Two weeks ago, students across the United States and Canada put on polar bear costumes, jumped on their bikes, chalked their campuses, threw beach parties, staged cross-campus "energy wars" and packed university auditoriums with students, administrators and community members as part of the largest coordinated climate week of action in North America yet.
The Campus Climate Challenge Week of Action (Jan. 29 to Feb. 2) included more than 580 student groups on campuses in the United States and Canada. Called "Rising to the Climate Challenge: Visions of Our Future," the week was the seventh and largest coordinated collective action hosted by the North American Youth Climate Coalition over the past three years.
"For the first time, people are realizing climate change is a human issue, not just an environmental issue," said University of Washington sophomore Christina Billingsley, who also helped organize the Northwest Climate Justice Summit, recently held in Seattle. "People are finally realizing the direct impact it has on their lives," she added.
The Energy Action Coalition, which now encompasses more than 40 member organizations, including the Sierra Student Coalition, Greenpeace, Southern Energy Network and the Indigenous Environmental Network, began in 2003. It launched the Campus Climate Challenge in August 2005 to engage students across the United States and Canada in the fight to stop global warming. The Challenge gets students on campuses involved in making their schools models of sustainability while building student power around energy and climate issues. Students are then directed to go off-campus to fight for climate and energy issues in their communities.
Many of the young activists involved believe that the growth of the campaign and the coalition is representative of a shifting consciousness among our generation. Fossil Fool's Day, the coalition's first day of action on April 1, 2003, had just 65 actions, the following October "Energy Independence Day" boasted 132 and last week saw almost 600 actions and movie screenings.
Another day, another action
Every day of the Week of Action focused on a different venue for change. Monday was about a vision for our campuses, including the recently released Sustainability Report Cards from the Sustainable Endowments Institute. These report cards rank schools with the top 100 endowments on areas such as energy use and conservation, staffing and institutional commitments and the transparency and use of their endowments.
On Tuesday, the coalition brought attention and support to various community campaigns through call-ins and e-mail petitions. For example, they asked young people around the country to call the governor of Massachusetts, asking him to stop a proposed diesel power plant from being built in Chelsea, a largely poor Latino and African-American community just northeast of Boston.
Wednesday focused on "mountain justice," highlighting mountaintop removal, a practice where coal companies blast the tops off mountains to gain access to the coal beds underneath and then dump the rock into nearby valleys and streams. In the United States, the practice generally takes place in poor, rural Appalachian areas.
Students hosted a call-in day to West Virginia Sen. Robert C. Byrd, demanding that he follow through on a promise to build a new elementary school for students currently attending Marsh Fork Elementary. The school is currently just 225 feet from a coal silo and 400 yards from a 2.8 billion gallon sludge dam that the Mine Health and Safety Administration reports as leaking. Additionally, they face a 1,849-acre mountaintop removal site just behind the sludge impoundment.
"Marsh Fork Elementary is just one of the worst examples of the many sacrifices expected of coal field communities." said Glenville State College junior Sarah Kidder, who helped organize the call-in. "Now students everywhere are awakening to this reality and voicing their support for those communities."
Thursday asked students to create an alternative vision for our government. Students on a number of campuses collected more than 1,000 photo petitions aimed at their leaders in Congress. The photos will be presented on Capitol Hill by local students from the University of Maryland and Towson University. The petitions asked the new Congress for commitments to reduce emissions 80 percent by 2050, a number deemed necessary by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to avoid climate catastrophe.
"The information is out there. It's no longer a debate about whether global warming is happening or even what we need to do to stop it," said University of Maryland freshman Andrew Nazdin, who helped coordinate the petition drive. "Our decision-makers know what needs to happen, but at this point they seem content with fiddling while the planet burns. Hopefully the screaming voice of the students will jump-start them in to action."
Thursday also saw the launch of energy wars between 14 Minnesota campuses. The schools, prompted by students at Macalester College in St. Paul, will stage a campus energy-saving competition involving students, faculty and "Energy Crusaders" for the entire month of February. The campuses, say the organizers, will compete to reduce total energy consumption in two categories heating and electricity.
On Friday, students were asked to create actions based on both fears and hopes for the future of the planet. At Georgia College and State University, students put up volleyball nets and beach gear around campus to show what January could be like if the climate continues to warm. At Winona State University in Minnesota students ran around in shorts with signs that read, "Keep Winter Cold!"
Meanwhile, the "loneliest penguin" wandered the campus of Michigan State University representing the threat to the Arctic while students collected more than 200 petition signatures and talked about how Michigan stands to suffer from climate change. The petitions asked their administration to work toward reducing campus-based emissions to zero by reducing energy use on campus and building on-site renewable energy sources.
"This week was incredibly successful because we sent a large resounding message to both the Canadian Parliament and the U.S. Congress that young people want action to the save the climate now and not just more talk," said Josh Lynch, partnerships director for the Energy Action Coalition and the primary coordinator for the week.
For more information on the Campus Climate Challenge and ways to get involved, check out climatechallenge.org.
Kim Teplitzky is the Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and West Virginia challenge organizer for the Sierra Student Coalition. To comment on this story send e-mails to firstname.lastname@example.org