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Locals active at national climate conference

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By KATHRYN FLAGG

ADDISON COUNTY — This time a week ago, Cornwall residents Jon Isham and Tracy Himmel Isham were facing arrest — or, at least, potential arrest.

And the Ishams weren’t alone. They were joined by a few thousand other environmental activists who marched on the coal plant that powers Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. Their goal? To shut down the plant for a day — and to convince legislators to shut down the coal-powered plant for good. 

“We all lined up and marched 2,500 strong to the coal-fired plant,” Isham said. Hundreds of police looked on as the protestors circled the plant, and eventually around 400 individuals stood up to block entrance to the plant — a form of civil disobedience that warranted arrest.

The nonviolent protest came at the end of PowerShift 2009, a weekend-long conference that drew nearly 12,000 students and other activists from around the country to the nation’s capital to rally for clean energy and major climate legislation.

Monday’s protestors knew they had scored an early victory when days before the march Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., agreed to stop burning coal at the Congress-owned plant — the modus operandi there for 103 years ­— and convert to natural gas.

But that victory didn’t stop protestors, clad in suits and ties and bundled up against D.C.’s snowy weather, from taking to the streets. For many the decision to take part was not easy but was spurred by a deep concern about the environment and global climate change.

It was as a scary event for Himmel Isham, who said her stomach was in knots after the morning’s training sessions in civil disobedience.

“I’ve never been disobedient to the law. I’ve gotten a speeding ticket before, but standing up to authority is not something that I’ve fantasized about,” she said.

But Himmel Isham said that as the mother of three children, she saw the protest as a way to speak up for her kids, and for families affected by mountaintop removal coal mining. 

Ripton resident and environmental writer Bill McKibben was at the protest, as well as many other luminaries of the environmental movement — Wendell Berry, Terry Tempest Williams, and at the head of the crowd, James Hansen, the NASA scientist who in 1998 drew the country’s attention to the issue of global warming.

Around 4 o’clock last Monday afternoon the word went out: the police wouldn’t be making any arrests that day. Too many demonstrators had shown up, McKibben later reporter, and police had no hope of jailing them all.

So, Isham said, “the choice was made to just declare victory.”

“I’ve waited 20 years since I wrote “The End of Nature” to see what the global warming movement would look like,” wrote McKibben in an e-mail after the event. “And now I’ve seen it, and it’s very beautiful.”

VERMONTERS HEAD TO D.C.

The Ishams and McKibben were far from the only Vermonters who turned out for PowerShift. In fact, Middlebury College sent 195 students to the conference — the second-largest contingent from any college in the country. (They were beat out in that category by the University of Vermont, which sent a cohort of 204 students.)

Also rallying for the climate change cause were local high school students, including Mount Abraham Union High School students Torin Olivetti, Hannah Miller, Alex Horn, Spencer Fitz-Gerald, Amelia Norris and Maren Granstrom.

“It was sort of like dropping 12,000 stones in the pond, and watching millions and millions of waves going out to affect climate change,” said Jack Byrne, the director of sustainability integration at Middlebury College.

The conference followed a year and a half after its predecessor, PowerShift 2007 — but drew more than twice as many people. All weekend long, participants were regaled by top-notch speakers in the environmental movement, and sat in on workshops — many attended by hundreds of would-be activists — about issues like carbon emissions trading and carbon offsets. (Middlebury resident Andy Rossmeissl, a graduate of Middlebury College, sat on a panel at one of the weekend’s conferences, and Isham helped lead the cap-and-trade discussion.)  

“The energy was just tangible,” said Middlebury College senior Corinne Almquist. 

Middlebury College sophomore Ben Wessel organized the expedition — and said PowerShift was right up his alley. A D.C. native, Wessel studies environment studies and politics at the college. 

Wessel said that, for him, the highlight of the weekend came on Monday, when students poured into the halls of Congressional office buildings to meet with legislators.

“We took all the knowledge that we gained during the conference … and applied it with a very personal interaction with elected officials,” Wessel said. The activists donned green hard hats, representing the jobs that investments in renewable energies could mean for the country.

Wessel tagged along with about 16 Alaskan students to meet with the senators from Alaska, who Wessel said were “incredibly gracious,” particularly Junior Senator Mark Begich, who replaced Ted Stevens.

“I don’t know if he really understood what he was agreeing to, but he told us he had no problems with some pretty progressive environmental policy,” Wessel laughed.

A NEW ATTITUDE

Wessel and other students who attended the conference a year and a half ago said D.C. this year was entirely different — largely because, instead of “bashing Bush,” as Wessel put it, PowerShifters this year focused on a positive message.

“This year was all about creating space for Obama and the new Congress to legislate in,” he said.

Activists urged politicians to stay true to their campaign promises, and pointed out that the flagging economy is no excuse for lax climate change policy.

“Now’s the perfect time to act, resuscitate the economy, and switch to a clean energy future,” Wessel said.

Students were inspired after the weekend conference, eager to bring what they’d learned at PowerShift back to campus.

But they weren’t the only ones excited about the work ahead. Himmel Isham said she started thinking immediately about what she could do in her own town to advance the fight against climate change. As a member of Cornwall’s planning commission, she’d like to see the town work with Efficiency Vermont to help more families improve their homes, and wants to see the town continue to pursue affordable housing options.

But the weekend’s high spirits, Isham said, were also tempered by a sense of sobriety among conference participants as well.

“It’s hard to take in. It was just absolutely stellar, being there as history was being made,” said Isham.

Activists were thrilled at the receptiveness of the new administration, he said, but the nature of climate science has grown “increasingly just so foreboding.”

But the message that came out of Washington following PowerShift was ultimately an inspiring one, following what McKibben said was likely the largest gathering of young people on a political topic in 40 years.

He pointed to the coal protest on Monday as a sign that change is possible.

“To get the news that after 103 years of it burning coal, Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid have promised to convert it to natural gas was a reminder that our transition to a new energy world isn’t impossible,” McKibben wrote. “But it won’t happen by itself — it will take the kind of commitment and political savvy that everyone showed this weekend.”

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