Obama harnesses the green power of the crowd
Washington, DC - Twelve thousand students have gathered in the heart of Washington DC with their backpacks and sleeping bag rolls. Their aim is to create a movement that will battle for action on global warming across the United States.
On Monday, they will demonstrate outside the Capitol building. Then they plan what the organisation's leaders claim will be the largest mass civil disobedience on climate change the world has ever seen. They aim to break into and occupy the coal- and gas-fired power station that powers the congressional building itself.
America has a long history of protest movements - women's rights, civil rights, anti-war protests - but this one is unusual in a very significant way. This movement is supported by the President of the United States himself.
The first two speakers at the opening rally of Power Shift '09 on Friday night were senior administration members, Obama appointees. They sounded very similar to the young activists they were addressing.
First up was Lisa Jackson, the Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, the 17,000-strong body responsible for protecting human health and the environment in America. She was introduced to the crowd as "one of us". Here's a clip:
"I am so excited to be here tonight." She told the cheering audience, "As EPA administrator I am excited by your issues but I am more excited by your energy and your power."
Then came the Secretary of State for the Interior. "We must change the world," Ken Salazar said to an ovation from the crowd, "we must tackle this issue of the new energy frontier... and tackle the challenge of global warming." (Watch a clip here.)
The organiser of Power Shift '09, Jessy Tolkan, was thrilled. "It is unbelievable for me to stand last night behind the stage with Administrator Jackson and Secretary Salazar", she says, "and to realise for the first time in my life as an activist that I had partners and allies inside government to work beside us. They literally said we need your help to make this happen, we need your 12,000 leaders."
So why is the Obama administration making such efforts to woo what many Americans would see as a rabble of student activists and hard-core greens?
There is real politics here. President Obama said that, once in power, he would draw on the millions of people who signed up to support his campaign. Here is a clear example of that in practice.
Last week the President asked Congress for legislation to establish a cap-and-trade system to limit greenhouse gas emissions in America. But he is expected to struggle to get his climate bill through Congress and the Senate.
The Obama administration is here to mobilise this army of green activists to agitate throughout America to help it get this legislation passed. That fact could not have been made more explicit.
"We need your help because we are living in some difficult and extraordinary times." Ken Salazar told the crowd. "I want you to be part of our energy and climate change department."
This is Lisa Jackson: "We will need your partnership and your support and experience."
The Power Shift organisers know the potential of the activists here. "These 12,000 young people have the potential to engage hundreds of thousands of their peers around this country", Jessy Tolkan says, "and we need a massive movement and very loud public demands in order to get our Congress to act."
These are not a bunch of anti-capitalist anarchists meeting in some community hall. This is a slickly managed, professional affair. Power Shift is being held in the Washington Convention Center, the largest conference centre in DC.
A glance at the list of sponsors brings home a sense of the breadth of support there is for this movement. Greenpeace and the American Council on Renewable Energy are there, as you might expect, but there are other, less likely sponsors. This revolution comes courtesy of funding from Wal-Mart, The Ford Foundation and Roche Pharmaceuticals.
As you would expect, there are rallies and concerts, but the core of what Power Shift is about happens in the dozens of workshops and panel discussions held during the four days of what the organisers bill as America's "largest summit on climate and energy".
You can learn about lobbying, the media, campaign planning, "task design", video tactics, recruiting volunteers, the list goes on and on. The theme is very clear: this is about giving people the leadership and organisational skills they need to campaign for action on climate change.
"The idea here is to provide these leaders with the tools they need", says Tolkan, "to make that leadership in thousands of communities around this country." On Monday, they will enter the Capitol building to lobby their Senators and Congressmen and women face to face.
She is in no doubt about what is happening. "I think this is one of the most significant things that has ever happened in this country around the issue of climate change," she says. "For the first time we have an actual movement of politically powerful enough people to push for real legislation from Congress. We intend to force this Congress to pass climate legislation in 2009. We believe that the US has the ability to go to Copenhagen in December 2009 having sent the strongest signal possible to the World that we are ready to lead on climate change."