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Thousands of Youth Descend on D.C. to Demand New Climate Change Policy

Defying a major blizzard, students plan to take the Capitol by storm, with more than 2,500 ready to be arrested.
 
 
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WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Just blocks away from Capitol Hill, a new conversation is sweeping the streets. Within the crowded sidewalks and cafes along H and 7th Streets, certain words likely will catch your ear: environmental sustainability, green economy, direct action, colonization, coal power plants and capitalism.

All weekend, more than 12,000 college and high school students traveled across the country for the second Power Shift conference, a meeting-of-the-minds for students serious about taking leadership roles in not only confronting climate change, but also taking on Washington attitudes and business-as-usual.

As a blizzard pounds the East Coast, students are preparing to take the Capitol by storm Monday.

The day begins with scheduled meetings with their elected officials -- many of them in their first trip to the Capitol -- in what organizers are calling “the largest-ever lobby day on climate change and energy.” More than 350 meetings for youth lobbying have been scheduled within Congress.

And the day might end in jail for the more than 2,500 students have signed-up to put their bodies on the line to shut down a nearby power plant that uses coal to produce nearly 50 percent of its energy. Climate scientists, such as NASA’s James Hansen, warn that the only way to mitigate climate change is to completely stop burning coal to make electricity.

The message is clear: This “Yes we Can!” attitude fueled more than 24 million people under 29-years-old to vote Nov. 4. And a majority of these people say that they will settle for nothing less than a complete climate change policy shift in Washington. The students’ demands include immediately cutting carbon emissions, an investment in a green economy fueled by clean energy and that policies are aligned with the principles of climate justice.

“Being here makes me feel like being much more active,” said Ashley Fallon, 20, a marketing student from Loyola College in Maryland. She said that she experienced a environmental culture shock returning to the United States after studying in London, where she found people much more aware of environmental and climate change issues. “Power Shift has been a really eye-opening experience.”

Energy Action, a coalition of 50 environmental groups, organized the Power Shift weekend conference and lobby day. For three days, students attended ranging in themes from the histories of coal power, direct action and uranium mining, to media and leadership training, grassroots organizing and anti-oppression workshops.

Students representing all 50 states and Native American communities are hoping to network with other students, gather information and strategize on how to bring environmental change back to their campuses and home towns.

“There is a lack of interest amongst students and faculty,” said Rosemary Ortiona, 18, a mathematics business economics student at Hofstra University in Long Island, N.Y. Fellow student Caitlin Maloney quickly joined the conversation. “We were brainstorming ways to make the campus more sustainable and decreasing its climate footprint, but it was hard to do without access to information on what our impacts really are,” said Maloney, 19, a fine arts major. Their group, Students for a Greener Hofstra, is pushing for the university administration to create a new full-time sustainability officer.

“You have come here to have a voice about the environment. Our ancestors have been telling the government for 200 years to protect the environment,” said Travis Brown, a student at Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence, Kansas, to a room of more than 175 students who attended a workshop titled, “Decolonizing Our Minds: How Colonization Affects Us Today.” Brown noted that native communities across the continent are being adversely impacted not only by mineral and fuel extraction companies, but now are also suffering the effects of climate change on the landscape and eco-systems. “Our people are at the risk of being exterminated.”