Why Young Environmentalists Still Have Hope

When it comes to climate change, it's not surprising that many millennials have settled into a fatalistic stupor. But there are ways to make a difference -- and they're already working.

energy-coalition-top2.jpgYoung protestors, including members of the Energy Action Coalition, gather at the White House on for a "Crude Awakening" March. (Chris Eichler/Flickr)

Ten years ago, I was between my sophomore and junior years at Yale, and on a journey that would profoundly alter the course of my life. I was spending the summer in India, and had decided to hike to the Gaumukh glacier, the source of the Ganges River that rests at the far end of a massive ice sheet deep that extends into the Himalayas.

On the way up, my guide, Anand, and I encountered a barefoot man in an orange robe--a reminder of the fact that we were headed to the holiest place in India. The Ganges accommodates some 450 million people who come to its banks to drink, eat, farm, bathe, and worship. For thousands of years, the great river has been at the center of Indian political, economic, and spiritual life.

Closer to the glacier, we encountered a different kind of sight: a white plastic tent with a satellite dish beside it. Nearby, we found a scientist sitting on a boulder. A quarter century earlier, he told us, we would have been standing on the glacier. It had been retreating for years. As soon as 2030, he said, Gaumukh could disappear altogether.

That fall, I took a leave from college, determined to do something about the insanity of global warming. I would never return, choosing instead to co-found the Energy Action Coalition and grow it into the world's largest youth advocacy organization working on the climate crisis. As we won thousands of small victories, getting cities, college campuses, and companies to begin reducing their carbon footprints, I and those around me felt empowered -- confident that we would prevail in the greatest challenge of our generation.

Then came 2008. After the election, we saw an opportunity to win both federal climate legislation and to secure an international climate deal in Copenhagen. When both went down in flames, many climate activists (myself included) fell into a kind of depression.

Fast forward to 2012. We're living through the warmest year in American history. Wildfires and droughts are plaguing the West, prompting experts to warn of a looming food crisis, and Bill McKibben's tour-de-force Rolling Stone piece "Global Warming's Terrifying New Math" has been viewed 1.2 million times in two weeks. The listervs I'm on are filling up with huge threads with subject lines like, "I'm scared."

What happened? What do we do now? I and many other members of the millennial generation have spent the past few years developing answers to these questions. The good news is that we now know a great deal about what works, and we know what we need to do.

First, it's important to recognize that this not only a dangerous time, but also a time of immense opportunity. We are living in a world of dueling exponential curves. On one hand, there are the hockey stick slopes, the terrifying and skyrocketing lines of environmental degradation and carbon. But not far behind is another wave of fast-growing curves representing a solution set that could sustainably feed, shelter, and power the planet.

In his Rolling Stone piece, McKibben mentions that Germany recently met nearly half its noonday power demand with solar energy. What he didn't mention was that as recently as 2000, solar power comprised only 0.01 percent of Germany's power supply. A similar story of renewable energy growth has played out around the world. Late last year, the International Energy Agency came out with a stunning revision of its forecast for the future energy mix of the planet, saying solar could produce most of the world's power in less than 50 years. In the U.S., the rate of uptake of wind and solar technologies has blown expert predictions out of the water.

Taking note of new realities, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory recently issued a statement that would have been unimaginable five years ago: "Renewable electricity generation from technologies that are commercially available today is more than adequate to supply 80% of total U.S. electricity generation in 2050 while meeting electricity demand on an hourly basis in every region of the country."

So how do we, as a generation that will be grappling with these issues far into the future, ensure that the good curves win out?

1. Support local fights to keep fossil fuels in the ground

McKibben calls for turning our full attention to fighting fossil fuel companies. To this I would add that we need to double down on local campaigns targeted at specific mining or energy development projects. Why? Because they work. On the ground, surrounded by friends and family, fighting both for our planet and the places we love, we're already finding our power.

With little fanfare, grassroots groups around the country have turned the tide on fossil fuel development. They have been supported by smart national groups like the Sierra Club, 350.org, and the Energy Action Coalition. To take one example, the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal Campaign has supported volunteers across the country as they've successfully fought to halt two thirds of all proposals for new coal-fired power plants put forth since 2001. The campaign is now aiming to close all of the nation's 530 existing coal plants by 2030.

Presented by

Billy Parish is president of Solar Mosaic, an online marketplace for solar investment, and the author of Making Good: Finding Meaning, Money and Community in a Changing World.

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