Words fail me as I try to figure out how to capture in words the profound significance of the student-based Power Shift conference which took place November 2-5 at the University of Maryland and on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.
Historic-Powerful-Deep-Amazing-Awesome-Astounding-Incredible-Hope at the Highest Level: these are the adjectives and phrases that come to mind.
So what happened?
From November 2nd to the 4th upwards of 6,000 people, overwhelmingly young people, multi-racial but predominantly white, from all over the country and with some international representation, met on the campus of the University of Maryland in College Park at the "first-ever national youth climate summit." Over the course of two and a half days they heard lots of speakers and music at plenary sessions and panels and took part in close to 300 different workshops, on a range of topics.
Some of the topics covered in the workshops and panels included:
-anti-racism and anti-oppression, a central priority for this burgeoning movement of hope for the world -organizing strategies and tactics on the climate issue on college campuses -community-based, statewide and national organizing and legislative approaches on the climate issue -ending the U.S. addiction to coal and oil -media and messaging -skills trainings -spirituality and faith and environmental sustainability -civil disobedience and direct action in the climate movement -corporate campaigning
This was a conference of thousands of SERIOUS young people. They were not there just to enjoy one another’s company, although that was definitely going on. They were there primarily to learn, to contribute, to strategize, to return home as smarter and more effective activists for a justice-based, peace-encouraging, world-changing clean energy revolution.
One of the political high points for me was when, during a major plenary session Saturday night, a "we want more" chant went up from some of those in the crowd of thousands during the speeches of Congresspersons Ed Markey and, following him, Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the House. Markey is the chair of a special House committee on global warming set up by Pelosi earlier this year.
Markey and Pelosi were the two prominent national politicians who spoke at Power Shift. I was told that all of the Presidential candidates were invited and, tellingly, none came.
I was especially pleased by this interruption of Markey’s and then Pelosi’s speeches because I was disappointed by the initially loud and strong welcoming of Pelosi when she was introduced to the crowd. Other speakers Friday night and earlier Saturday night had received a warm response when they spoke against the war in Iraq during their time on the stage. So for Pelosi to be received so positively given her misleadership in Congress on that issue was not what I had thought would happen. I was hoping that the response would be more mixed.
But then the "we want more" chant rose up out of the crowd. Here’s how it was described on the Power Shift website blog by one of those who led it, Juliana Williams:
"Tonight at Power Shift, as Congressman Ed Markey stood before us inciting us to support the proposed Energy Bill, a few of us began chanting ‘We want more, we want more.’ Congressman Markey stopped short to listen. We chanted for a full minute with a fervor, intensity and volume that left me light-headed, hoarse and thoroughly invigorated. As we chanted, for the first time, I felt an almost painful desire for the future we want to see. . .
"We don’t just want policy fixes, or simply a change in leadership in the White House, higher fuel economy standards, or 80% emissions reduction by the year 2050. This movement is about more than just politics. This movement is about more than just supporting clean energy sources. This movement is about recognizing the patterns of consumption, patterns of thought, patterns of behavior that have led to the social ills we see today. It’s about rediscovering the value of our resources, the value of our neighbors, the value of life on this planet."
"We want more" came forward as a chant another time that I heard over the course of the weekend. It was on Monday the 5th on the west lawn of the U.S. Capitol during a rally of close to 2,000 young people in mid-day in between morning and afternoon mass lobbying by the students in support of the strong legislative demands of the 1 Sky campaign (www.1skycampaign.org).
The best lobby day story I heard about was what happened in the Hart Senate Office Building that morning. Spontaneously, hundreds of students started chanting "80 by 50" (80% reductions in carbon emissions by 2050) across an atrium in the center of that building around which Senate offices are lined up. I was with a group of about 25 that chanted anti-war slogans into that atrium space during the first week of the Iraq war in March of 2003, and we were loud, so I’m sure hundreds of students chanting on Monday were heard by everyone in the building.
The best visual of the weekend for me was at the end of the Monday rally. Dozens of young people were up on the stage, singing and dancing along with music coming out of the loudspeakers. Hundreds of others were doing the same on the ground as cameras clicked and rolled. I was moved as I watched the joyful energy and read the signs people were holding: Green Jobs-No Coal-1 Sky-30 by 2020-Power Shift-Danger: End of World Ahead-Congress Listen: Act Now-Youth Want Green Energy-God’s Creation, Our Home-Hope Is Green.
Our hope for the future absolutely is green: a connection to the green, life-giving force of our Mother Earth. A green, clean energy economy that gets us off the dirty fossil fuels which are destroying the ecosystem and are the reason for the U.S.’s wars of occupation in the Middle East and elsewhere trying to control oil and natural gas. A green, clean energy revolution that creates millions of jobs, lifts people out of poverty, strengthens communities and reduces the power of destructive corporations.
And there is movement in Congress toward this future. It is possible that a piece of global warming legislation could come onto the U.S. Senate floor for a debate and vote early next year, although it will not be strong enough and will likely provide even more subsidies for coal, auto and oil companies. There will be a need for significant grassroots mobilization to demand that it either be strengthened and changed or defeated.
Most immediately, there’s an energy bill that could be passed by Congress in early December that could-repeat, could-be the beginnings of a turn by the federal government in the right direction on the energy issue. If that’s to happen the climate movement needs to work very hard between now and then to pressure legislators for a good bill. A good bill will include an increased fuel efficiency standard for cars to at least 35 mpg by 2020, a renewable electricity standard requiring utilities to get at least 15% of their energy from renewable sources by 2020, a strong green jobs program and absolutely no subsidies for liquid coal, nuclear energy, coal or oil.
As we work to get this kind of energy bill passed we should be building toward actions all over the country on December 8th, the third International Day of Climate Action. This is taking place during the time of the Dec. 3-14 United Nations Climate Conference in Bali, Indonesia. There will be actions on the 8th in more than 50 countries.
Power Shift. As was talked about this past weekend, a phrase with a double meaning. A shift from carbon to clean energy, and a shift from old, corporate-dominated politics as usual to the new, democratic (small "d"), participatory politics experienced by thousands at the University of Maryland. We are on the way, we are moving, we have hope, we can see the future, and we are determined to do what needs to be done to get there. Young people are rising up and giving leadership and all of us of whatever age need to follow and work with them. Si, se puede! Si, se puede!
Ted Glick is on the 65th day of a Climate Emergency Fast (www.climateemergency.org) and is the coordinator of the U.S. Climate Emergency Council. He’s also active with the Climate Crisis Coalition, which is coordinating U.S.-based organizing toward December 8th actions (www.climatecrisiscoalition.org).