Environmental Justice Takes Center Stage at Power Shift ’09 Opening Session

Power Shift, a conference and lobby event that aimed to bring 10,000 young people to the Capitol to take action on climate change and environmental degradation, took a turn for the socially-aware at last night's opening keynote speeches.

Almost 12,000 t-shirted twenty-somethings filed into the hall, sometimes breaking out into spontaneous cheers or songs. About 2,000 more people had registered than Jessy Tolkan and other members of the Energy Action Coalition had hoped, and they filled the room to capacity. Buses were unloading more groups from colleges and youth groups all over the country until just before the session opened. The event is being cited as the largest gathering on climate change and clean energy in the history of the US; more people are in attendance here than were at the UN Climate Change Conference in Bali in December 2007.

For a group that considers itself the most tolerant and most diverse environmental movement in the nation, it was no surprise that opening speakers didn't restrict their remarks to increasing atmospheric CO2 or ocean acidification. Instead, Lisa Jackson of the EPA, Ken Salazar of the Department of the Interior, Majora Carter, Mayor Rocky Anderson, Van Jones, Clayton Thomas-Muller and others elaborated on the idea that environmental work cannot be delegated to any one group, nationality or ethnicity.

Majora Carter, an environmental activist from the South Bronx who has spent years on a "Greening the Ghetto' campaign, told stories of the pollution in the neighborhoods where she grew up, and the diabetes, asthma, and other health problems caused by manufacturing and energy plants in the Bronx. "Our pollution-based economy is built on the subsidies on the health of poor people," she said. She urged the audience to put a stop to mountaintop coal removal and other community-harming sources of fuel, to meet opponents with love and companionship, and find safe, fair work for those currently employed in coal or other industries. "Environmental justice," she said, "is civil rights for the 21st century."

Overwhelmingly, the crowd signaled their commitment to working with government and other organizations to find solutions to climate problems. One of the loudest cheers of the night went to Ken Salazar, who promised that the Department of the Interior would "appoint thousands of young people to restore America. We'll have the best youth conservation corp the world has ever seen!"

Van Jones also noted the importance of "adding to the world" rather than taking things out of it. "If all we do is take away the dirty powers in the system and stick a solar panel on it, but don't deal with our water, or the way we treat each other, we'll have biofueled bombers, and be fighting over lithium for the batteries," he said. "We can be locusts or we can be honeybees," he finished. "Will our work be a scourge on this planet or a blessing on this generation?"