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Power Shift: How the Youth Climate Movement is Changing the Game

In the fight for the climate, students are leading the way.

The 10,000 young people who gathered in Washington, DC, for the third Power Shift came prepared to get things done. They traveled in groups from campuses, high schools, and neighborhoods across the country. They brought stories of campaigns to get local food on campuses, to shut down coal plants and stop natural gas fracking, and they educated themselves with speeches, documentaries, and stories from the front lines of the dirty energy battle—places like the Gulf coast, which is still struggling from the aftermath of the oil spill.

But they did more than learn about issues and listen to inspiring speeches. At Power Shift, much of the time was spent in trainings and regional organizing sessions on the serious business of mobilizing a powerful movement for clean energy and social justice. Perhaps that seriousness of purpose was what inspired President Obama to take time out to meet with a dozen young representatives from Power Shift at the White House. On the final day, thousands took action on the streets, protesting in front of the White House, at BP offices, and outside the US Chamber of Commerce, which represents some of the biggest climate emitters (and deniers). Thousands lobbied their representatives in Congress, and canvassed door-to-door to sign homeowners up to weatherize their homes.

In the midst of it all, I sat down with Jessy Tolkan, who, as one of the founders of the Energy Action Coalition, the coalition of 50 youth-led environmental and social justice organizations behind Power Shift, has had a front-row seat to the evolution of the event—and the youth climate movement.

Sarah van Gelder: Compared to the first and second Power Shift events, what would you say has changed in terms of the focus and tone and atmosphere?

Jessy Tolkan: 2007 was like the coming out party for the youth climate movement. There was great work happening locally around the country, but there wasn't a real sense that there was a national movement. We were also near the end of the oppressive Bush regime, of dealing with a president that really didn't acknowledge climate change—so it was like you could see the light at the end of the tunnel; it was a building moment.

In 2009, there was a bit of euphoria in the air. Barack Obama was president of the United States, and we were going to pass a climate bill, and we were going to have the most progressive environmental policy we'd ever seen. There was a real sense of hope.

Here, in 2011, there are a lot of pissed off people. Our hero-in-chief has not been as heroic as we want him to be. We haven't won, but we're also better organized than we've ever been.

We know from every successful movement in history that you don't always win on the first shot or the second shot. I think Power Shift 2011 is a lot about realizing we are digging in for the long haul, and if it means criticizing people that are, in theory, our friends— like Barack Obama—then we do that, because we're standing up for our climate and our generation.

For me, it’s an amazing experience to see a new generation taking over, willing to be more aggressive, more confident, more strategic than they've ever been before.

Sarah van Gelder: In a lot of movements, there's some combination of putting pressure on the political process, through lobbying and so forth; protests out on the street; and building the new society—not asking for permission, just going ahead and doing it. I see all three strategies here. Has the balance changed over time?

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