Just blocks away from Washington DC's Capitol Hill, a new conversation swept the streets from February 28 to March 2. Within the crowded sidewalks and cafes along H and 7th Streets, certain words were likely to catch your ear: environmental sustainability, green economy, direct action, colonisation, coal-fired power plants and capitalism.
More than 12,000 college and high school students from across the country met 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 pounded the East Coast, students prepared to take the Capitol by storm.
Before the March 2 protest, meetings were scheduled with elected officials in what organisers called "the largest-ever lobby day on climate change and energy". More than 350 meetings for youth lobbying have been scheduled within Congress.
More than 2500 students signed-up to put their bodies on the line to shut down a nearby power plant that uses coal to produce nearly 50% 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 students' demands included immediately cutting carbon emissions, an investment in a green economy fuelled by clean energy and for policies that 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 an 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", she said.
Energy Action, a coalition of 50 environmental groups,
organised the Power Shift weekend conference and lobby day.
For three days, students attended sessions ranging in themes from the history of coal-fired power, direct action and uranium mining, to media and leadership training, grassroots organising and anti-oppression workshops.
Students representing all 50 states and Native American communities are hoping to network with other students, gather information and strategise 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, New York.
Fellow student Caitlin Maloney, 19, a fine arts major, 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.
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, "Decolonising our minds: how colonisation 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 ecosystems. "Our people are at the risk of being exterminated."
Many students were moved by stories brought from people across the continent, in various workshops, who discussed the effects of industrialisation, capitalism and colonisation in their communities, including high cancer rates, demolished mountains, polluted streams, radioactive mines, changes in the flora and fauna and toxic dumps.
Representatives from several Arctic region indigenous communities described the effects of climate change — which are more extreme at the Earth's poles — including melting sea ice, eroding shorelines, thawing tundra and provoking changes to fish, seal, whale and caribou migrations that threaten their entire way of life.
Despite the weather, more than 2500 people risked arrest on the afternoon of March 2 in an effort to block the entrances of Capitol Power Plant.
Capitol Climate Action, a diverse coalition of more than 90 groups, said it hopes that this symbolic action will just be the first in a massive movement of people taking the campaign against dirty energy into their own hands this year.
According to the website SourceWatch.org, more than 90 non-violent protests and acts of civil disobedience against coalmining, processing, shipping and burning have occurred worldwide since 2004.
[Abridged from <http://www.indypendent.org>.]