The Kids Are Alright
The shifting demographics of the climate movementIt wasn't all that long ago that I-crisp Environmental Studies degree in my back pocket, working my way through the climate and sustainability scene-lived with the low-grade anxiety of always being the youngest person in the room. At conferences and meetings, during interviews and actions, I tended to be aware of my age. The least experienced member on the panel; the "greenest" (and not in the environmental sense) pen on the press list. Today, closing fast on 30, it feels as though I might be getting too old to be relevant in the field.Two weekends ago, over 12,000 people descended on Washington D.C. to be a part of PowerShift 09, the largest gathering of climate change activists this country has ever seen. With a few exceptions, the only folks there older than I were parents chaperoning ultra-engaged teenagers.This is all to say that there's been something of a foundation-shaking shift (the D.C. event's name is clever on a few levels) in the climate movement in the past five years or so. But this crucial point has largely been lost on the media, the general public, and, in fact, on the old green guard. It hasn't been lost on the politicians, though. After the youth bloc came out in record numbers this past election, representing over 20 percent of the entire electorate, the vast majority of whom rank climate change and energy issues at the top of their voting priorities, Washington has started to pay attention.This is the burgeoning "youth climate movement," as it's coming to be known. Though anyone involved will tell you that it's much more; these young activists are actually, as Macalester College senior Timothy Den Herder-Thomas put it, "youth leaders who are coming together to promote a new vision of economic recovery, social justice, and energy security founded on a stable climate and sustainable communities nationwide."Worldwide, actually. PowerShift 09 hosted representatives not only from all fifty states, but also from every Canadian province and twelve foreign countries. Not to mention a string of coordinated events overseas, all of which are gearing up towards the critical Copenhagen international climate conference in December.And there's more to it than PowerShift alone. The event was brought to life by the Energy Action Coalition, an alliance of 50 regional organizations and over 700 local grassroots groups devoted to "bold, just, and comprehensive action to stop global warming and create a just and sustainable energy future." Energy Action was founded just five years ago by climate champion Billy Parish at the ripe old age of 21 (after dropping out of Yale to focus his efforts on building this youth movement), and already counts hundreds of thousands in its ranks. Leading up to the November elections, EAC's Power Vote campaign organized over 350,000 young Americans who pledged their vote "for clean and just energy."
What's next? In April, when Congress breaks and elected officials head home, youth leaders will be waiting for them in town hall meetings coordinated by Focus the Nation in nearly every Congressional district around the country. Meanwhile, 350.org is reaching out around the world, specifically seeking out student and youth groups to organize around the largest ever "Global Day of Climate Action" on October 24th. (Full disclosure: the kids running 350.org-and Step It Up before that-carry the same Environmental Studies degree from the same college that I do, though theirs are much crisper.)
What really excites a suddenly-somehow-old guy like me about all of this, is that the youth climate movement is built on something fundamental that environmentalism has long lacked: diversity. Inclusive by nature, there's a diversity of constituents coming from all races, religions, and backgrounds, from city centers and farmlands and suburbs and tribal reservations alike. But they also employ a "diversity of tactics," as Jesse Jenkins writes in a powerful three-part recap of PowerShift.Step It Up, for instance, launched from a couple of laptops and a $10,000 grant and, using nothing more than social media savvy and a bit of code. It culminated with over 1,400 simultaneous old-fashioned rallies across the country, all calling upon legislatures to reduce carbon emissions 80 percent by 2050. That day, then-presidential candidates Clinton, McCain, Edwards, and Obama all pledged a commitment to those numbers. Nearly two years later, Obama's still using them as his carbon targets.During PowerShift, attendees got text updates steering them to classrooms for Congressional lobbying training sessions. The next day over 6,000 freshly-trained youth followed their SMS's to over 350 face-to-face meetings with House and Senate officials. It was the largest day of lobbying in the country's history. "These young leaders," Jenkins writes, "draw on time-tested community organizing techniques as well as a suite of cutting-edge, 21st century technologies to unite the movement, grow at a rapid pace, and secure climate and clean energy victories." The old green guard should be taking notes.Photos by flickr user whateva87