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July 26, 2012

Tar Sands Panel Stresses Youth's Role in Climate Change Movement

CPNC Keystone Panel 013
On Thursday, July 26, the Campus Progress National Conference hosted a panel titled “Rising from the Tar Sands: building on the Keystone Victory and Growing the Environmental Movement.” The panel was moderated by Quentin James, national director of the Sierra Student Coalition, and panelists included Bill McKibben (pictured above at the right), president and co-founder of 350.org; Navin Nayak (pictured above in the center), senior vice president for campaigns with the League of Conservation Voters; and Courtney Hight (pictured above at the left), deputy political director of the Sierra Club. It focused on the ongoing debate over the Keystone XL pipeline and the role young people have to play in the climate change movement.

In February, an estimated 12,000 tar sands activists surrounded the White House to demand that President Obama deny the permit for the Keystone XL pipeline. Following the protest and almost 800,000 signatures on a petition against Keystone XL, the president agreed to delay the permitting until at least 2013.

At the panel, McKibben called the White House protest and subsequent permitting delay the “high-water mark” in the fight against tar sands, but also warned that defeating Keystone XL is “by no means a done deal or a won victory.” He said that the act of civil disobedience is what made the tar sands issue something instead of nothing, and moved it into the mainstream. “We got the policy, but we haven’t won the politics,” Nayak added.

The panelists underscored the urgency of the tar sands issue as a part of the larger climate change movement. “We’re deeply, deeply into the triage phase of this thing at this point,” McKibben said. He quoted NASA climate scientist James Hansen, who said that if we burn the stuff in the tar sands on top of what we’re already burning, it’s “game over for the climate.” The panelists agreed that climate change is so pressing that we can’t wait for public support to intensify. Nayak called on the environmental and progressive communities to take a page from the other side’s playbook and be incredibly vocal. “There’s no time to wait until you’re out of college and in the power structure,” McKibben said.

But what can college students possibly do?

“Young people have been at the forefront of every social movement in our country,” said Hight.

McKibben echoed her with a call for college campuses to engage in the sort of mass protests of the 1970s and ‘80s that helped bring down South African apartheid. If this fight doesn’t have “the same sort of moral stakes accompanying the civil rights movement, then we won’t win,” McKibben said. He called on students to go back in September and turn their campuses upside-down. “There is nothing you could be doing that is more important than that, if you are involved in determining the geologic future of the planet in the next couple years,” he said.

The Sierra Club has launched a new effort to help engage college students in that fight. With oil the number one source of climate-disrupting pollution in the U.S, the Sierra Club Campuses Beyond Oil campaign is working to bring solutions to campuses that will help us win on climate by winning on oil.

Students involved in Campuses Beyond Oil are fighting to green campus fleets, reduce oil usage by cleaning up the way students, faculty and staff get to school, and creating oil free communities on campuses that can be used as models throughout the country. And it’s a brand new campaign, organizing to help today’s students be the first generation to move beyond oil.The panel drove home the message that the college voice is far-reaching.

“Whatever happens on a college campus moves out,” Hight said. “You can be an example to the community. Remembering the power we have as young people is important.”

Hight outlined what was at stake in the starkest terms: “This is what it is. People are dying. Kids are getting sick. [We need to] broaden it out and make it about people, because it is.”

College Students interested in Campuses Beyond Oil can get more information by clicking here.

-- Ethan Hiedeman and Emily Simons, Sierra Club Media Interns

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