04/21/2011 03:05 pm ET | Updated Jun 21, 2011

The Ghosts of the 1960s Spook Powershift 2011

This past weekend approximately 8,000 student leaders from campuses around the country descended on Washington, DC for the biennial Powershift Leadership conference on climate change.


There was a noticeable difference in tone, and yes, attendance from the last one held in 2009, just week's after Barack Obama was inaugurated. Back then, over 12,000 students attended with the purpose educating their mass to lobby Congress to pass a comprehensive climate bill through the democratic-party controlled government.

For many who attended, it was the first, and I hope not the last, time that we all sort of feel like we are on the precipice of something substantial happening in the climate movement. Reflecting on what we were able to do on the Obama campaign -- nerding it out -- through new media, there was a heavy emphasis on education and organization that year.

On the Saturday of the 4-day event, a spontaneous and peaceful group organically assembled in front of the Washington Convention Center with thousands of students to March to the White House in support of the newly elected President Obama. This march showed the force of the movement, but also its sobriety. Despite being a mob, they were approachable -- it looked more like a parade.

ONE ISSUE: A Comprehensive Climate Bill

The climax of the '09 Powershift was the lobbying day that following Monday -- when the 12,000 students chose to either lobby their elected officials on Capitol Hill or attend a less publicized event called a 'non-violent direct action' on the congressional coal plant that powers Congress. On that Monday in February of 2009, the overwhelming number of student leaders lobbied their elected officials, creating a sea of green helmets throughout the congressional complex.

I attended a lobby training the night before, where those learning the finer points of talking to their elected officials and their staff were so great in number. We were strewn all throughout the sprawling Washington convention center -- covering three city blocks, the building is one of the largest in the country.

There was only one message to take to Congress: "Pass a comprehensive climate bill before the end of the year," and these 18-to-20-somethings armed themselves with coherent facts.

We all know how it turned out. Nancy Pelosi's House of Representatives DID pass a Climate Bill but that's as far as things got. I kept in touch with quite a few leaders from Powershift since then and despite all the momentum built up at the event, Energy Action Coalition, the organization that puts on the event, its leadership largely disbanded leaving these climate leaders on their own as they went back home to their campuses.

When the Senate and President Obama needed the force of the 12,000 green helmets and their friends and families across the country to attempt to bring the climate bill into the light of day, without a central coordination, campus climate leaders sat frustrated, clinging to the multitude of competing climate organizations which have always confusingly littered our landscape.

Gonna Go Back in Time

Fast forward to 2011, at this year's Powershift -- from the point of view of anyone who remembers the way the global warming movement felt before Hurricane Katrina and I must tell you a disturbing storm cloud is starting to take form over the cause. This year I decided to lead a lobbying training course -- I was randomly assigned the state of Georgia -- 4 students showed up. Things were so sparce, at the last minute they added Virginia to our room, which brought 4 others. Most of the students had either gone home early for classes or -- and I don't have exact numbers -- decided to attend the non-violent direct action instead this year -- a march to the Chamber of Commerce.

For the few who stayed to learn how to develop a strong connection with their elected leaders, instead of one central offensive point, they were give four. At the top of the list: Defending the Clean Air Act -- originally enacted in the 1960s. Its true that a recent Supreme Court decision has given more teeth to the Clean Air act, allowing the EPA to regulate carbon emissions, making it a target in cutting it back legislatively -- but this defensive stand is a far cry from finally trying to have a comprehensive energy policy in this country that can adequately deal with climate change.

Contrasting the speeches at the event to 2009, there was more of the familiar negativity and insurmountableness that I can remember being associated with the climate movement when I was in college ten years ago. "We may not win, but its good that you're here!!" ... sorta of thing. There were interruptions at several of the lectures by people who called their fellow climate leaders 'fascists' for trying to work with our 'fascist' elected leaders.

Adding all this up, it looks like the ghosts of the 1960s (and I hope less effective, confused and ultra spooky ones of the 1999 Seattle WTO Protests) are again showing their face in the climate movement and it's sad. When given the choice between sitting down with our elected officials and having a coherent, civil discussion about the facts in the issue (which takes time but could actually lead somewhere) -- most chose the emotional vent of goofy political display which vanished like a fart in the wind the same day -- even if it did get some media coverage -- which it largely did not.

The 1960s doesn't work anymore because emotional street events like that alone do not give passerbys anything tangible to do next. NVDA is a valuable tool when combined and coordinated with something else. In the end--the Powershift march this week, just makes you feel more powerless and empty. It's a negative spot to end on--and we know better there's better than that.

MILLENIALS: Nerd this f'er out!

Despite all this, I'm still optimistic that some of the lessons we've learned from the Obama '08 campaign, about nerding the enemy out -- and finding ways to bring people together on what they CAN agree gets things done, instead of stupid emotional displays that offer no positive direction and tear us apart. Protesting worked as a trick for the early days of color television, just as online organizing is our generation's device. This emotional moment in time will eventually make way for some attractive choices again, because despite the leaders from the 1960s who keep trying to bring us back to their old trappings -- our generation is different. We know nerding the enemy out works.

Not everyone at Powershift was angry this time. There were those four kids from Georgia who got the free coke and peanuts from their elected offices. They came from Congressman John Barrow's district--a democrat who voted against the Clean Air Act. (H.R. 910) They sat down and said they would offer their support should he decide to vote to protect the clean air act next time and would keep the relationship going to help him make what could be a tough vote in their district. They met real people in their congressman's office they could reason with and being on the bubble, their support could actually count. They even said they got a positive response from Republican Senator Saxby Chambliss's office -- he's likely not seeking re-election which means he might be his own man to do the right thing next time.

Instead of leaving DC feeling angry, tired, and empty after venting all their steam -- they had cards of actual congressional staffers in their hands and they planned to keep in touch. Federal legislation is not the only solution to the climate crisis, in fact, the best ones should be market driven. But getting a business card is really the best thing you can do in this town, in the end its what all the polluters pay K Street so much to get. The truth is the Power always does eventually shift. If you do the homework ahead of time and nerd the fucker out, you can actually have some of it too.

My next post will talk about the last two years in the climate change movement and a positive direction I think we can go next.