About 10,000 young climate change activists gathered this weekend in Washington, D.C., for what they billed as the largest grass-roots training event in the nation's history.
The third-ever Power Shift, which began Friday at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center and ends today, drew speeches from former Vice President Al Gore, former green jobs czar Van Jones and U.S. EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson. But the event's main goal was to teach young environmentalists how to organize in their communities.
"We don't want to just get 10,000 people together and get them hyped and excited," said Courtney Hight, co-director of the Energy Action Coalition, an umbrella organization of environmental groups that put on Power Shift. "You want to get them hyped and excited and then send them off to take action."
Previous Power Shifts didn't place as much of an emphasis on training as they did on having workshops explaining the impacts of obtaining natural gas through the fracturing, or "fracking," method or the benefits of sustainable living practices, Hight said. But with President Obama already in re-election campaign mode and facing a political climate that's drifting away from large-scale efforts to curb global warming, the message of the conference was direr and more immediate this time around.
At the last national Power Shift two years ago, attendees were basking in the glow of a newly elected Obama, for whose campaign many had volunteered. This weekend, many of them expressed disappointment and frustration over the president's energy policies over the past two years.
Many also acknowledged that chances for larger initiatives like last year's cap-and-trade push won't be coming back anytime soon.
"I feel like in many ways, a big opportunity was missed to do climate legislation," said Matt Kazinka, a senior environmental studies major at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn. "Right now it seems like there isn't a lot of opportunity to push large-scale climate legislation through.
"But I also think it's a good moment for the climate movement to step back and say, 'Maybe right now the large-scale political approach isn't going to work,' just given what's happening," he said.
Kazinka volunteered for Obama's campaign two years ago. Now he's torn over what he sees as a lack of leadership from Obama on the issue and the reality of a political climate that's limiting the president, he said. Kazinka isn't alone.
"A part of me feels like maybe it's just politics, and he's on our side," said Abbe Schnibbe, a University of Vermont junior in environmental studies, "but maybe he has had to put things in the back burner in the partisan issues we have as opposed to the issues that we need to address."
Schnibbe said her generation, which organized for Obama and got him elected into office, still has the power to make changes.
In a speech at the event Friday night, Gore underlined the same point.
"Young people are leading this movement. You are the core of this movement," he said to a loud applause.
Gore continued: "There are four anti-climate lobbyists on Capitol Hill in this city for every single member of the House and every single member of the Senate. What is the answer for this? It has to come from you. It has to come at the grass-roots level."
Personalizing the issue
With the emphasis on organizing communities came an emphasis in shifting climate change from a global issue to a more personal, local issue.
"We have all the facts in the environmental movement, but a lot of times, you seem impersonal if all you use is facts," said Connor Klausing, a first-year student at St. John's University in Collegeville, Minn. "So you have to convey the personal, in a way that's personally affecting you. And a lot of times that's a lot more effective to people."
A lot of people think of global warming as a slow process that doesn't affect them, Klausing said. A vegetarian, Klausing frames his stump speech on how the meat industry is linked to climate change by causing desertification in Africa, leaving natives of the continent living in drying environments.
But attendees were pushed to make their personal issues more local than that. Many of the environmental groups with booths at the conference reflected that push.
They ranged from the Dogwood Alliance, which launched a campaign accusing fast food giant KFC of destroying forests in the American South for its packaging material, to the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, which is dedicated to curbing global warming specifically in the Virginia, Maryland and Washington, D.C., area.
One organization, Mountain Justice, focuses on organizing civil disobedience actions over mountaintop-removal techniques to extract coal in Appalachia. Many of its members live near the mountains that get operated on.
"You're connected to something better in your backyard than you are 5,000 miles away," said Hight of the Energy Action Coalition.
One example she brought up was people living next to coal plants. She recently toured Little Village, a predominantly Mexican neighborhood on Chicago's West Side not far from two coal-fired power plants. At one point, Hight encountered an uncovered pile of coal ash.
"All the sudden it got windy, and I just breathed in coal ash!" she said. "And there are people that breathe it every day."
Obama surprises environmentalists with White House visit
Count Hight among the many activists at the event frustrated with Obama's track record on clean energy policies. Hight is particularly disappointed in what she calls Obama's lack of boldness on the issue. She does give him credit for a lot of things, including saving EPA funding in the budget compromise for the remainder of fiscal 2011.
She and 10 other activists from around the country attended a meeting at the White House on Friday. Hight, 31, was one of the older activists in the West Wing. Some were 18.
Going in, they thought they were only meeting with White House officials, but the president walked into the room. What resulted was a back-and-forth discussion over their differences in defining clean energy that lasted a half-hour.
The group of activists started out by thanking him on keeping EPA funded before jumping into their differences. Obama includes clean coal, natural gas and nuclear in his "clean energy economy," something the environmentalists at the meeting were at odds with.
"He said we can't just move to wind and solar. We're saying just don't call it clean. You're misrepresenting what it is," Hight said.
Like many of Power Shift's attendees, Hight played a role in his campaign. She started as a field organizer in New Hampshire in 2007 and later became the youth director in Florida during the general election. In the early months of the administration, she worked for the Council on Environmental Quality.
Friday marked the first time Hight ever pressured Obama politically, she said. Earlier that day, The Washington Post quoted her with statements critical of Obama's energy policy. Obama wasn't pleased with them, she said.
But the meeting ended with Obama acknowledging that it's his role to govern and the activists' role to pressure him, Hight said.
"We brought him in office so he could do amazing things, and he's done amazing things, but he's going to have to scale it up in the face of challenges," she said. "And we're scaling it up, too; we're not just telling him to do it."
Correction: An earlier version incorrectly identified Matt Kazinka as a junior at Macalester College; he is a senior.