Sunday, February 17, 2013

MO Love, Forward on Climate, and the Social Tipping Point for Climate Action

In February of 2009, as an excited but scared freshman, I boarded a mini-van and drove 15 straight hours from my college in St. Louis to Washington DC. I was attending my first big event for climate justice, Power Shift 2009, and I was looking forward to a conference that I thought would be a fun weekend in a new city. Instead, the conference changed my life.

Youth rally at the Capitol at Power Shift in 2009
Something happened to me in the presence of the 12,000 other passionate young people attending Power Shift in 2009. I was deeply inspired and felt connected with something much larger than myself. And as I walked through the halls of Congress to lobby my representatives, I felt completely empowered, that I was meant to be there and that I could actually change the world. This was my baptism into the world of activism, and since those four days in Washington DC I have actively campaigned for climate justice.

Power Shift 2009 also marked the genesis of the youth climate movement in Missouri. Before Power Shift, students at several campuses were already actively on climate change issues, but we had no idea that each other existed. It took us driving halfway across the country to realize that there were actually other people who cared about climate change in Missouri! It was quite a revelation, and from that initial realization a network of Missouri student climate activists slowly started to grow.

Fast-forward four years to February 17, 2013. Today is the Forward on Climate Rally, expected to be the largest political demonstration for action on climate change in US history. Tens of thousands of activists have descended on Washington DC from all over the country. And among these activists are 110 Missouri students, representing what I view as the best hope for moving my state forward on climate justice and clean energy.

Our Missouri student climate activist network has grown a lot over the last four years. When we started off in 2009, we really didn't know what we were doing.  Our first "campaign" was little more than organizing a big conference, and had very little strategy or political impact.  Now we know how to actually organize, run effective campaigns, and think strategically. We’re finally finding out what it feels like to be winning, with Mizzou and Missouri State poised to soon successfully complete their Beyond Coal campaigns. We're expanding our efforts by bringing new campuses into the mix.  And we have developed the beginning of a statewide community and culture of support, summed up by our network’s slogan: “MO Love.” 

We know the work in Missouri will be long and difficult. We are up against some powerful corporations, starting with the heavily coal-dependent utility Ameren (a utility dirty enough to make the EAC’s Filthy 15 list). We also have two of the world’s largest and dirtiest coal corporations, Peabody and Arch Coal, headquartered in St. Louis. And the Missouri legislature is gerry-mandered to favor deeply conservative, pro-fossil fuel politicians. In short, we have a very uphill battle.

Even in the face of these huge challenges, the students of Missouri are resolute in moving our state forward. They are bright and creative, studying not just environmental studies but a wide-range of subjects, including biology, sociology, journalism, political science, Spanish, English, and business. They are determined to not just win short-term victories for their campuses, but to build the long-term power needed to change what is politically possible in our state. The students of Missouri are also determined to support each other along the way, through retreats, road trips, skype sessions, group hikes, and even just hanging out.

It feels like the Missouri student climate movement is at a threshold, finally having the numbers and the coordination needed to exert substantial influence in our state. We haven’t completely mastered the art of campus campaigns, but we’re making rapid headway. We don’t quite know how to engage in broader community fights, but we’re working with the Sierra Club and other Missouri groups to figure it out. We could still be a few years off from breaking through to large scale victories. But maybe we won’t have to wait. Maybe we’re ready to move Missouri forward now.

In some ways, today’s “Forward on Climate” rally marks a similar threshold for the US climate movement. With 20,000+ expected attendees, the rally might just have the numbers needed to sway President Obama to reject the KeystoneXL pipeline and take the lead on bold climate action. Maybe it still won’t be enough. But our doubts and hesitations won’t lead to climate justice. So on we march, holding fast to our faith in grassroots democracy and the power of our collective ability to change the world for the better.

Unlike other social justice struggles, climate change has a deadline for success or utter failure. If we continue on our current path, at some point excessive carbon emissions will activate geophysical tipping points and cause the Earth’s climate system to spiral catastrophically out of control. But our human social systems also have tipping points, and society can change just as rapidly as environmental conditions. We’re now in a race to see which macro-system, humanity’s unsustainable global culture or the Earth’s biosphere, will tip first. We don’t yet know the outcome. But the students of Missouri, along with the tens of thousands of other activists gathered here in DC, are betting on the social tipping point. And we’re working as hard as we can to shift the odds to our favor.

Reverend Lennox Yearwood Jr. of the Hip Hop Caucus called the KeystoneXL pipeline decision the “Lunch-counter moment of the 21st century.” It is a bold statement, but just imagine if it turns out to be true. In forty years, we may look back and see this moment as our tipping point, when the tide finally turned on climate action and the world started to rapidly shift towards sustainable energy. Today, the students of Missouri march with the belief that this rally will change history. Tomorrow, we return home to our campuses, ready to courageous work to implement the change we so desperately need.

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