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.
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
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 Grist.org, 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."