More young Americans are going to the polls than ever before. According to U.S. Census figures, 18-to-29-year-olds increased their turnout by twice the rate of the general voting population in the 2004 and 2006 elections.
Emboldened by their growing numbers and by the urgency of issues like global warming, young people are looking for ways to make a difference. A large number of them came to Washington recently to flex their political muscles.
Organizers called it the single biggest lobby day on climate change ever.
Five thousand college students representing every U.S. state converged on Capitol Hill calling on members of Congress to take swift action on global warming.
Chelsea Cook from the State University of New York at Cortland cheered and waved a handmade sign to show her support, "We are here today to make a difference. Because there are so many people around the world that are suffering because of global warming." Stephanie Grube, also from SUNY Cortland agreed, "We can make a difference by voting, by organizations that we are part of. It starts with us."
Nathan Wyeth came from Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. He is active on his campus and wants Congress to do something, too. He says new clean energy technology can solve the climate crisis and provide jobs. "That is such a clear forward path I don't know who could be against it."
Lobby Day, as the event was called, was organized by the Energy Action Coalition, a non-profit that coordinates more than 40 student environmental groups. Testifying before Congress, Energy Action co-founder Billy Parish asked for bipartisan support for a plan www.1skyCampaign.org that would dramatically cut carbon emissions, create millions of new environmentally-beneficial jobs and put a moratorium on construction of coal-fired power plants.
Interrupted by applause from his peers in the packed hearing room, he implored lawmakers to listen to his demands. "I ask that you hear them not only as politicians, but as mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers. We can do this if we work together. But we must begin today."
Cheryl Lockwood, a native Yupik Eskimo from St. Michael Village on Norton Sound, Alaska, told members of congress her community cannot wait much longer. Coastal erosion from melting glacial ice has already impacted native life, she said. In a tearful testimony, she said she was afraid that her traditions and culture would be lost. "We have been living here for thousands of years. It is not just that we are losing our food. We are losing our homes."
Students took Lockwood's sobering message with them as they headed for appointments with their elected officials. Fifty students from Iowa crowded into the office of Iowa senator Chuck Grassley, where they were given 15 minutes to make their case.
They asked for the senator's support for an 80 percent reduction in CO2 by 2050. Grassley did not commit to the request, but said that he has supported alternative sources of energy in the past and will continue to do so. "I am very strong on wind energy, backer of all sorts of alternative standards like ethanol, solar, [and] biomas," he told the students.
The time passed quickly, but Maharishi School of Management student Benjamin Katz, 27, said the short meeting was well worth the 40-hour bus trip from his Iowa campus to Washington. He said he learned how to fine-tune his passion for a cause into an effective political message, though he conceded he still has a lot to learn.
"The next time I would definitely learn more about the voting record of my congressman so that I could speak more directly to him, the things that he stands for, and tailor more what I had to say to him specifically as opposed to the platform that we are trying to push," Katz said.
Other students said the Senator's warm welcome was an encouraging sign that even their novice lobbying efforts had made a difference. Jai Garg, 18, from Grinnell College in Central Iowa communicated a strong message. "The fact that we are here just helps to push the movement further." Nathan Pavlovic, 19, also from Grinnell, didn't expect that the senator would agree with everything. "But I think that it's good that we let him know that he needs to be thinking about this, that he needs to rethink what he is doing."
Pavlovic is hopeful that may lead to continued dialogue between young people and congressional leaders on the environment and action on the environmental issues they came to champion.