Oberlin Blogs

When nature calls, students organize. Part 1.

November 12, 2009

Sam Jewler ’10

Last year, student activists from all over the country traveled to Washington, DC, to participate in Power Shift, a summit on combating climate change. This year, the organizers of Power Shift decided to hold regional summits, to make it more accessible to the country.

Would it surprise you to learn that the Ohio Power Shift was held right here in Oberlin?

Hundreds of students from colleges and universities throughout Ohio convened here in Oberlin this past weekend, which also happened to be Parents Weekend, to attend educational workshops and rousing speeches.

Though I would have liked to see more Oberlin students actually attend the summit (I guess people had to spend time with their parents), many of us welcomed our fellow environmentalists into our homes for the weekend. My housemates and I hosted eight students from Hiram College, one of whom led a workshop called "Radical Ornithology: The Importance of Biodiversity and a Radical Introduction to Birdwatching."

Indeed, the selection of workshops was broad, ranging from eclectic to mainstream, local to global, and theoretical to practical. Unfortunately I didn't get myself together in time to go to the radical birdwatching workshop, but I did attend two others, out of the 52 total (all the workshops were split into four time periods, with about 13 in each -- you had to choose carefully).

When I got to Oberlin High School, where all the workshops were, I was torn between "The Role and Prospects for Federal Climate & Energy Legislation," "Revitalizing the Rust Belt with Green Jobs," and the Beehive Collective's "The True Cost of Coal." I finally chose the Green Jobs panel, wanting to go with something practical and political but not as frustrating as I expected the legislation discussion would be.

The Green Jobs panel featured a rep from the NAACP, an Ohio state representative, a member of the women's labor group Hard Hatted Women, a rep from the Blue Green Alliance, an AFL-CIO labor leader, and a female construction worker.

The main idea I took away from the panel was that Ohio is steadily working towards a diverse energy portfolio that will gather more of its electricity (at least 12.5% by 2025) from renewable sources like wind and solar power, and that Ohio's dormant industrial infrastructure can be used to revitalize the economy if it focuses on green jobs. All encouraging news, though I would love to see more ambitious energy efficiency goals. There's a lot of coal in Ohio, which means carbon sequestration -- euphemistically referred to as "clean coal" -- will be a major part of our energy portfolio for the foreseeable future. The research on how safe it is to bury carbon dioxide emissions in the ground is not very well-developed, but it just doesn't sit well with me.

My next difficult decision was between "Working to Rid North East Ohio of Mountaintop Removal Coal," "Building a Campaign: Goals, Strategies and Tactics," "Kicking Dirty Energy Money Out of Politics," and "False Solutions (and Real Solutions!) to the Climate Crisis." I ended up choosing the latter, a kind of catch-all info session on the pros and cons of all kinds of energy sources, presented by Mike Ewall from the Energy Justice Network.

The main point of Ewall's presentation was that supporting certain energy resources is complicated; they all have upsides and downsides, seen and unseen, that affect the earth differently over time and space.

The first example Ewall gave may have been a dig at Oberlin, which is considering phasing out its coal power dependence and starting to capture energy from natural gases already being emitted at the local landfill. He talked about how a lot of students want their schools to give up coal-based energy, which is known to be dirty, for things like landfill gas, which is sometimes assumed to be cleaner but often contains equally dirty components such as methane.

Among other things, he also talked about the fact that nuclear power doesn't immediately produce greenhouse gases, but over time its waste releases not only radiation but also greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide. Then he brought up a topic so obscure and terrifying that it seemed to border on conspiracy theory -- the prospect of geo-engineering. Apparently technology is being explored that would aim to reduce the power of the sun's rays on the earth by pumping sulfur into the air, which would filter sun rays... and instantly kill 500,000 people.

Overall it was an educational, if somewhat depressing day. But the people I met at Power Shift didn't seem like the type to let some bad news about the current state of affairs stop them from acting for what they support. I truly feel that the next generation of leaders was among us that day.

In Part 2, the current generation of leaders galvanizes the Power Shift crowd later that night. Lieutenant Governor Lee Fisher OC '73 inspires, then angers the crowd; anti-coal activist Elisa Young saddens and energizes us; and political activist Elizabeth Kucinich (wife of Dennis) talks about taking real action. She also brings a surprise...

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