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The Youth Movement Goes to Copenhagen

This fall, youth around the world demonstrated their determination to stop catastrophic climate change. In Copenhagen, they're pushing their leaders to do the same.
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Conference of Youth, photo by Diane Perlman

Youth activists from around the world met during the Conference of Youth, held in Copenhagen the weekend before the beginning of UNFCCC negotiations.

Photo by Diane Perlman for YES! Magazine

As negotiators from around the world gather in Copenhagen to forge an international climate treaty, they’ll be met by hundreds of young people from across the globe who have already gathered in Copenhagen to show youth support for a strong and effective treaty. This youth turnout to the most important climate meeting in years is just one of many signs from the last few months that young people everywhere are determined to protect our future from the ravages of climate change.

This fall in the United States, young people in states from Oregon to Ohio rallied their peers for eleven regional “Power Shift” summits, designed to focus the attention of policymakers on the need for leadership on the greatest challenge of our time. Staggered throughout the fall in the lead-up to the Copenhagen meetings and Senate consideration of comprehensive climate policy, the regional gatherings continued the momentum of the national Power Shift Summit held in Washington, D.C. in February, which drew over twelve thousand youth to the nation’s capital.

At many of the summits, student activists targeted their state’s U.S. senators, asking the Senate to pass strong and comprehensive climate legislation this year.

"Students have been at the front of almost every social movement in this country, and this movement is no exception."
         -Jeremy Blanchard

Several summits were scheduled in conjunction with the October 24th international day of action on climate change, organized by 350.org. Founded on the principle that any international climate agreement must bring atmospheric carbon dioxide down to 350 parts per million, the day of action was intended to warn world leaders that civil society will not settle for an agreement out of step with the best climate science. Though activists of all ages participated in the day of action, youth organizers were essential to the success of many of the almost 2,000 events in the U.S.—and the more than 5,200 events held in 181 countries worldwide.

The last of the Power Shift summits—Ohio Power Shift at Oberlin College and Power Shift West at the University of Oregon— concluded the weekend of November 6. “Students have been at the front of almost every social movement in this country,” said Jeremy Blanchard, a core organizer for Power Shift West, “and this movement is no exception.” One of the largest of this fall’s summits, Power Shift West drew nearly 600 youth for three days of workshops and discussion on climate activism, culminating in a march through the streets of Eugene, Oregon.

With the conclusion of the summits, young participants returned to their campuses ready to further the momentum. According to Lauren Kemp, an organizer for Appalachia Power Shift in West Virginia, “Concerned youth want to tackle this topic and look toward the future of ‘green’ jobs” that will preserve our planet while simultaneously re-charging the economy." Perhaps there’s no clearer example of the growing awareness of youth’s political power than that provided by this month’s Youth Clean Energy Forum, held December 2. In response to a nationwide youth campaign urging the Obama administration to pursue strong climate agreements at the national and international level, the White House hosted 150 young climate activists for a discussion with Cabinet secretaries and other top officials on climate and clean energy policy. The event was broadcast live, allowing young people around the country to tune in.

The Clean Energy Forum is an encouraging sign that our national leaders are finally beginning to acknowledge the power of young activists—and the events of this fall show a younger generation already stepping up to the challenge of changing history. “As young people,” says Blanchard, “it is our responsibility to make our voices heard in the halls of power. Our future is at stake—and if we don’t act now our lives will be defined by resource wars, unstable food and water supplies, and runaway climate change.”

Moey Newbold, a participant in Power Shift West and a student delegate to the Copenhagen meetings, said young people have good reason for their commitment: “I believe my generation has the unique opportunity to save the world," she said. "I am going to Copenhagen to do everything I can to ensure that a mutual survival pact is agreed upon, not a suicide pact.”


Nick Englefried

Nick Engelfried wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Nick is an environmental activist and freelance writer currently based out of Hillsboro, Oregon. 

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