"I'm pretty convinced we're going to end up with World War III, with wars over water, and millions of refugees with the seas rising. There's so much tension in the world, I feel like climate is acting as a catalyst. We're standing up for the people who can't do anything about it."
These sober words came from Laura Wright, a willowy blonde 19-year-old sophomore at Hamilton College in New York. She was just one of the 6,000 students from across the continent who inspired me last month at Power Shift, the largest citizen activists' conference on global warming to date, which just happens to have been organized by students and youth. Yes, those same Facebook obsessed, binge drinking, narcissistic, Millennial praise hounds. It's our future, after all, and the failures of leadership have been endless, so who else but the foolhardy to take up the impossible?
Energy Action is the largest national youth coalition on climate change, headed up by Yale dropout Billy Parish. (He's my former classmate and oh yes, one of Salon's sexiest men). The 50+ organizations of Energy Action organized Power Shift and are ramping up campus-based, community-based, national and international political action this fall, through the presidential election, and beyond. Their platform, which is also championed by the nascent national coalition 1Sky, is simple:
1. The creation of a 5 million-strong Clean Energy Job Corps,
2. The reduction of greenhouse gas emissions to 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050, (30 percent by 2020) which scientists say is the baseline for mitigating the worst effects of global warming,
3. Immediate public divestment from nonrenewable energy and highway subsidies, and redirection to renewable energy subsidies. This includes a moratorium on coal, the dirtiest source of energy.
I want to say a word about starting with clean jobs. There's real compassion and wisdom in their strategy here, which I saw evidenced at the conference. It wasn't overrun by private college students-there was strong representation from all 50 states, large public universities, and community colleges, where half of the nation's college students are found. When I approached a group of students dancing to an Appalachian folk band between workshop sessions, they turned out to be high schoolers from Puerto Rico.
The Energy Action members find it impossible to conceive of an environmental movement that doesn't advance the causes of sustainable economic development, ending poverty, and social justice. They are right. All our lives are connected with the life of the earth.
Parish testified to this before a rump meeting of the house Select Committee on Global Warming on November 5, the Monday of the Power Shift Conference. "We must begin the long process of reconciliation with the original peoples of this land, with the people that were brought here against their will, especially those from Africa, and all the people that are poorly served by our society. We cannot sacrifice communities for our overconsumption today, not only because it is wrong for those communities today but because we will be sacrificing the basis of life for our children and future generations."
To remake our economy and society and save ourselves to the extent it's still possible–from the consequences of environmental disaster requires just as much buildup as breakdown. We need a New Deal, a WPA, a Marshall Plan, a giant Leave No Trace movement.
Energy Action is having a busy couple of weeks. Coalition activists have joined the 22 US youth delegates in Bali for the latest UN Climate Negotiations. The global youth delegation is 100-strong (out of an estimated 10,000 attendance) with China, Canada, Africa, and Australia among the regions and countries represented.
Here's a recap. In 1997, the Kyoto protocol pledged 36 countries to lower their collective greenhouse gas emissions about 5%. That treaty, which the U.S. Senate never ratified, is scheduled to expire in wait for it 2012. Last week, Australia's new prime minister Kevin Rudd made good on a campaign promise to sign on to Kyoto. The US is now absolutely alone among developed countries in its recalcitrance on global warming. The one major issue at stake in Bali is whether developing superpowers like India, China and Brazil will be subject to restrictions on emissions, which they were exempted from at Kyoto. This Op-ed from the India Times summarizes the developing worlds' position.
They are starting to recognize the problem, but they are worried about effects on employment, poverty, and economic growth. They don't see why they should be forced to cut emissions if the world's most polluting country is not doing so.
The US is the largest economy in the world and the country that contributes the most to global warming (at least until China overtakes us very, very soon.) As long as we fail to participate in international restrictions on emissions, we create a huge moral hazard for other countries, at Bali, and everywhere else. The task of the youth delegation, along with other American citizens there, is to demonstrate that George Bush is not America. "There is no more time to debate. Even though the Bush administration refuses to take action on climate change, our generation must work together on the most important issue that has ever faced humanity. We need action right now," said youth delegate Logan Yonavjak.
In a tense video posted on their blog, the youth delegation confronted the Bush administration delegation over their failure to represent public opinion. The officials' response: Do you have the votes?
And there lies the rub. Back in Washington, DC, more Energy Action youth are pushing their representatives on an energy bill that will move them closer to their platform. The version that passed the House December 6, 2007 is fairly strong. Without touching carbon emissions limits, it raises fuel economy standards to 35 mpg by 2020, the first increase in decades; and requires for the first time that 15 percent of our electricity come from renewable sources (currently the figure is around 6 percent) It also rolls back over $13 billion in tax breaks for the oil and gas industries, and creates new alternative energy tax incentives.
The Senate version, though, is likely to be much weakened as 60 votes are needed to overcome a Bush veto.
Separately, a political battle is raging among several Senate climate change bills that will likely come to a head over the winter and spring. The Boxer-Sanders act contains something that needs to be done: 80% reduction of 1990 levels by 2050. The Warner-Lieberman act, the weaker, more politically viable bill, introduces a cap-and-trade system to lower emissions a projected 19 percent below 2005 levels by 2020.
The gulf between what's politically feasible and what's necessary for our survival as a species has never seemed so maddeningly wide, and the idea of engaging with the mainstream political process in order to accomplish necessary worldchanging may not have the broadest appeal. But what these young people are doing often, in most lights, seems to me like the only defensible course of action. If you know what is wrong and you know what is right, what else can you do but throw your body on the gears and stop them grinding?