The way Alyssa Kent described the work of her school’s environmental group, Campus Greens, was almost quaint. “We’re building a garden, and we’re going to supply the lettuce that we grow to the school cafeteria,” said Kent, a junior at Wells College in Aurora, New York. “And we’re about to start a clean up. It’s just, like, a garbage pick-up.”
Kent and her fellow Campus Greens had traveled from upstate New York to Washington, D.C., to Power Shift 2011, a biennial conference created by the Energy Action Coalition to organize environmentally conscious students across the country. The Wells Campus Greens came by car; others, like the Florida A&M University student government, came by giant, gas-guzzling bus. Erin Schley, from the College of St. Benedict in Minnesota, was excited about the weekend’s educational opportunities. “Essentially we’re here for the workshops,” she said, “and we’re planning to take it back to campus and just spread the word, literally.”
But before word can be spread, it first must be preached—in this case, by Al Gore, the keynote speaker for Power Shift 2011. On a Friday night, Kent, Schley, and thousands of other students marched into the Washington Convention Center’s dark, cavernous ballroom to hear Gore speak. Red, blue, and green luminaires twisted and flashed above an empty stage while the speaker system pumped out alternative rock hits from the Dave Matthews Band and Coldplay. The music was a little dated for these kids (average age: probably 20), but the crowd wasn’t entirely young. An older man with a white beard and a “Steelworkers for Edwards” t-shirt stood as the students filed in, bobbing his head to John Mayer’s “Waiting on the World to Change.”
Behind and on either side of the stage were large screens with the logo for Power Shift projected on them: a green silhouette of four young people erecting a windmill, a mixture of Iwo Jima imagery and Rivera-style social realism. It’s also the symbol for the Energy Action Coalition (EAC), which describes itself as the “hub of the youth climate movement.”
Power Shift, of course, isn’t just about cleaning up trash and planting community gardens; this is a political movement. As the EAC leaders who were introducing Gore reminded the students, “The reality is that right now, big polluters and corporate interests are starting to strip away our rights in our democracy. And we have to stand up and fight that.”
And without further ado, they giddily announced the Nobel laureate, Academy Award winner, former vice president of the United States of America, Al Gore! The students erupted with cheers as Gore trotted out on stage. He started right off by linking the climate change movement with—what else?—the fight for civil rights.
“I remember when my generation saw the fire hoses being turned on African Americans,” Gore said. “Young people asked their parents in that era, ‘Explain to me again why it’s okay to have legal discrimination on the basis of skin color,’ and when they could not answer that moral question coming straight from the conscience of young people, that’s when the laws began to change.” (This may have been a delicate allusion to the fact that Gore’s father, a Democratic senator from Tennessee, voted against the Civil Rights Act in 1964.)
It’s the same situation now with issues of climate change and environmental protection, Gore said. In effect, parents just don’t understand.
“Don’t they see the evidence?” Gore asked. “Don’t they hear what the scientists are saying? Do they actually believe this line from the large carbon polluters that the scientists are making this up, committing fraud, in order to get research grants?”
The circumstantial evidence alone is enough, Gore argued. Freak droughts and floods across the world, from Taiwan to Tennessee, are proof that global warming is happening and students ought to be agitating for a political solution.
Gore continued, now waxing scientific: “Because, as the temperature has gone up, warmer air has started holding much more moisture,” he explained, and some of the students, knowing a college lecture when they hear one, started fidgeting in their seats. “And when the storm conditions cause a downpour, much more of it falls at the same time, so you get these big flood events. And, partly because of the same phenomena, you’re seeing a longer period of time between the downpours in many areas, and the same temperatures drive down the soil moisture, so you’re getting these intense, prolonged extensive droughts at the same time.” At this point, more than a few necks had craned down toward cell phones. Gore went on.