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Thursday, December 03, 2009

My trip to the White House yesterday

I went to the White House yesterday, as one of 150 youth climate leaders invited to take part in the Clean Energy Forum.

Let me repeat that: youth activists were invited to discuss climate policy with 4 cabinet secretaries. This is not the same movement it was two years ago, and I think the changes have been overwhelmingly positive.

A little more than two years ago, a nervous and exuberant Energy Action Coalition gathered 5,000+ youth in DC for Powershift07. Van Jones rallied us with, ‘remember, remember, the 5th of November...’ and we raised some eyebrows in DC. But mostly, we sparked the feeling of a movement in a whole new circle of leaders: young people who went home with a sense of urgency and a sense of the plan.

Two years later, a huge youth election campaign, another Powershift, 100 coal plant permits denied and a lot of green jobs created, a small selection of an amazing movement of people were welcomed to the White House as partners in crafting the clean energy future WE want to see.

The forum didn’t result in any game-changing policy commitments, but it wasn’t supposed to. It was a chance for the administration to showcase just how much better they are than the Bush administration (an underwhelming comparison, perhaps), and for them to present a convincing argument of why they are doing a great job. I think they accomplished that, acknowledging that they can do more to stop dirty energy and lead on the clean and just economy, while placing a large chunk of blame on the Senate for their deadly inaction.

The forum succeeded wildly in a different way, and an incredibly important way. We were all in the room together - a couple dozen administration staff, 80 or 90 youth leaders affiliated with the Energy Action Coalition, and another 40 or 50 clean energy leaders. We got to see what we look like, where we come from, and what issues really move us. With that focused cross-section of the movement, I realized more than ever, that we are such a diverse generation, and we are a diverse movement united in a very large goal.

Tonight, as I digest what happened yesterday, I feel most moved by the incredible diversity of the people involved in this movement and in the forum itself. Rio, a mountaintop removal activist from North Carolina asked when we can expect a fair, ambitious and binding climate treaty. A student identifying as a Chinook native from Washington state demanded to know what was being done about rampant nuclear, hydro and coal exploitation on native lands. Brett, an organizer in Missouri, asked Lisa Jackson directly: when will the EPA deny the 79 pending permits for mountaintop removal. A young leader from southern Chicago asked why the government was putting the profits of coal companies over the health and welfare of people in the neighborhoods downwind of the plants. I could go on and on.

We weren’t there to play up our own organizations, and we weren’t there to bask in the bright lights of the White House (although many of us took pictures behind the podium.) We were there to represent a huge, diverse and passionate movement that stands together in its pursuit of a comprehensive solution to the problems we see so clearly.

Alex Steffen at wrote an amazing piece a few weeks ago about why the youth of this country should be pissed.

To be young and aware today is to see your elders burning our civilization down around our ears. To hear scientists tell us we’re in the final countdown, with the risk of runaway climate change (along with the ecosystem collapses and horrific human suffering it will bring) mounting with every day we run business as usual. To hear nearly a chorus of credible voices—from doctors and scientists to retired generals and former bankers— warning that to lose this fight is to lose everything that makes our world livable and gives the future hope.

And in the face of that adversity, we grow stronger and more united, and smarter. By showing the administration who we are, how serious we are, and how smart we are, we’ve given them fuel for their work, and called them out where they fall short. And today’s event, watched by thousands of leaders and rippling outwards through the social media reflecting pool, showed a generation of activists that we are being taken seriously. The forum's genies was how it placed us firmly in the drivers seat to continue building larger and larger campaigns to the scale we need.

I know, its a bad week for news. This forum won’t get much coverage in the main-stream media. Afghanistan is a big topic, and today there’s the jobs forum. Copenhagen is starting, and a stupid incident of hacked emails is still poisoning public discourse on climate. Furthermore, its clear the world won’t sign a treaty in Copenhagen.

Two years ago, after Powershift, I watched nervously the reports coming from Bali, the COP13 conference. I felt powerless, a tiny speck while powerful negotiators changed treaty text for the worse and made snide remarks in the forums. I remember one night getting so frustrated that I had to walk away from a final paper I was writing, and stumbled around in the snow for a while. Three hours later, on a windy hill overlooking my college, I shouted at the wind in frustration and decided to increase my commitment to working for climate solutions.

The next day, the final day of Bali, bold words from Papua New Guinea forced the US negotiators to back down on a small point. This helped make the agreement to craft a binding climate treaty in two years. The agreement in Bali set the stage for Copenhagen to be the big kahuna, the conference when the successor to Kyoto would be signed and the world, with the US on board, would get serious about tackling climate.

We won’t get the fair, ambitious and binding treaty we need from Copenhagen. The best we can hope for is a strong interim agreement, and a binding promise to agree on a treaty in 6 months, by which time Obama can have a senate bill in hand and the world can move on. That’s the best case scenario. I’m not sure I need to get into the worse case scenarios, because no matter what happens, its clear that this movement needs to be bigger, smarter and ready to push harder.

Lets build off of the momentum of the White House forum. Lets be prepared to call Copenhagen a failure if it deserves it, and lets power through December to accelerate this movement into the fights ahead of us.

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