Climate Change Activists Pour into D.C.

Climate activistsKandi Mosset discovered a pea-sized tumor on her torso when she was 20 years old. Within six days, the tumor was as large as a walnut.

Mosset had cancer. Although the cause was unknown, she blames the seven coal-fired power plants near her North Dakota home.

"I know - or I did know, one passed away - five people who had brain cancer," said Mosset, a member of the Mandan Hidatsa Arikara tribe. "It's not normal."

Five surgeries later, Mosset is now a healthy, 29-year-old environmental activist. A campus coordinator with the Indigenous Environmental Network, she is part of the growing U.S. climate youth movement, and she has come to Washington, D.C., to share her story.

Mosset will join an expected 10,000 climate change activists, mostly college students, in their descent on the U.S. capital this weekend for the largest-ever collective action on climate change in the United States.

Activists have planned two separate events: a youth-led conference known as Powershift and a large-scale protest of civil disobedience. The gatherings are intended to capture President Barack Obama's attention and demand that Congress pass a climate change bill this year.

After eight years of the Bush Administration largely avoiding climate change solutions, this weekend provides the first opportunity for many youthful activists to engage U.S. leadership and expect a national response.

"We have new leadership, but now we need them to implement that leadership," said Jessy Tolkan, president of the Energy Action Coalition, a network of youth activists who organized Powershift. "We absolutely expect and demand that climate legislation gets passed in 2009."

Powershift will include workshops on grassroots organizing, a rally with House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and a lobbying event for participants to directly engage members of Congress.

On Monday, many of the Powershift attendees are expected to join about 2,500 protesters at a coal-fired power plant near Capitol Hill, the so-called Capitol Power Plant. Notable participants will include NASA scientist James Hansen and authors Bill McKibben and Wendell Berry.

"There are moments in a nation's - and a planet's - history when it may be necessary for some to break the law in order to bear witness to an evil, bring it to wider attention, and push for its correction," the two authors wrote in a letter to supporters. "We will cross the legal boundary of the power plant, and we expect to be arrested. After that we have no certainty what will happen."

More than 90 organizations have co-sponsored the protest, and nearly two dozen non-violent training sessions have taken place nationwide in preparation. "For climate change, there is nothing close to this scale that has happened in the U.S.," said Matt Leonard, a Greenpeace campaigner who is among the protest's organizers.

Paul Wapner, director of the Global Environmental Politics Program at American University, agreed that the weekend will likely be the largest activism event on climate change in U.S. history.

"This action is actually refreshing because it's reaching back to a strategy of collective expression that certainly was used in the past, but increasingly hard to get going these days because of the multiple venues one has to express oneself," said Wapner, who may participate in the event himself.

Marisol Bacerra, a 19-year-old student at DePaul University, is traveling from Chicago to attend Powershift and support the protest.

Bacerra became an energy activist when she and her mother attended an environmental justice tour of her community. Before the tour, the then-14 year old did not realize that she lived four blocks from a coal-fired power plant.

"I had been living here for so long and I had no idea what the industry was doing," said Bacerra, who is convinced that the asthma suffered by her and a younger sister is related to the power plant. "I always thought, ‘Why are there so many children in my school with asthma? Why are they always missing school?'"

Bacerra now organizes her own community tours nearly every weekend. Her efforts are targeted in particular at her neighborhood's fellow teenagers. "It has been amazing to work in my community and open the eyes of so many people who had no idea of what was going on," she said.

Energy Action's Jessy Tolkan, 28, has been involved in community organizing since she lobbied for a tuition freeze while attending the University of Wisconsin in Madison. At 19, she ran for a city council position and won.

Tolkan's father is a Milwaukee car dealer who sells "big, General Motors, gas guzzling SUVs" and will soon likely shut down his business due to a lack of demand. Her inspiration is the promise of a new, "clean economy," Tolkan said.

"When I think about the fact that addressing our climate change means rebuilding our economy in a way that works for everyone, that provides access to the economy even for people who didn't have access to the economy before, that's what fuels my passion," she said. "My dad would fight and scream at me.... I tell my dad that I do this because I care for him."

Mosset will be leading a group of 48 tribal college students from across the Midwest and Canada who are boarding a bus today from Bismarck, North Dakota to Washington, D.C. Another 20 students who are members of the indigenous peoples delegation will fly from as far away as Alaska.

"Many have never even been in a city before, so this will be a great opportunity," Mosset said. "Just because we have this Powershift doesn't guarantee things are going to change. But if we don't, you know things never will."

Ben Block is a staff writer with the Worldwatch Institute. He can be reached at bblock@worldwatch.org.

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