Students Use Civil Rights Tactics to Combat Global Warming

At Middlebury College in eco-friendly Vermont, forward-thinking students convinced an austere board of trustees that one of the biggest threats to the college -- and to the world -- is global warming.

Armed with research and a portfolio of options, the students were a powerful voice in the college's decision to invest $11 million in a biomass plant -- one that is fueled by wood chips, grass pellets and a self-sustaining willow forest.

By 2012, the college will reduce its carbon emissions 8 percent below its 1990 levels -- producing all of its own clean energy locally. And now, students are pushing the trustees to go totally "carbon neutral."

Long known for its progressive outlook, Middlebury is now at the forefront of the student "climate change" movement.

"This is a learning community and when the students became the consultants, it turned the project on its head," said Nan Jenks-Jay, dean of environmental affairs, who chaired the student-faculty carbon reduction committee. "They had the most knowledge."

Global warming is cool -- so trendy, in fact, that concepts like carbon offsetting and carbon neutrality are growing in popularity on college campuses, fueled by new student activism that looks a lot like the old civil rights movement.

Carbon offsets are the new recycling. Like war bonds during World War II, they allow an American household or an institution to invest in a noble cause -- new technologies to combat global warming.

Offsetting Your Carbon Footprints

Carbon neutrality means no net emissions of CO2. A college achieves this through a combination of energy and building efficiency, on-site renewable energy generation and transportation upgrades and carbon offsetting.

Carbon offsetting works like this: You pay a third party to invest in planting trees that absorb carbons or to fund expansion of wind and solar energy to reduce emissions from fossil fuel power plants. In doing so, you offset your own "carbon footprint." Middlebury already buys carbon offsets for its Snow Bowl and other operations around campus

A New Civil Rights Movement

At campuses across the country, in marches, blogs even performance art -- one student dressed as a pink light bulb to deliver energy efficient fluorescent light bulbs around campus -- students are pressuring their colleges to use renewable energy and calling on congress to enact legislation that encourages reductions in carbon emissions.

"We don't just see this as environmental but about civil rights," said 19-year-old Catherine McEachern of Cornell University. "It's the calling of our generation. Global warming has been neglected by the previous generation, and we see it as an injustice that needs to be changed."

Energy Action. Step It Up. KyotoNOW. Bright Planet. Focus the Nation. Campus Climate Challenge. With so many cross-pollinating student groups and efforts, no wonder global warming is hot.

"There's a real movement emerging around climate, and not a moment too soon," said Chip Giller, who runs Seattle-based, an environmental online newsletter that reaches 750,000 people a month.

"But this isn't your father's or mother's environmental movement," Giller said. "It is building at the local level and the state level, and it is not being driven by the big, bulky Beltway-based environmental groups whose strategies, by and large, haven't paid off for many years."

Student-grown organizations are springing up from New England to the Northwest, and they are seeing results.

Just last fall, the Step It Up group, based at Middlebury College, drew 1,000 protesters to a five-day march that culminated in Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders reintroducing legislation in Congress to reduce carbon emissions 80 percent by 2050.

Step It Up has called on students nationwide to stage demonstrations on April 14 at iconic locations in their hometowns -- like levees in New Orleans and the melting glaciers of Mt. Rainier -- to urge their congressmen to act. So far students in 39 states have signed up.

"The impact of climate change on the poorer populations of the world really gets to me," said Step Up organizer Will Bates, who is 22. "I think about the refugees who will move inland because of the rising coastlines. It's a matter of social justice."

California Caps Emissions

In California, students from the campus-based Public Interest Research Group waged a successful campaign that helped lead Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to sign the first state law to put a cap on carbon emissions.

Energy Action, a coalition of groups based in Washington, D.C., has challenged college students to win 100 percent clean energy policies at their schools in their Campus Climate Challenge.

"We're going for a solution that's based in science," said McEachern, a North Carolina native who works with Energy Action and sits on the executive board of the national Sierra Student Association. That group counts 11,000 members.

McEachern is pushing Cornell to be the first Ivy League school to go "carbon neutral."

Middlebury is not Alone

The College of the Atlantic in Maine is now entirely carbon neutral. The University of Oklahoma buys 100 percent wind energy and at Whitman College in Washington, alumni can purchase energy credits as a donation to the school.

As the climate movement catches on, environmentalists say carbon offsets are an easy idea, but not a solution.

"If we are really going to tackle global warming, we have to do real technology changes, and not just buy off the cheap," said Dan Becker, director of the global warming program for the Sierra Club. "We need to produce cleaner fuels, and carbon offsets are just a salve for the conscience."

Still, carbon offsetting it is a start, and student activists have found innovative ways to further the concept.

A Carbon Cutting Credit Card

At Middlebury, two students are launching the Bright Card -- a credit card that earns carbon credits instead of air miles. These credits are invested in Native Energy, another company begun by former students, which supports wind turbines in the Midwest.

The Bright Card idea and the research for Middlebury's biomass plant came from class projects with teacher Jon Isham, who trained with Al Gore's Climate Project and is author of "Ignition: What you Can do to Fight Global Warming and Spark a Movement."

"Carbon neutrality is the new recycling -- the place we were after Earth Day in the 1970s," said Isham, professor of international economics and environmental studies. "It allows you to do something and to feel you are a part of something bigger than yourself."

A charismatic tag team, Isham and his colleague Bill McKibben, the environmental scholar in residence at Middlebury, are two of the pied pipers of the national student movement.

McKibben, who leads Step It Up and is author of "End of Nature," is now in Antarctica with former chairman of the federal reserve John Volcker witnessing changes brought on by the climate crisis.

McKibben and Isham -- and the students they have inspired -- are working with Focus the Nation, an educational initiative involving 1,000 colleges, to stage a one-day national symposium -- "Global Warming Solutions for America" -- in 2008.

"This issue is going to affect us," said Leland Davis, 21, who is making a documentary on the project. "You can rationalize that Katrina and this warm winter aren't global warming, but the science is irrefutable. Even one voice can make a difference."

"Jon is so passionate and has a way of motivating people," says Davis of his teacher. But, said Isham, who is optimistic the U.S. will find solutions to the carbon problem in the next decade, it is the students who are the driving force for change.

"It's one of the oldest stories -- the marches from Selma to Montgomery, Ghandi and Mandella -- all these movements were energized by socially conscious youth," said Isham. "It's a groundswell that politicians cannot ignore."