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.

Young 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.

Going forward, special attention needs to be paid to the areas with the biggest concentrations of hydrocarbons -- places like Wyoming's Powder River Basin, Alberta's Tar Sands, Appalachia, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and the Navajo and Hopi Nations' Black Mesa. There are dozens of well-organized groups on the ground, many of them indigenous led, that are starved for funding. Focused efforts to fund these groups and help them develop and finance clean economic alternatives could go a long way towards keeping the fossil fuels they live on top of under the ground, where they belong.

2. Keep funding innovation

We must also ensure that the government continues to back energy innovation. In a recent NY Times piece, David Leonhardt highlighted government-driven clean energy innovation as the silver lining of the past decade. Even while efforts to put a price on carbon have failed, smart funding policies at every level of government have been remarkably successful in building out a clean energy system. Yet the same funding that has driven this build out is now drying up.

As Leonhardt notes, government funding is critical for clean energy because the basic research that has already brought down the cost of wind and solar, and which stands to create the next generation of breakthrough technologies, is often initially unprofitable. Similarly, a 2011 report from the American Energy Innovation Council argued for a strong government role in driving energy innovation. "We know the federal government has a vital role to play in energy innovation.... There are no excuses," write the authors. "If the United States fails ... we will have lost an opportunity to lead in what is arguably the largest and most pervasive technology sector in the world."

What is particularly notable about this report is the list of names affixed to it. It includes some of the most prominent entrepreneurs and capitalists of our time--people like Bill Gates, John Doerr, Ursula Burns, Norman Augustine, and Jeff Immelt. Titans of industry in every industry but fossil fuel are ready for America to take part in the clean energy revolution. They know it's going to require strong government support. That means it's going to take the support of all of us.

3. Lead by example

Speaking at a New York League of Conservation Voters annual gala fundraiser several years ago, I asked the audience members how many had gotten energy-efficiency work done on their homes, or powered some area of lives with renewable energy. Fewer than 5 in 500 raised their hands. It's not enough to fight our current system, or to develop next generation technologies -- we have to rapidly deploy every solution we already have. And we do have many of the tools we need. It's time to start to picking them up and build.

On the renewable energy front, leading by example means delving into ways to reduce our own dirty energy footprints. When the climate debate first heated up, solutions in this area pretty much came down to "change your light bulbs." This is no longer the case. Declining costs and the invention of "solar leases" have made it possible for millions of Americans to go solar with little or no upfront cost. Many more are getting involved with community-scale renewable energy projects. Still others are investing in energy retrofits that will pay back huge financial dividends over time.

It's also essential to start putting our collective savings toward building a clean energy future. Many of us invest the money we save for our children's futures in funds that are heavy on the same companies that are putting their future at risk. Again, while we didn't used to have many options on this front, the world is changing fast. With a little thought, it's possible to do well for your family while also doing good for your community and the planet. We need leaders in every walk of life to prove this principle.

So, do the most revolutionary thing you can: build. Take your money out of the banks and stocks that support coal and invest it in impact funds, credit unions, renewable energy projects, and bonds projects for your community. You'll find that many dedicated people have spent the better part of the past few decades building tools that make it easy. And put up a solar array on your own roof, or join together with the people building a community wind project. States without good community energy laws are becoming fewer and further between; across the country, entrepreneurs are building businesses to meet the demand they already see for renewable energy.

Fight, fund, build. It's that simple--and that difficult. We may be young and scared, but we have power. We are making progress. Now is not the time to slow down.