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VOICES

Young Americans Move Forward On Climate—But Will The President?

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Rev. Lennox Yearwood addresses the historic crowd gathered at Sunday's Forward On Climate rally in Washington, D.C.

CREDIT: Flickr/350.org

WASHINGTON D.C.—Massive numbers of young people converged on the nation's capital for Sunday's historic Forward on Climate rally—but events before and after the big event may have done the most to amplify their voices. 

The Forward on Climate rally saw an estimated 40,000 people march on the National Mall to pressure President Obama to take serious action on the climate crisis, starting with a decisive rejection of the Keystone XL pipeline.

While progressive heavy-weights like former White House green jobs adviser Van Jones, Hip-Hop Caucus president Rev. Lennox Yearwood, Sierra Club executive director Michael Brune, Chief Jacqueline Thomas of the Saik’uz First Nation in British Columbia, and 350.org founder Bill McKibben graced the national stage at the Washington Monument that drew the swelling crowds for the historic event, young organizers spent the early hours setting it.

Energy Action Coalition, the Greenpeace Student Network, the Sierra Student Coalition, the NWF Campus Ecology Program, 350.org, and others arose early Sunday to organize a a youth convergence at the W Hotel.

Youth climate leaders working in diverse communities and campuses on issues like divestment, fracking, and coal projects shared the progress they’ve made on clean energy issues.

Shilpa Joshi, Maryland campus organizer with the Chesapeake Climate Action Network (CCAN), told Campus Progress that she is pushing to re-introduce a bill placing a temporary moratorium on fracking while funding a committee to independently research the effects of horizontal drilling for natural gas in Maryland. She said a previous effort for such a committee died in the Maryland Senate more than three years ago.

“Three years has shown that it’s not because of a lack of interest. It’s because there’s a definite presence of oil lobbying and natural gas lobbying,”Joshi said, noting that the American Petroleum Institute has aggressively funded Maryland senators' legislative campaigns.

She was motivated to come to Sunday’s rally partly to pressure President Obama to back off his State of the Union rhetoric advocating for the expansion of natural gas extraction: “He wants to be bipartisan. He wants to be moderate and find a middle ground. We need to rebrand this message and re-educate people that it’s not a middle ground, that fracking is extremely harmful and extremely, permanently damaging.”

But if Obama approves the Keystone XL pipeline this summer, direct pressure on him may not be a sustainable strategy.

350.org's McKibben told Campus Progress that in the future, the climate movement may need to start targeting extraction industries directly. “A lot of this work around divestment is an effort to go after fossil fuels directly, not with our pretty weak and calamitous government in the way,” he said.

Many young organizers this reporter spoke to expressed a desire to do more. Caroline Hansley, chair of the Greenpeace student board and a student at North Carolina State University, believes that divestment is not enough. “I love that divestment is growing, I love that it’s spread to over 250 campuses, but that’s not good enough, and it can’t be our only focus.”

Hansley has helped set up meetings with the NC System president and chancellor to demand that they speak with Duke Energy, which supplies 83 percent of North Carolina’s energy and counts the NC System as its largest customer, about rejecting its 20-year integrated resource plan [PDF] and including more renewable energy sources in a new draft plan. Hansley is also pressuring the North Carolina Utility Commission to reject the public plan in favor of more renewable energy sources.

“We’re looking at utility companies and using a two-pronged approach saying, we need to have a policy and we need to have implementation,” she said. “That’s why I’m not running a divestment campaign because I think it takes a long time, and we don’t have enough time … What we’re doing is having meetings with the people who have the power right now.”

“I think it’s great to work on divestment and I think 250 campuses are great, but we need 500 campuses working on Duke Energy. They’re the largest utility in the nation,” Hansley said. 

McKibben told Campus Progress before Sunday's rally that he supports an escalation in direct action tactics and civil disobedience. From the stage at the Washington Monument, he also praised the young people putting their bodies on the line in Texas to stop the pipeline: “All I ever wanted to see was a movement of people to stop climate change, and now I’ve seen it … It’s hometown heroes like our friends at CCAN, it’s heroes like the people who’ve been blocking Keystone with their bodies down in Texas….”

McKibben was arrested for a second time to stop the pipeline last Wednesday before the rally, joining leaders from the Sierra Club who broke their 120-year embargo on civil disobedience for the Keystone XL.

As the climate movement continues to harness the renewable energy of young grassroots organizers, facilitated in part by 350.org’s nationwide divestment organizing, it may be time to funnel that energy into direct action and escalate divestment by targeting TD Bank and other companies with the largest shares in the Keystone XL pipeline.

This idea came to the fore during an evening assembly of climate leaders at Church of the Epiphany, where hundreds broke out into smaller working groups to critically discuss and strategize around local movements focused on divestment, treaties, fracking, tar sands, coal plants, and communication, among other topics.

Many of the students and young people now staging sit-ins and direct actions are already divestment organizers at their local universities, like the students who glued their hands together inside a TransCanada office in Massachusetts this January.

For now, the climate movement has broken records with the largest climate rally in U.S. history, with thousands also gathering at solidarity events in Los Angeles and San Francisco Sunday. The next move is on the President, but climate organizers have an plan of action if he doesn’t come through.  

Candice Bernd is a reporter with Campus Progress. Follow her on Twitter @CandiceBernd.

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