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Power Shift 09: Young People Lead on Climate Action

03/28/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

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Blog I used to think that we could curb global warming fast enough so that my grandchildren wouldn't face intense droughts and spreading wildfires. But these impacts are already here, and if we don't act fast, my daughters' generation will really pay the price.

My three daughters and their friends know that. They know their future is at stake. The good news is they also know they can do something about it. In the past few years, I have seen the number of youth-lead efforts to tackle global warming expand dramatically. It is one of the most hopeful signs I have come across in my work.

The day before inauguration, for instance, 5,000 young people attended the Youth Inaugural Conference, all of them bright leaders eager to engage in the political process. I was invited to speak about global warming, and students started arriving 40 minutes before the talk began just to make sure they got seats. That's right, young people were lining up to learn how to solve global warming.

This inspires me because I know that enacting a comprehensive climate law will require impassioned, sustained, and creative political pressure -- the very things that youth movements excel at.

Even with President Obama's commitment to stopping global warming, it will be a tough fight to get a climate bill through Congress. Our lawmakers need to hear from American voters that creating a cleaner, more sustainable energy future is a top priority.

This coming week, young people have several ways to make their voices heard. Starting Friday, February 27, the Energy Action Coalition is putting on a national youth summit called Power Shift '09 that will bring more than 10,000 young people to Washington.

Energy Action Coalition was co-founded by Billy Parish, whom I met when he was a sophomore at Yale. Billy had come to the realization that climate change was the defining issue of his generation. Yet he noticed that there were no networks pulling together youth efforts to stop global warming, so he decided to organize one. The EAC now unites more than 45 youth climate organizations from around the nation and Canada.

Soon after launching the network, Billy dropped out of school to devote himself full time to organizing in the youth climate movement. He traveled the country sleeping on couches, working tirelessly with limited resources, and achieving amazing results. Now Energy Action Coalition is led by Jessy Tolkan, another visionary leader and an extraordinarily talented young woman.

Jessy, Billy, and their partners have done a great job planning Power Shift. There will be a day of lobbying, which Billy promises will be the biggest lobby day in the first 100 days of the Obama administration.

But even more important, the event is designed to help young people find their place in the climate movement. They will meet with leaders from advocacy groups, businesses, government agencies, and community-based groups and decide for themselves which route motivates them the most. They will also get to hear from Van Jones, Nancy Pelosi, and Ed Markey by day, and Santigold and The Roots by night.

Power Shift isn't the only option for communicating with lawmakers. On March 2, thousands of people gathered in an act of civil disobedience at the Capitol Power Plant -- a coal-fired plant that fuels Congress with dirty energy. In an open letter, organizers Wendell Berry and Bill Mckibben wrote, "This will be, to the extent that it depends on us, an entirely peaceful demonstration, carried out in a spirit of hope and not rancor."

It might strike some as odd timing for a mass protest, now that the President has pledged to stop climate change and Congress is drafting climate bills at this moment. But Mckibben thinks the march will give our leaders the political space to do the right thing. He writes, "Barack Obama was a community organizer -- he understands that major change only comes when it's demanded, when there's some force noisy enough to drown out the eternal hum of business as usual, or vested interests, of inertia."

Young people have a variety of ways to generate noise about climate solutions right now, from organizing their campuses to putting boots on the ground in Washington. Whichever route you take, I encourage you to reach out to your elected officials along the way. Make sure they know that you expect them to make global warming a thing of the past, and clean energy, green collar jobs, and sustainability part of your future.

This post originally appeared on NRDC's Switchboard blog.