NASA’s James Hansen, warn that the only way to mitigate climate change is to completely stop burning coal to make electricity.
The message is clear: This “Yes we Can!” attitude fueled more than 24 million people under 29-years-old to vote Nov. 4. And a majority of these people say that they will settle for nothing less than a complete climate change policy shift in Washington. The students’ demands include immediately cutting carbon emissions, an investment in a green economy fueled by clean energy and that policies are aligned with the principles of climate justice.
“Being here makes me feel like being much more active,” said Ashley Fallon, 20, a marketing student from Loyola College in Maryland. She said that she experienced a environmental culture shock returning to the United States after studying in London, where she found people much more aware of environmental and climate change issues. “Power Shift has been a really eye-opening experience.”
Energy Action, a coalition of 50 environmental groups, organized the Power Shift weekend conference and lobby day. For three days, students attended ranging in themes from the histories of coal power, direct action and uranium mining, to media and leadership training, grassroots organizing and anti-oppression workshops.
Students representing all 50 states and Native American communities are hoping to network with other students, gather information and strategize on how to bring environmental change back to their campuses and home towns.
“There is a lack of interest amongst students and faculty,” said Rosemary Ortiona, 18, a mathematics business economics student at Hofstra University in Long Island, N.Y. Fellow student Caitlin Maloney quickly joined the conversation. “We were brainstorming ways to make the campus more sustainable and decreasing its climate footprint, but it was hard to do without access to information on what our impacts really are,” said Maloney, 19, a fine arts major. Their group, Students for a Greener Hofstra, is pushing for the university administration to create a new full-time sustainability officer.
“You have come here to have a voice about the environment. Our ancestors have been telling the government for 200 years to protect the environment,” said Travis Brown, a student at Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence, Kansas, to a room of more than 175 students who attended a workshop titled, “Decolonizing Our Minds: How Colonization Affects Us Today.” Brown noted that native communities across the continent are being adversely impacted not only by mineral and fuel extraction companies, but now are also suffering the effects of climate change on the landscape and eco-systems. “Our people are at the risk of being exterminated.”
Many students were moved by stories brought from people across the continent in various workshops who discussed the effects of industrialization, capitalism and colonization in their communities, including high cancer rates, demolished mountains, polluted streams, radioactive mines, changes in the flora and fauna and toxic dumps. Representatives from several Arctic region indigenous communities explained about how the effects of climate change — which are more extreme at the earth’s poles — including melting sea ice, eroding shorelines, thawing tundra and changes to fish, seal, whale and caribou migrations are threatening their entire way of life.
TARGET DIRTY ENERGY
Within sniffing distance of Capitol Hill looms the Capitol Power Plant, a small facility that partially fuels Congressional buildings. For years, local residents have complained about the 60,000 tons of annual carbon dioxide emissions and other pollutants that settle down on their neighborhoods. Approximately 49 percent of the power produced is by burning coal.
Despite the weather, more than 2,500 people have registered to risk arrest Monday afternoon in an effort to block the entrances of Capitol Power Plant. Capitol Climate Action, a diverse coalition of more than 90 groups, hope that this symbolic action will just be the first in a massive movement of people taking dirty energy into their own hands this year. According to the website SourceWatch, more than 90 non-violent protests and acts of civil disobedience against coal mining, processing, shipping and burning have occurred worldwide since 2004.
Perhaps as a way to take steam out of the action, U.S. House Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada) released a letter Feb. 26 directing the Capitol Power Plant to take necessary steps to reduce the amount of coal used while preparing to completely switch the plant to natural gas by the end of 2009, a cleaner burning, but still dirty, fossil fuel.
“Taking this major step toward cleaning up the Capitol Power Plant’s emissions would be an important demonstration of Congress’ willingness to deal with the enormous challenges of global worming, energy independence and our inefficient use of finite fossil fuels,” Pelosi and Reed wrote in a letter to Acting Architect Stephen Ayers.
“People in D.C. have been fighting against the plant for years, it is very dirty and located in a poor neighborhood. They haven’t had much success until now,” said Adrian Wilson, a San Francisco-based environmental organizer with the Capitol Climate Action coalition. “The fact that three days before the action, Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid wrote letter for plant to be switched from coal to natural gas shows the power of direct action to make change quickly.”
The Capitol Climate Action coalition quickly issued a press release Feb. 26 and indicated that regardless of the letter, the massive act of civil disobedience would still take place Monday.
“Speaker Pelosi and Leader Reid’s dramatic action shows that Congress can act quickly on global warming when the public demands it, “ said Greenpeace Global Warming Campaign Director Carroll Muffett.
“This action is not just about this power plant, it is about the 600 coal-fired power plants across the Untied States,” Wilson said. “This action is going to be a great first step because it will help us expand the small army of direct action activists who are trained and experienced and who are willing to put their bodies in the way of the coal industry. It will be this way until every coal power plant is off-line in the United States.”
“We see that Congress is willing to get coal out of their backyard,” said Nell Greenburg, communications manager with Rainforest Action Network. “Let’s see if it can get the industry out of their back pocket.”