Power Shift Brings Young People to Washington to Lobby for Climate Action

02/27/2009 04:22 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Today marks the start of Power Shift '09, a weekend that will bring 10,000 young people to Washington to lobby Congress for action on climate change. Those who attend will hear from speakers such as Sen. Nancy Pelosi, and learn the skills necessary to lobby on Capitol Hill. At the end of the weekend, another group, Capitol Climate Action, will be hosting the largest civil disobedience demonstration for climate change yet at the coal-fired Capitol Power Plant. Endorsed by a myriad of environmental organizations and NASA climate scientist James Hansen, young people in dress clothes will risk arrest to demonstrate at the plant. Both events are a testament to the role that young people will have in changing climate policy. I talked to Jessy Tolkan, the executive director of Power Shift '09 about how she thinks this weekend could change our climate policy forever.

You've led young people for a while now - what's the best way for them to make their voices heard all year round, rather than just this weekend?

Young people need to flex their political muscle 365 days a year. They need to do that by constantly buzzing in the ears of Congress and political leaders, being visual on their college campuses and communities, and physically building the movement. We need to consolidate our power - by that, I mean making sure that our congressional officials know we are a voting bloc and making sure corporations know that we have tremendous purchasing power. We need to consolidate so we can take on special interests that have kept us out of power for a long time.

How do you teach college kids how to lobby?

Over the course of four days at Power Shift, we'll be exposing our students to workshops that will highlight some of the most innovative thinkers on the topics of public policy, clean energy technology and the green economy. We'll start with hour long briefings, dividing the 10,000 students into groups of 200 for discussions on the current political climate, hammering home the message that we must pass climate change legislation in 2009. We have more than 300 trainers that will be training our lobby day participants.

How will this year's session be different from your previous lobbying day for Power Shift '07?

The fun part of walking into Congress with thousands of young people in 2009 is that this demographic voted in record numbers and is largely responsible for electing the current president and the current Congress. We've accrued more political power - we're a demographic that matters and we proved that we mattered in huge ways. There were 5,000 students who came in 2007, and since then energy action has mobilized millions of voters. We've come with a detailed plan to let these members know we'll be watching them every step of the way. We represent only a small fraction of constituents across this country that share in the commitment to pass bold climate action in 2009.

I read in a study from the Center for Public Integrity that the climate change lobby is growing fast - are you encouraging the participants to choose lobbying as a career?

This weekend we have a career fair that will highlight opportunities not only in organizing and activism but also entrepreneurial opportunities, science opportunities, and opportunities in the arts. The Energy Action Coalition is not just a coalition of young environmentalists, nor only political activists. Our goal is not to just build a generation of political lobbyists, but citizens throughout a wide spectrum of careers who carry passion for our energy future.

What changes do you hope the weekend will bring about? What changes do you think the weekend will actually bring about?

We're at a place where our hope is more than just hope. It is rooted in indications that our hope will be a reality. Our big picture hopes for the weekend are that we light that spark that grows this movement strong enough and loud enough to encourage Congress to pass bold climate action in 2009. The concrete things are that 10,000 well-trained, sophisticated leaders will leave with a plan of action to go back to their communities and multiply themselves in this movement 10 times over. They will have been given the organizing skills, policy savvy, understanding of coalition building, and inspiration to go out and continue to build public demand for action.


The protest comes shortly after the president has pledged to put energy and climate at the top of his priority list. How will that affect the goals of this weekend - do you think you're pushing for things that are inevitable?

We never thought we'd see a president talking about the need for urgent action on climate and energy. We recognize that our role is now more critical than ever. It is the role of this youth movement to push the envelope much further, to make a case for urgency and boldness. We want to make sure that this issue, in the space of so many other priorities, does not get overlooked.

If you were president, what's the first climate action you would take?

I would immediately cap carbon. I would institute a plan to have more aggressive short-term targets that would reduce carbon 40 percent by 2020. I'd institute a moratorium on the development of new coal plants. I'd urge Congress to pass a renewable portfolio standard. I'd invest an impressive amount of money in clean energy structure and green jobs, and I would get it done by December 2009, because, as president, I would want to signal to the international community that the U.S. is ready to lead, and that we are turning around eight years of being obstructionist. I don't want to go to Copenhagen without signaling that we're ready to be true leaders. Obama should just let me know if it's getting tough, because I'm ready to step in.

How is Power Shift connected to Capitol Climate Action's civil disobedience?

The Energy Action Coalition is not the organizer of Capitol Climate Action. We're proud to be able to offer young people the opportunity to gain valuable skills and let people engage in the political process. But we recognize that it will take a variety of tactics and participation from different constituencies to achieve what we want on climate and energy. We're happy to see that the public is rising to the challenges that this issue presents.