If today's youth are supposed to be politically apathetic, more engaged in Facebook than the fate of the world, no one told Jessy Tolkan. The 26-year-old activist spent Nov. 2 to 5 in Washington at the Power Shift summit, where over 6,000 college students from every state in the country gathered to agitate for federal action on climate change. For Tolkan, the executive director for the Energy Action Coalition, an umbrella group of youth-oriented environmental groups that helped organize the conference, Power Shift was "by far the most incredible thing that I have ever experienced in my life. I'm going to be running off that energy for a long time."
Energy and results is something that the campaign to create political action on climate change in the U.S. has often lacked. Over the past few years there has been a grassroots groundswell on global warming, but the focus has been on personal action, small behavioral changes individuals can make or more often, buy to reduce their impact on the Earth. It's the light bulb theory switch your wasteful incandescent lights for more energy-efficient compact fluorescent bulbs, and you're doing your bit to save the planet.
But while individual action is important and the increasing ubiquity of green consumerism is a sign that the business world is getting the environmental message the sheer scale of the climate challenge is so overwhelming that only a worldwide revolution in the way we use energy will be enough to stave off the worst consequences. That requires far-sighted political action from the top, starting in the capital of the world's biggest carbon emitter: Washington. Unfortunately, while scattered cities and states across America have begun to move on climate change Gov. Schwarzenegger, take a bow the federal government has been more roadblock than revolutionary.
That will change only if politicians hear loud and clear that global warming matters to Americans, not just in the brand of light bulbs they buy, but where they cast their vote. The focus on individual solutions "rings hollow to a lot of people," says Jesse Jenkins, a member of the Cascade Climate Network and an environmental blogger. "The solution is to organize and organize and organize." And the agents of that change will be young people like Jenkins and Tolkan, the college-age members of the Millennial generation, born after 1980. These post Cold War kids have grown up with the threat of global warming just as their parents grew up with the fear of nuclear war and they know that they'll be left to cope with a warmer world tomorrow if nothing is done to slow carbon emissions today.
So can Millennials shake off their reputation for apathy and create environmental change on a national level? Last weekend suggests they might be on their way. At the Power Shift conference, student activists gave testimony to members of Congress and demanded a slew of aggressive measures on climate change, including a 30% cut in carbon emissions by 2020 and 80% cuts by 2050. While students marched on Washington, activists from around the country launched Step It Up 2 on Nov. 3, a nationwide, single-day campaign to kickstart political movement on climate change. (The first Step It Up day of action happened in April.) The brainchild of environmentalist and author Bill McKibben and a group of students from Middlebury College, Step It Up aims to shove global warming to the center of the national political agenda, and it's exactly the sort of sustained campaign needed to make climate change matter at the ballot box. (Listen to McKibben talk about Step It Up on this Greencast.)
For the Millennials, climate change is emerging as the defining issue of their time, just as civil rights or Vietnam might have been for the generation before. "This is a new generation that sees itself at the forefront of a great movement, just like the greatest movements of the past," says Tolkan. With health care, Iraq and the economy all jostling for voters' attention, it remains to be seen whether climate change still an amorphous threat to most Americans can seize center stage, but Washington should know that there is a growing core of young activists out there who care about nothing more. "This past weekend, we gave politicians a bit of a heads up that we're watching and we're demanding change," says Katelyn McCormick, a 20-year-old junior at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville. "We've said what we want and now it's time for them to do something about it." With the Millennials set to be the largest demographic bloc in America history, it might be time for Washington to listen.