Thousands of youth voters who helped elect Barack Obama to the presidency in 2008 are turning their energies toward pressuring the president and Congress to take a stronger stance on climate change and clean energy. This past weekend through Monday, 10,000 students and youth met in Washington, DC for PowerShift 2011—a national summit and training focused on empowering young people to implement solutions to climate change.
Though participants came from all over the country and from many different backgrounds, there were some common themes that emerged again and again. Perhaps most important was the growing feeling among youth organizers that the president they helped put in office has done an underwhelming job addressing the crisis of global warming.
PowerShift included in-depth trainings on organizing and activism, as well as a multiple rallies and demonstrations where thousands of youth called on policymakers to stand up to the fossil fuel industries. Participants heard from speakers as diverse as Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa P. Jackson, who represents a government agency, and climate activist Tim DeChristopher, who is being prosecuted by the federal government for peacefully disrupting an oil drilling auction.
Many speakers joined in criticizing Congress and the Obama administration for not doing enough to prevent climate change. Green jobs activist and former White House adviser Van Jones compared President Obama to a student who could be getting A-pluses in school, but in practice is only getting C’s and D’s.
This critique of the Obama administration set PowerShift 2011 apart from a similar conference held two years ago, called PowerShift 2009. At the time of the 2009 PowerShift event, President Obama had just recently taken office and hopes were high that the federal government was finally going to pass ambitious climate legislation. Several keynote speakers came from federal government agencies—including Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar, who spoke about protecting public lands from fossil fuel exploration.
This year Secretary Salazar not only failed to make the speaker list, he was strongly criticized at PowerShift for opening more than 7,000 acres in Wyoming to coal mining. Author and activist Bill McKibben blasted that decision, saying it would make as large a contribution to global warming as building 300 new coal plants. On Monday more than a thousand PowerShift participants marched to the Interior Department’s headquarters to protest this and other pro-fossil fuel policies. Twenty-one activists were arrested for acts of civil disobedience.
About the only high-profile figure in the Obama administration who has managed to stay in climate activists’ good graces is Lisa Jackson, who as head of the EPA is enforcing Clean Air Act regulations on carbon and toxic air pollutants despite strong opposition from industry. Yet there are signs the president might respond if youth voters push him hard enough to take action. President Obama made a surprise appearance at a meeting between eleven youth activists and White House staff on Friday afternoon. Young organizers, including PowerShift co-organizer Courtney Hight, urged the president to push for clean energy and reductions in carbon emissions, and not to invest in dangerous energy sources like nuclear power, coal, and natural gas.
Other highlights from PowerShift included a spontaneous demonstration that shut down a BP gas station, and a rally of thousands outside the national headquarters of the US Chamber of Commerce, the country’s biggest funder of anti-climate politicians and policies. In his speech to PowerShift participants, Bill McKibben criticized the US Chamber for being the single biggest roadblock to reducing global warming emissions, and for urging the EPA not to regulate carbon.
Trainings that took place over the weekend at PowerShift were focused on preparing participants to return to their home states ready to continue fighting for a clean energy future. With disappointments from the last year, such as the failure of the US government to pass climate legislation, the youth movement’s relationship with the Obama administration may be permanently changed. Now PowerShift participants have returned home to channel the same energy that helped elect a new president in 2008 into fulfilling the dream of a carbon neutral world.