April 20, 2010

Power Shift Rallies College Activism

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In anticipation of the 40th anniversary of Earth Day on Thursday, Apr. 22, youth environmental activists from Cornell and other New York colleges gathered at the University of Buffalo (UB) for Power Shift NY 2010. This past weekend’s regional conference followed Power Shift 2009, which united 12,000 young people in the nation’s capitol for the largest student-based lobby day ever.

The planning committee of students from UB, Cornell, Alfred University, State University of New York (SUNY) at Fredonia and SUNY at Geneseo conceived of a regional conference centered around students across campuses, “connecting on issues that are beyond activism,” said Esther Dsouza, Conference Director and a senior at UB.

The planning committee laid out four tracks: Education and Ecology, Sustainability on Campus, Green Careers and Lifestyles and Activism.  They invited local conservationists, activists and political and student leaders to speak.

Alyssa Tsuchiya ’11, Co-President of KyotoNOW, and Kristen Vitro ’11, President of Greeks Go Green, shared stories of Cornell students’ success in uniting the administration and the Greek system in sustainability. Tsuchiya serves as Assistant Design Editor for the Cornell Daily Sun.

While many university presidents have signed climate neutrality agreements, few presidents have allocated funds for a full-time staff to realize the goal.  Cornell created the Office of Environmental Compliance and Sustainability, run by Sustainability Coordinator Daniel Roth.

Tsuchiya told fellow panelists about Cornell’s transition to a Combined Heat and Power Plant (CHP).  This transition will cut carbon emissions by one-third, eliminating coal in favor of natural gas.

Walter Simpson, an expert on campus sustainability, cautioned against a broad application of the term, “sustainability.” He said, sustainability does not harm the environment, but significant actions only reduce environmental harm.

Guests generated concern, speculating about methods to translate the activity of Power Shift 2009 and general public awareness into timely, effective action. Over weekend, different priorities and divergent opinions became apparent.

One questioned priority includes hydropower, or energy generated by harnessing water resources.  Whereas some activists viewed hydropower as a practical energy solution, others preached the contrary.

For instance, in support of Great Lakes Conservationist Margaret Wooster’s speech, Katy Brown, a Water Testing and Environmental Justice Coordinator at Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper, said that contrary to popular belief, hydropower is not clean energy.

The life of a river is the organic matter flowing through it. The erection of a dam causes the organic matter to builds up against it, rot and produce carbon dioxide and methane.  This process contributes to global warming.

Contention emerges about the ideal level of government in change. New York State Senator Antoine Thompson, Chair of the Environmental Conservation Committee, cited difficulties with passing federal climate legislation as a reason to rally behind state climate legislation.

Clayton Munnings ’11, who presented on cap and trade, responded by saying, “now is our best shot at the federal level” before Democrats lose seats during mid-term elections in a backlash against the health care bill. Munnings added that, if liberal states regulate carbon emissions, the state may simply divert their demands for energy from another less liberal state. State legislation may only displace the problem of climate change.

Regardless of the action that students decide to take, Thompson urged them to organize and remain aggressive.

Tsuchiya listed the multitude of student groups working on environmental issues at Cornell – Lights Out (energy conservation), Take Back the Tap (eliminating bottled water consumption), Roots and Shoots (environment education).  She reflected that, while numerous, the groups remain disconnected.  UB may lack a diversity of outreach, but their Student Association (SA) possesses a four million dollar budget, which includes representatives’ stipends, giving the Environmental Department access to funds and programming support from other SA departments.

Simpson ended his address about the relationship between energy and climate change. He reflected on Daniel Ellsberg, who released the Pentagon Papers, which revealed protests actually impacted the decision against using nuclear weapons in the Vietnam War.

Simpson’s suggested to never underestimate the power of speaking out against climate change even if the immediate response is not positive.

Original Author: Jing Jin