Youth Feel the Power

They have the most to lose, but they've got the energy to win


Power Shift 2007. Photo by Shadia Fayne Wood
At Power Shift 2007 in November, young people put politicians on notice. They want action, not more rhetoric, on an issue that will define their lives. Photo by Shadia Fayne Wood

“Mama, what’s that?” a little girl urgently asked her mother. I was visiting the National Museum of Natural History one morning in Washington, D.C., when I overheard this conversation.

“It’s a polar bear, honey,” her mother said after looking at a giant photograph of a polar bear clinging to the remains of an iceberg in the midst of the vast ocean.

“Why is everything melting, mama?” Looking at her daughter, the mother seemed to ponder the question, and then just turned away as her little girl gaped up at the photo.

I was floored. This, in a nutshell, is how youth are left to deal with a problem that we had little part in creating.

I wanted to kneel down beside this child and tell her that I’m sorry. I’m sorry that we now have to fight for our future. I’m sorry that children her age are already dying from the impacts of climate change and from the extraction, processing, and use of dirty energy in New Orleans, in Iraq, in Detroit, on Native American reservations, and the list goes on. I wanted to explain why, because that is at least what is owed to us.

And I wanted to tell her that she’s not alone. There’s a whole world of youth mobilizing around this issue, and we are only getting stronger.

The Youth Climate Movement began for me at the World Summit on Sustainable Development in 2002. I was 15 years old, in South Africa helping draft the Youth Caucus Energy Policy. It was not the first time I had learned about climate change, but it was the first time the impacts felt real to me. I listened to youth that had their own personal stories of the impacts of climate change in their lives. I watched political leaders negotiate my future in a haphazard way. This scared me to my core, and it became clear to me that something needed to be done.

During the next years, I worked with those same youth, and many others, to develop the Energy Action Coalition, which unites a diversity of youth-led organizations to create just climate solutions on campuses, in communities, and nationally.

That same coalition went on to create the Campus Climate Challenge, a campaign on over 700 campuses and high schools in support of just climate solutions.

It was many of the same youth who were among the group that envisioned and brought to life Power Shift 2007, the first national youth summit aimed at solving the climate crisis.

Youth are motivated. We have the raw passion, the edge, and now—through skill shares, youth-led conferences, panel discussions, and the largest youth convergence on climate change in history—we have the skills and the knowledge to make our vision a reality.

As youth, we are literally fighting for our lives. We are from communities already feeling the impact of climate change, and we are from the generation that has the most to lose.

We are scared of the destabilization in our climate, but we also see this as an opportunity to shift our society and to be allies to the people who are especially affected by climate change—communities of color, indigenous communities, and low-income communities.

Youth are tired of living in a broken system built on the back of racism. And we are ready for this opportunity to change the systems to actually serve the people—all people.

In November, 6,000 of us gathered in Washington, D.C., for Power Shift 2007. What was it like?

Power Shift 2007 was a transformation we could feel in our stomachs. We talked late into the night, questioning what we knew and speaking truth to what we are building. We participated in the largest lobby day on global warming, demanding that any climate legislation include 5 million new green jobs, a moratorium on coal-fired power plants, and a reduction in fossil fuel emissions of 80 percent by 2050 and 40 percent by 2020. This is not the ideal; this is what is necessary. We danced on the front lawn of the Capitol of the United States of America. We poured in from all over the country and from different parts of the world to be part of it. Power Shift 2007 was excitement palpable enough to wear.

Whether we are gathering in the thousands, hundreds, or by the handful, we are realizing our potential as climate activists. We experience our power, and we feel the love for one another. The movement is alive and breathing the smoggy air all around us.

The momentum is building. My generation outnumbers the baby-boomers by 3 million, and we are the largest age group in the United States. We are in every congressional district, and polls show that youth are coming out to vote in larger numbers than ever before.

And we are organizing. Here in the United States, if our representatives are not doing their job to push for bold and just climate solutions for all peoples then they should start browsing the job ads to get ready for November 2008.

We must each carry this burning fire within us as we work in our local communities, remembering to tend it and take care of ourselves so that it does not burn out. Our movement stays strong when we are strong. So, share your dinners, your fears, and your hopes. Love those around you, so we can truly have a power shift.

Shadia Fayne Wood wrote this article as part of Stop Global Warming Cold, the Spring 2008 issue of YES! Magazine. Shadia, 20, is editor of , Dispatches from the Global Youth Climate Movement, and an organizer and photo-journalist. Photo of Shadia Fayne Wood
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