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Environmental campaign to young voters: It's time to follow through

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 22, 2009 - On Nov. 5, 2008, the task of keeping young people engaged in national affairs became more challenging. On the heels of a historic election, many wondered whether interest in some of the prominent causes backed by advocacy groups would naturally wane.

Ten months later, Brett Wiley still shares that concern -– and is working to make sure it doesn’t happen. The 23-year-old St. Louis native is visiting college campuses and community organizations throughout the region to drum up support for a broad environmental campaign that’s being pushed in cities across the country. He knows that plenty of students and twentysomethings took time during the last election cycle to push for carbon reductions or voted for a candidate in part because of his or her clean energy platform.

It's just a matter of finding them and persuading them to stay active in an off-election year.  

“A lot of times after an election, particularly if youth feel like they got the people they wanted in office, they say, ‘I participated. That was my year,’” said Wiley, Missouri field organizer for the Power Shift Campaign. “We need to remind them not only do we elect people to office, but we need to hold the president and Congress accountable.”

Thus the mission of the Power Shift '09 Campaign: to get lawmakers moving on climate and energy legislation, and to get President Barack Obama to sign the bill, as well as a global climate treaty that could come out of an international meeting this December in Copenhagen.

The campaign is a project of the Energy Action Coalition, a large network of groups working on environmental issues. Among those groups is the Sierra Student Coalition, a group for which Wiley works. As part of climate and energy legislation that's working its way through Congress, Power Shift is calling for the U.S. to:

  • Reduce global warming pollution by 25-40 percent below 1990 levels by 2020; and 80-95 percent below 1990 levels by 2050. 
  • Cap carbon emissions -- if a cap-and-trade system is chosen, the campaign wants all pollution allowances to be auctioned (which hasn't been the case in key proposals thus far).
  • Invest in wind, solar and other "clean-energy" sources and decrease reliance on coal.
  • Help create new green jobs and training programs.  

Wiley said the campaign is also focused on getting young people to spread the word to Obama that he not only needs to attend the major United Nations summit in Copenhagen "but that he needs to take a leadership role." The idea behind the summit is to get nations to complete a new emissions pact, but with countries still arguing over key issues, many predict a treaty won't be signed by the end of 2009.  
There's also the challenge of keeping energy and climate issues in the forefront at a time when health care is dominating the domestic agenda. Wiley said he's confident that the campaign can keep its momentum, even with health care getting so much attention.

A major test will come Oct. 16-18, as Saint Louis University hosts one of 11 Power Shift summits happening across the country this fall. Students and other young people will share stories about efforts to reduce carbon footprints on campuses and beyond, and take part in workshops about how to lobby legislators. The campaign also includes days of action spread throughout the fall in which Wiley is hoping supporters of the effort will collect petitions relating to climate change, and call their representatives about clean energy concerns.  

“We want federal action now,” Wiley said. “That will embolden everything we’re doing at the local level.”

Wiley also is lending his help to a new youth organizing campaign on clean energy and climate change called Consequence that has many of the same goals as Power Shift. He has been involved in climate and energy causes for some time, having pushed through a sustainability initiative at Truman State University, where he studied environmental science and was vice president of the student body. One of Wiley's top issues is getting people out of cars and onto bikes. He said he would like to go into public office and use his science background to work on environmental issues.