Taking it to the Man: Powershift 2011

The official logo of PowerShift 2011.

During the weekend of April 21st, more than 10,000 youth from across the country converged on Washington, D.C. in the third annual Power Shift conference. Their mission: “to recruit 10,000 youth leaders from every walk of life to be on the front lines in the fight for a clean energy future.” PowerShift’s goals include pressuring the federal government to hold corporations like British Petroleum (BP) accountable for their mistakes, and influencing President Obama to take a stronger lead on the renewable energy economy.

According to Grist.org, PowerShift 2011 was the “largest organizer training session” in history. This year’s event differs from earlier PowerShifts (in 2007 and 2009) in that it sought to move the youth climate movement beyond mere protest, taking a position of leadership in the fight for a sustainable country.
From Friday the 15th to the following Monday, students connected with one another in caucuses, shared skills through workshops, enjoyed more than 100 panel discussions, and marched en masse to several important sites in the capitol, including the headquarters of BP.

UCI is very privileged that one of its very own undergraduates, fourth-year Alexandra Nagy, attended this momentous conference. Alex reported feeling incredibly overwhelmed at the conference. It was a sobering reminder of the urgency of the climate crisis, and of the daunting responsibility our generation has to deal with it.

The Conference featured superstars Bill McKibben, founder of 350.org, and Van Jones, former Presidential advisor on green jobs. McKibben’s speech was particularly rousing. He called the number 350 “the most important number on Earth” because, in the words of NASA climate scientists, any level of atmospheric carbon “greater than 350 parts per million is not compatible with the planet… on which life on Earth is adapted.”

McKibben continued by lambasting the two Koch brothers, who from 2005-2008 outdid even Exxon Mobil in funding organizations fighting climate change legislation, write The New Yorker writer Jane Mayer. These billionaires have wielded their money viciously against many of Obama’s policies, earning their ideological network the name of “Kochtopus.” But to McKibben, even more unsettling than the Koch bros. – whom McKibben derides as “high peaks” of corruption – is the US Chamber of Commerce, the “Everest” of dirty money.

Van Jones, Obama’s former advisor on green jobs, elicited cheers from the crowd with his rhetoric, which was harshly critical of the government. Jones compared Obama to a kid who has the potential to get all As, but so far is scoring terribly. Powerfully, Jones criticized our civilization’s utter dependence on fossil fuels: “We pull out of the ground death. We burn death in our power plants. Why do we get shocked when we get death in our sky as global warming, death in our oceans as oil spills, death in our children’s lungs as asthma and cancer?”

The conference coincided with the 1-year anniversary of the “worst environmental catastrophe the US has faced,” in the words of White House official Carol Browner: the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill. The spill released an estimated 4.9 million barrels of oil, causing the deaths of thousands of marine animals, and exacting severe damage on the ecosystems of the Mexican Gulf. Finally, the spill has caused immense damage both human health and the ocean-dependent economies of Louisiana, Alabama, among others. BP, the company responsible for the disaster, has since occluded media coverage of collateral damage from the noxious oil. More alarmingly, the company has written off billions in tax dollars due to losses from the tragedy. To bring light to BP’s offenses, a “huge presence” of citizens from the Gulf states showed up at the event, says Alex.

In response to such corporate skullduggery, the battalion of PowerShifters marched about the Capitol, appropriately (and comically) armed with paper mache puppets of huge bloated white men, their hands stuffed with cash. At each stop, the protesters broke out into glorious satirical skits with their puppets, recounts Alexandra. “Eighty percent of the Chamber of Commerce’s revenue comes from dirty fossil fuel companies,” reports Alex. She points out that the organization has its hands “in the pockets of Congress” – a sobering reality indeed.

So what’s next then for the youth climate justice movement? Well, this September 24th, the world’s leading organization for climate justice, 350, will host a global event entitled “Moving Planet.” The day is intended to be a massive grassroots rally, with businesses, communities, universities, and all other sorts of groups mobilizing to “demand solutions to the climate crisis.” But our political leaders have thus far failed to deliver any kind of meaningful progress on this, perhaps the world’s most pressing problem, so will civil disobedience be enough? It remains to be seen. Meanwhile, the world is running out of time.

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