This week, college campuses across the country held events for Focus the Nation, a major education and action campaign around climate change. To see what it was all about, I headed to Seattle’s University of Washington campus to find out if the students behind Focus the Nation could teach me a thing or two.

The event was originally billed as a teach-in, and I imagined students walking out of class protest-style or professors stopping their lectures mid-algorithm to step on a global-warming soapbox. But when I arrived on campus, I found quite a different scene. Very little scene, initially.

Focus the Nation displayOutside the Husky Union Building, I saw booths for the Peace Corps and Ron Paul (who’d be visiting the campus in a few hours), but no word of Focus the Nation events. It wasn’t until I stepped inside that I saw the first sign pointing me to the panel discussions and exhibition area upstairs. Once there, though, I found the quiet din of the HUB amplified to a civilized roar, the exhibit area buzzing with activity like a beehive before colony collapse disorder.

I had expected this “Climate Action Café” to be full of science-fair-style poster displays and earnest enviros handing out leaflets printed on recycled paper. And to be honest, there was a lot of that. But the more I walked around and talked to people, the more I realized this event had been structured purposely to encourage interactivity and provide avenues for accountability — two key factors that made it more than your average earth fair.

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“Do you want an Undriver License?”

The question seemed to come out of nowhere as I walked into the ballroom. It was posed by a small group of people in matching button-down shirts, some of whom were taking DMV-style photos while others helped students fill out forms on clipboards.

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Undriving booth

An Undriver License? What’s that?

“An Undriver License is when you voluntarily choose to drive less … it’s a fun way to get people out of their cars and try something new,” explained Craig Benjamin, a UW grad student and member of Sustainable Ballard, the organization issuing the licenses.

Applicants were asked to fill out a form pledging to reduce their driving — by taking the bus to work or carpooling to the grocery on weekends. The form required an email address so that Sustainable Ballard could get in touch with licensees in a few weeks, Benjamin explained, to see how things were working out and offer more suggestions.

Kaitlin Torgerson, the outreach coordinator of Earth Ministry, a faith-based green group, had a similar request for email addresses. She was hoping to get students signed up to a listserv that would connect them to future events and other people of faith interested in carpooling to church.

window demoOther groups forwent the pledges and email requests for a more interactive approach: A stack of coffee cups accompanied a sign tallying the number of paper cups used by UW students every hour (208). A terrarium rigged with ice and a heat lamp illustrated the water cycle as moisture evaporated off the shallow pool of water and “rained” down on a pile of rocks. A window pane and a hair dryer became a makeshift demo on weatherizing your home.

Somehow, among the hundred-or-so people milling about, I managed to run into Eli Levitt, a grad student who helped organize the Focus the Nation events at UW.

So what’s going on here, Eli?

“The Climate Action Café is really a way of bringing nonprofits who offer local solutions to interact with people who want to talk about how to take action.”

But will people really leave here today and do something about climate change tomorrow?

“That’s why it’s called the Climate Action Café! … What we hope comes out of it is energy and momentum — people thinking about how to take action and getting involved in their communities.”

licenseSounds good to me, I thought, as I strolled back to Sustainable Ballard’s display. I decided I couldn’t leave without an Undriver License of my own. The best part? No waiting in line at the DMV.