Photo: Fritz Myer via Flickr

Van Jones gets youth activists riled up at Power Shift rally.
Photo: Fritz Myer

About 5,500 people, most under the age of 21, traveled from all over the country to the unremarkable suburb of College Park, Md., this past weekend to take part in the largest climate-change conference and rally in U.S. history. At Power Shift 2007, these college and high-school students established in clear terms the major differences between today’s young Americans and their political leaders in Washington — whereas the former can punch high above their weight, their elders are sitting out the fight.

As national advocacy conferences go, Power Shift was huge — consider, by way of contrast, that this year’s much publicized YearlyKos convention attracted just 1,400 attendees. Maryland and Virginia were the best-represented states at Power Shift (after all, the conference was held on the campus of the University of Maryland), but students poured in from every congressional district in the country, happy to crash on couches and dormitory floors in order to be part of the action.

Photo: Brian Beutler

The 300 students from Michigan, fresh off a day-long bus ride, included many scores from the Detroit area, who brought with them 80,000 letters destined for the office of Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.), chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, urging him to stop stalling and take the climate crisis seriously.

Well-known green speakers like Bill McKibben, Van Jones, and Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger riled up sizable crowds, and panels and sessions on everything from climate science to faith-based activism drew anywhere from a few dozen to several scores of rapt attendees. The largest of these — at which students learned about technical matters like building a voting bloc and the state of climate legislation in the Congress — had to be convened inside an enormous basketball arena.

At the end of the sessions, the students lined up to ask questions that betrayed an impressive sophistication: How can polluters be prevented from busting their emissions caps? What’s your position on renewable fuel standards, as opposed to renewable energy standards? What’s the risk of passing a weak bill like Lieberman-Warner now? How will peak oil and peak coal affect the legislative process? These were no normal teenagers.

We Kid You Not

During the lunch hour on Saturday, I noticed a girl deeply engrossed in the event materials, poring through her schedule to find out where and when the most interesting panels were to be held. Her name was Egan Short, a 15-year-old sophomore at Decatur High School outside of Atlanta, Ga. She and her friends Lincoln Kupte, 16, and John Seydel, 14, who attend the Lovett School in Atlanta proper, were flown up to Maryland on a travel scholarship funded by a youth group that’s part of Georgia Interfaith Power and Light.

All three come from environmentally inclined families, and they arrived in College Park prepared. Kupte carried with him a three-ring notebook with dozens of pages of information on climate policy, intended to prepare him to effectively lobby his members of Congress — Democratic Rep. John Lewis and Republican Sens. Saxby Chambliss and Johnny Isakson — to support bold climate action.

I asked the trio what they planned to say to the Republican men — particularly Isakson, who sits on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee — to convince them to change their course. Seydel suggested that he’d focus on the local: “If they’re not interested in climate change, they’ll definitely be interested in droughts.” Georgia is in the midst of the worst drought in the recorded history of the American Southeast.

“They’re leaving it to us,” Short noted pragmatically, “but we can’t make legislation.”

The bad news is that many of the students at Power Shift didn’t actually get a chance to meet with or lobby their congressional representatives. Monday was designated as “Lobby Day,” but Congress didn’t officially return to session until 6:30 p.m., so many of the members simply weren’t around as the students visited their offices and made pleas for action.

But the young people did get the ear of Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), chair of the Select Committee for Energy Independence and Global Warming, who held a special hearing on youth climate leadership on Monday morning and invited a handful of the students and organizers to testify. Among them were Energy Action Coalition cofounder Billy Parish and Cheryl Charlee Lockwood from St. Marks, a village of 400 native Alaskans that will soon be flooded out of existence. (Lockwood earned the distinction of being mocked by Rush Limbaugh for her emotional testimony.)

Photo: Fritz Myer

The hearing was followed by a rally on the west lawn of the Capitol, which attracted a big crowd of cheering activists and speakers like Jones, Markey, and even Rep. Chris Shays (R-Conn.), whose platitudes about the bipartisan climate movement — “inconvenient truths” as he called them — were met with icy boos.

Who’s Calling Whom Complacent?

Power Shift was conceived and organized by the Energy Action Coalition, an activism-oriented alliance of student groups and environmental organizations, dedicated, among other things, to reducing greenhouse-gas pollution and creating a so-called “green collar” economy. In the five years since its founding, the coalition has launched or supported a number of activism campaigns, including Fossil Fools Day and the Campus Climate Challenge, and has attracted many thousands of young people to the climate cause.

A gathering like Power Shift had been on the minds of organizers since almost the coalition’s beginning, according to Kim Teplitzky, who sits on the EAC steering committee. But this year, finally, the coalition had enough funding to think big and make it happen — and a large enough core of passionate and dedicated students to join in and make it a success.

Young people are often chided for being unserious and disengaged; New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman is just one of the latest to contend that young Americans are not properly outraged or idealistic or activism-oriented. But as Power Shift demonstrated, that’s not necessarily true. In the case of climate change, it’s the youth — the heirs to the crisis — who are poised and ready to act, and their elders — the men and women who caused the problem to begin with — who can’t seem to find it within themselves to get serious.