Students Use Civil Rights Tactics to Combat Global Warming

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.

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