I was sitting outside the DC Metropolitan Police Station last night at 11:30 pm when the last arrestee out of 21 for the day came out to cheers from the supportive crowd. The weekend of Power Shift 2011 ended with quite a bang, with the final day of the conference leading up to a massive day action to say no to big polluters.
I’ve been attending the Power Shift conference, in which 10,000 climate youth leaders descended onto Washington DC. It is always reaffirming to be around thousands of people that don’t think you’re some kind of nerd or radical hippie when you say you’re associated somehow with the environmentalist/climate change/clean energy/climate justice movement. There’s still such a stigma associated with climate change and environmentalism, especially with the right-wing denier machine pushing out tropes that we’re all communists wrapped in a blanket of radicalism vying to “kill the parents”.
It’s uplifting to remember at least once in a while there are thousands of people committed and passionate about working to establish a clean energy economy and promote meaningful climate legislation. And the climate justice movement isn’t just geared toward saving the planet, this movement also works toward helping to improve racial and social justice issues too.
The beginning of the conference started with quite a bang as well, as conference organizers from the Energy Action Coalition, who were originally supposed to meet with White House aides to talk about issues surrounding clean energy and climate, got a bit of a surprise on Friday when President Obama unexpectedly showed up to the meeting. According to reports from several of the people in attendance, they took advantage of their precious 20 presidential minutes by presenting a lesson on clean energy, with particular emphasis on the definition of “clean”. They specifically wanted him to know that energies such as nuclear, clean coal, and offshore drilling should not be bargaining chips on the table, and that President Obama needs to work harder to stand up to fossil fuel industries and implement a true green energy economy.
Yet the President had his message to share as well. If people really want clean energy and climate legislation, then the people needed to put more pressure on the government. It’s no lie that the dirty energy industries have more money, lobbyists, and political clout surrounding the legislators in DC. If the climate movement wants to make progress, they need to step it up and make their voices louder than the deafening roar of corporate money that currently rules the government.
Speakers at Friday and Saturday night’s plenary sessions echoed that sentiment, including Van Jones, who encouraged the crowd to stick together and move without Congress, as they seem to be “stuck on stupid here in DC.”
“We have more computing power in a laptop than the US government had when they put a man on the moon,” Jones said.
The next night, Bill McKibben sang a similar tune when he took the stage to say that, “DC is as dirty as Beijing, except instead of coal smoke polluting the air it’s money” and that “we’re not going to wait for the politicians, we’re going to create the future ourselves.”
The multitude of trainings, workshops, and impromptu protests led up to one big day of action Monday morning on the White House lawn. Yesterday, conference-goers protested against major polluters who stand in the way of a better, more equitable future filled with clean air, water, and jobs. From the White House they marched to the Chamber of Commerce across the street down to BP headquarters a few blocks away. Continuing the momentum of the day, Rising Tide North America organized a sit-in in which activists occupied the Department of the Interior for several hours with as many people as could fit in the lobby in order to protest offshore oil drilling, MTR coal mining and tar sands extraction, which in the end resulted in 21 being arrested and carted off to jail.
As the conference closes, my hope is that the newly trained young leaders will take the lessons home with them and put them to good, pragmatic use. However, the movement must realize that we’re not going to win with just a bunch of substance-less petitions and vigils (why we protest climate change by burning things I will never understand).
We need assertive (non-violent) action that speaks louder than the special interests that normally drown out the voices trying to reach our government. We need to face that the fact that polluters outnumber us both in money and lobbyists, and they work in a much more concerted, strategic manner that has a proven track record of not backing down. If we’re serious about reaching our goals, we can’t play it safe and let bureaucracy stand in the way. It’s one thing to show up to a protest in the morning, it’s another step to build community locally and fight in true grassroots style. And not the kind of grass that gets uprooted the second someone tramples over it.
In Copenhagen at the COP15 climate summit, people expected everything to get fixed within the two weeks of the conference. It didn’t. People spent time putting so much pressure on the negotiations that they almost forgot that there would still be work to do after the talks ended. Just like after the Copenhagen climate talks, we can’t expect to go home and see everything magically fixed.
If anything, the bulk of the fight is yet to come, especially since polluters have successfully stalled real action to date. Science is constantly under siege, fossil fuel giants are expanding their territory, the political climate has practically come to a stand still, and the EPA is under constant attack. That’s not to say there isn’t time to still turn it around, but if climate youth leaders want to pave the way for the future they seek, they are going to have to give it more than the “good ole college try.”