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McGill delegates to Powershift, a major climate conference in Washington, D.C., relay the energy and spirit of today’s environmental movement

During Reading Week, a delegation of 14 McGill students joined students from every Canadian province and all 50 states in Washington D.C. for Powershift 2009, the largest youth climate conference in the history of the United States. Over the course of four days at the end of February, 12,000 students gathered for the conference, 2,500 attended a demonstration at a coal plant near the Capitol, and 350 visits with elected officials were scheduled, some drawing hundreds of attendees.

The conference began on Friday, February 27, with a day-long workshop on community organizing by Marshall Ganz, a veteran activist and professor at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. Ganz taught techniques for developing effective narratives about social change. An effective public narrative, Ganz said, “must translate into words the values that move us to act.” Narrative is of particular importance in a democracy, Ganz emphasized. “Democracy is based on the premise that equality of voice can balance inequality of resources.”

On Saturday and Sunday, McGill students attended a range of climate-related panels and workshops, addressing subjects from mountain-top removal coal mining to media training to emissions trading systems. For Nora Hope, a U1 Psychology student, one of the most interesting sessions focused on campaign strategy. “I felt empowered to start making a difference in an informed and organized manner,” she said after the session.

During the afternoon on Saturday, breakout sessions were held for states and regions. McGill students attending the Canadian breakout session discussed strategies for the coming months.

On Monday, hundreds of students met with elected officials to lobby for action on climate change in a day-long “Hill blitz” coordinated by the Energy Action Coalition (EAC). In the afternoon, five representatives of the EAC presented testimony at a hearing of the House Select Committee on Global Warming and Energy Independence.

Following the hearing, a demonstration was organized at a coal plant near Capitol Hill. Several thousand conference attendees gathered in front of the plant. A team of demonstrators chose to commit civil disobedience by linking arms and blockading the plant’s entrances for the afternoon, but no arrests were made. In his account of the event, environmental writer Bill McKibben noted that many demonstrators came in dress clothes. “The point was to stress that there’s nothing radical about shutting down coal-fired power. In fact, there’s everything radical about continuing to pour carbon into the air just to see what happens,” McKibben wrote.

Powershift 2009 was organized by the EAC, a coalition of environmental groups formed in 2004, that aims to press for stronger climate policies. As Jessy Tolkan, executive director of the EAC, noted, “The youth of America turned out in record numbers to elect a new president and Congress in the last election. We’re here now to take our rightful seat at the political table.”

– Devin McDougall, MA2 Political Science

Coming together with over 12,000 other young environmentalists reminded me why I am so passionate about environmental action and leadership. Connecting with people from across North America, within Canada, and at McGill who are united in a common purpose despite their different backgrounds, interests, and strengths, has re-energized me to help make McGill a hub of sustainability activism and a major contributor to the student sustainability movement in Canada.

I had never attended an environmental conference in the U.S. before, let alone one of such magnitude. Learning about American campus organizing strategies, many new environmental NGOs and action groups, and different perspectives on international policy made for an interesting weekend. I focused on attending skill development workshops, especially those relating to media and to campus organizing.

– Maggie Knight, U1 Environment & Economics

The idea of meeting with 12,000 students and youth concerned with climate change and environmental justice in the American capital really excited me. Working with students in the McGill School of Environment has given me a strong knowledge of the challenges and issues environment students at McGill are concerned with, and bringing these views to Powershift seemed like a great idea.

Of all the scheduled events at Powershift, I found the panel discussion on international climate policy the most interesting, especially with the United Nations Climate Change conference just nine months away. It was especially exciting being one of only about 100 Canadians attending the conference. We made sure that the American delegation and organizers were aware that Canada was present and that we are dedicated to work ing alongside our neighbours to achieve real, effective policy change.

– Andrew Lemieux, U3 Environment & Development

Before arriving at Powershift, I was not quite sure what to expect. I hadn’t counted on the amount of energy and movement to action that would be instilled in me over the course of the conference’s three days.

