UVM Students Send Nation's Largest Delegation to Washington Climate Rally
Release Date: 03-04-2009
More than 12,000 college students from across the country descended on Washington, D.C., over the weekend for Power Shift '09, a youth-led rally on climate change — and the University of Vermont sent the largest delegation of any school, 204 students.
"This year is going to be crucial to get the policies we need to slow climate change," said Jessica Serrante '10, who led the UVM students. "The science says we need to get down to 350 parts per million," of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere or risk irreversible damage to the planet, "but we're over 380 and rising," she said. "I'm worried."
Serrante noted that an international climate conference in Copenhagen this December will be a major deciding point in developing a new global agreement to reduce greenhouse gases. "One of our goals for the rally was to have lots of students and other people understand how important those negotiations in Copenhagen are going to be," she said, since the 1992 Kyoto climate treaty expires in 2012.
"We're not being radical enough," she said, "Corporate interests are getting in the way."
Piling into vans and buses in Vermont at 4 a.m. on Friday, the students arrived in Washington that afternoon and attended workshops and concerts and other activities throughout the weekend, including speeches by Nancy Pelosi, speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, Lisa Jackson, the newly appointed administrator of the EPA, activist Van Jones, and writer Bill McKibben.
As part of the event, a small group of UVM students had meetings at the congressional offices of Senator Bernie Sanders and Congressman Peter Welch. "Senator Leahy was out of town," Serrante said, "but they've all been really supportive."
Despite a major snowstorm on Sunday and Monday, organizers say the event was the largest-ever collective action by students on climate change in the United States.
The rally was followed by an associated protest on Monday at the U.S. Capitol's power plant, a 99-year-old coal-powered facility that provides heat and air conditioning to the Capitol and other buildings. The largest source of carbon emissions and air pollution in Washington, D.C., the facility has become a symbolic center of conflict between climate change activists and pro-coal activists and legislators like West Virginia's Robert Byrd.
About 1,000 students, including a large group from UVM, planned a civil disobedience action, blocking the five entrances to the power plant for several hours on Monday afternoon. Just before the protest began, Nancy Pelosi announced plans to convert the plant from coal power to natural gas.
"We achieved what we wanted, and we held the gate for several hours," Serrante said. "The D.C police didn't arrest anyone."
"There is no such thing as clean coal," she said.
Connor Gibson '10, part of a Greenpeace team at the protest, described the marches as "high-intensity" and the activists as "inspired."
He was part of a group, "giving hot chocolate to the cold protesters, granola bars, trash bags for insulation, and just making sure everyone was safe and as comfortable as they could be," he said.
Professor Stephanie Kaza, the faculty sponsor for the students' trip, noted that many of the students plan to follow the rally with activism back on campus. "The last Power Shifters in '07 came back and organized the Forest Crimes Unit taking on toilet paper purchasing on campus," she noted, which contributed to a new university-wide contract for green-certified toilet paper.
"There's a big desire by some of the students to take on Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant; some want to work on local agricultural issues," another student leader of the rally, Basil Tsimoyianis '09, said. "We'll definitely do something around Earth Week."