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February 04, 2011

Generation Hot

At a moment when elected officials beholden to dirty coal and oil are recklessly trying to undermine the Environmental Protection Agency's responsibility to protect the health of Americans, students at Penn State and Purdue University have joined a chorus of young people demanding that the nation ditch the dirty past and move into the clean-energy future.

President Obama visited Penn State this week to learn about energy-efficient technologies at the school's Energy Innovation Hub. While he was there, I hope he also learned something from the students. They collected petition signatures, hosted rallies, and built coalitions with faculty and alumni to demand that the university end its use of coal on campus. And they won.

At Purdue, students and activists prevailed this week when the university cancelled plans for a new campus coal plant. Purdue had been the only university in the country planning to build a new coal plant. Now it's planning a wind farm. The plant in Purdue is the 150th proposed coal plant to have been defeated or withdrawn in the past couple of years.

In his new book, Hot: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth, Mark Hertsgaard makes the point that -- because of our collective failure to take action on greenhouse gasses -- the generation born in the past two decades has been "given a life sentence for a crime they didn't commit."

Full disclosure: Hertsgaard is a good friend. I'm reading his book now, and it's excellent. You can read more about how he's challenging the "climate cranks" in Congress in this important Nation article. Meanwhile, the kids at Penn State, at Purdue, and in other student movements across the country are proving that "Generation Hot" (as Hertsgaard dubs them) aren't ready to accept that life sentence without a fight. The Sierra Student Coalition's successful Campuses Beyond Coal campaign is just one example.

Compare that with the shameful actions of their elders in the corridors of power. Not only are politicians not addressing the issue of reducing CO2 emissions and moving us to cleaner, safer, more secure sources of energy, they are cynically attempting to stop the EPA from doing anything about it either. Senator John Barrasso of Wyoming introduced a bill this week that would specifically prohibit the EPA from doing anything about emissions based on "contribution to climate change." Representatives Fred Upton and James Inhofe introduced a similar measure in the House.

Let's be very clear with each other about what's happening here. Big Coal and Big Oil spent more than half a billion dollars lobbying and on political campaigns in the past two years. Now they're demanding a return on that investment, and elected officials are all too eager to comply. They're choosing to protect big polluters rather than our family's physical health, our country's economic health, and the health of a planet already suffering from the symptoms of climate disruption. To them, protecting record profits is so important that they'll actually introduce legislation specifically to keep EPA administrator Lisa Jackson from doing her job.

I'd like to see them try explaining that directly to the students and activists who've stopped those 150 proposed new coal plants. As Victor Hugo said, "There is one thing stronger than all the armies of the world, and that is an idea whose time has come." Students and Americans from all ages and backgrounds have a vision of a clean-energy future, and we won't let up until it comes to life.

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