The keynote speeches on Friday night by Van Jones and Majora Carter were particularly inspiring. Just as with the labour, civil, and women’s rights movements, we are in a situation where those with power have incentives to maintain the status quo and to convince us that there are no feasible alternatives to dirty oil, gas, coal, and depleting the earth’s resources. Clean air and access to clean water should be considered a fundamental human right – one that is accessible to all.

My attendance at this conference has inspired me to take real action and to instigate change with more urgency: to get up on a soap box and tell my family, friends, neighbours, classmates, professors, and fellow citizens that we are faced with a moral obligation to clean up our act. Our window of opportunity to take action is very small. I hope that the skills and resources we acquired at Powershift can be shared with as many students as possible through workshops or informal skill sharing meet-ups. I would love to be involved in developing a coalition among the environmental and social advocacy groups on campus to help build strength in numbers and raise our voices for environmental and social justice.

– Megan Poss, U3 Management

I still haven’t found the “right” way to engage myself with the Montreal community that compares to the level of social engagement I had back in Mexico. That’s why I thought Powershift would be the perfect opportunity to meet people concerned about the changes our world needs, as well as to learn about the most immediate concerns for North American youth regarding the environment.

For me, Powershift was about networking and sharing experiences. I had the opportunity to do so in a workshop entitled, “How to start a bike share.” People from Los Angeles to New York City, from Seattle to Miami – and me, from Montreal – participated in the session and shared feelings, ideas, and projects.

These ideas are contagious, and now I’m planning to work with the people from The Flat, McGill’s bike collective, to develop and realize them. Two particularly exciting ideas are setting up a bike share (public bicycles on-campus and eventually off-campus), and conducting free, outdoor, tune-up sessions. I will, of course, also “export” these ideas to my cycling advocate friends in Mexico!

– Christian Scott Martone Donde, U1 IDS and Sociology

I learned a lot at Powershift, but it was really the diversity of people that made the conference such an incredible experience. We heard amazing stories of what people are doing in their own towns and schools to improve the local environment. There were high school students raising money to put solar panels on their school’s roofs and middle-aged people who have organized mass-scaled protests against coal plants.

Before attended Power Shift, I was already very passionate about the environment; however, my passion did not translate into action, since it wasn’t focused on a particular issue. Through Powershift, I think I’ve found an issue that I care about and can also have an impact on: the tar sands situation in Alberta. I now have a more focused energy, and a stronger will to take action and change the environment for the better.

– Sarah Xu, U1 Biology & International Relations

Powershift offered an ideal opportunity to get to know environmentally active members of the McGill community, and to find out how I could contribute to the group. I was excited to learn skills and network with people at Powershift to better equip me for involvement here at McGill – as well as when I return to my home university.

From high profile keynote speakers and packed panel discussions on uranium mining, to small interactive workshops on careers in the climate change movement, Powershift provided an intensive and challenging four days that reignited my passion for environmental justice. It encouraged me to continue my fight for a sustainable human presence on this planet, and I emerged inspired and eager to harness this enthusiasm and use it in university projects, my wider community, and on a global level.

– Laura Spelbrink, University of Melbourne exchange student

A newcomer to the realm of environmental conferences, I joined the McGill group headed to Powershift on a whim. I was primarily motivated by the idea of so many brilliant young minds coming together for a unified purpose, and I was looking to gain insight into what I could do back in Montreal. I also hoped to gather tools for the newly- formed Greenpeace McGill chapter.

Powershift was a more powerful experience than I’d imagined it would be. The conference gave me a firm kick out of what I now recognize as the position of relative apathy that I had comfortably inhabited for too long. I’ve now begun to rethink my future career plans, as well as to re-evaluate my use of free time and how I can pursue environmental activism both on campus and beyond. The key lesson I took away from Powershift was that individuals can make a difference; the only way forward is for individuals en masse to take on an organized and active role within their communities.

– Nora Hope, U1 Psychology