There’s something new in the air—and it’s more than just those rising carbon emissions. Across the country, high school and college students are banding together to combat the threat of global warming. Beyond the protests and petitions that have marked movements of the past, students are embracing creative initiatives to raise awareness and have a practical impact on their campuses.
In February 2008, high schools and colleges throughout the nation are participating in the National Campus Energy Challenge, a contest to see which school can save the most energy during the month. Each school will strive to have the highest-percent reduction compared to its campus baseline for the previous three Februarys.
The NCEC demonstrates students’ growing awareness of what works. Rather than leaving students feeling helpless after listening to gloom-and-doom commentary, the competition offers them the opportunity to build on school spirit and see tangible results. In the NCEC’s pilot project last February, for example, Carleton College cut its overall electricity consumption by 10.1 percent—that’s the equivalent of about 30 tons of coal, or of shutting down 140 average American households for a month.
Membership in student environmental groups is on the rise, mirroring an increased involvement in grassroots activism that is becoming the mark of the “Millennial Generation.” According to a study published last October by the Center for Information and Research on Civil Learning and Engagement, the Millennial Generation (those born after 1985) is more engaged in grassroots activism than Generation X (those born between 1965 and 1985). And members of the Millennial Generation are more likely to be involved in activist causes that produce tangible results.
No longer is the green movement only for those on the outskirts. Students of all backgrounds and beliefs are becoming involved. Ask Abby Gaul, co-president of the Green Team at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota, who plans to participate in the NCEC this year. “It’s exciting to see people of different lifestyles get involved in this. It’s not just a hippie thing anymore—it’s much more broad.”
Faith-based groups are joining the ranks and are being recognized by the mainstream movement for their action and contributions. Rather than being marginalized, people of faith are acknowledged as a valuable resource as they rally behind a renewed approach to environmental stewardship and action on climate change.
Even more encouraging, faith’s role in the student movement is extending beyond mere inclusion. It’s also being used as a tool to call for change. “I think the environment was created by God and we are here to protect it. That’s a pretty high call as human beings,” said Gaul. “The president of our university and other religious leaders within our community have a responsibility to uphold those teachings—there’s a broad Christian call to protect the environment and uphold those truths.”
Activism isn’t confined to the traditionally progressive schools or states either. Transformations are happening, for example, at the University of Oklahoma: Its president, former senator David Boren, signed the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment, joining more than 200 other universities in promising to achieve climate neutrality for his campus and develop the capability of society to do the same.
And more voices are joining the movement. More than 5,500 college and high school students gathered in College Park, Maryland, last November at Power Shift, the first national youth summit about the climate crisis. Thousands, representing more than 500 universities, traveled to Capitol Hill afterward for a rally and lobbying visits with lawmakers.
The Millennials are inheriting this earth in peril—and they are responding in growing numbers with visible activism and practical change. As one member of the Sierra Student Coalition put it at Power Shift, “We are the moral authority. We are the most invested in shaping our future, and we need to go out there and ask [those in power] what they are going to do about it.”
Cara Boekeloo is an editorial intern at Sojourners.