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Powershifted

Bruno Leipold
14 October 2009

Power Shift ended a successful weekend with a bang, with two hundred young people descending on the London Eye and Parliament Square for a flashmob highlighting the urgent action needed to combat climate change.

Coverage of the event was good, with the Guardian, Channel 4 and the Evening Standard all giving it a story. Although reporting that "[t]he lovely thing about teenagers and 20-year-olds is that they don't really see why it can't just all be sorted out" is pretty lame, when the various youth delegations attending the UN conferences are part of a global campaign formally recognised and fully integrated into the climate negotiations and process.

The flashmob, originally planned to be performed solely in front of the London Eye, was given an impromptu second act, after Greenpeace supporters occupied the Parliament roof, and the entire Power Shift group taking the opportunity to show their support. The fortunate coincidence provided a good contrast of the diversification of protest. The flashmob, although not new is still a product of social networking, and is tailor-made to go viral on YouTube. It is also a far more community based and inclusive way to get a message out. Although given the extensive media coverage of the Greenpeace action, climate change activists will not be dropping direct action from their toolbox any time soon.

It also provided the opportunity to reflect on the ability of the UK political system to deal with an issue as complex as climate change. Power Shift participants enthusiastically took up the Greenpeace protesters slogan "CHANGE THE POLITICS SAVE THE CLIMATE". Indeed it remains to be seen whether a system geared towards short-term results to win elections, is even capable of acting on an issue that will primarily affect people not even old enough to vote. The political parties and their associated ideologies have had enough trouble dealing with social justice, without having to suddenly consider inter-generational justice as well. Of course this issue is not exclusive to the UK Parliament, and the legally binding carbon-reduction targets in the Climate Change Act are an encouraging start. But the battles of Kingsnorth and Heathrow, suggest that without continued civil society pressure the government is likely to default to its old carbon habits.

The most inspiring parts of Power Shift were however the actual participants. In a homage to the Obama campaign, participants were encouraged to tell their "Story of Self", a short biography explaining why they had become involved in the environmental movement. One particularly moving participant account described how as a teenager growing up in council estate he had been what the Tories lazily decry as a "feral youth", fighting, drinking and committing crime. But drawn to helping some of the people he had previously hurt, he then moved into environmental activism and is now a UKYCC youth delegate to Copenhagen. His story defies simple stereotypes, and serves as a reminder that environmentalism is not the preserve of the white middle-class.

Several workshops and talks during the weekend, focused on the need to re-brand the climate change movement. Solitaire Townsend of Futerra, a sustainable communications agency, argued that selling climate change is effectively like selling hell: a picture of complete destruction and the end of easy consumerism. Instead we should be selling heaven: a vision of a renewable society with clean air, no waste, and critically a future. In effect, what we are for rather than just what we are against. Cynics might be inclined to argue that the youth movement has merely copied the spin tactics of the political class, and hence is really no different to any other political movement.

I disagree. In a new era of media if you do not tell your story then someone else will - and not necessarily in the way that you want, as Power Shift participants learned from Obama campaign organiser Marshall Ganz. The climate change movement really has let its story be told by its opponents. Too often climate change adaptation is presented as a hassle or even worse as a threat to our way of life, with environmentalists rather than those trying to preserve antiquated energy sources cast as the modern Luddites. This is never going to convince people, and presenting the upsides of adaptation is not only accurate - it is critical to gaining the broad-based support needed for radical change.

There is a fine balance to be struck here. In America there has been a campaign to completely rebrand the climate change fight as a national security challenge, involving reducing their dependence on foreign oil. This has not brought about the necessary political support for a climate change bill, and has only compromised the integrity of the environmentalist argument.

One thing the Power Shift weekend made very clear to me was that youth is certainly not powerless on climate change. We saw how UKYCC delegates were able to get the chair of a long-term strategy committee in the UN climate negotiations to pull a bright blue t-shirt bearing the words "How old will you be in 2050?" over his suit and tie in the middle of a session, inspiring him to diverge from the minutiae of semi-colons and square brackets to a personal reflection on what climate change will mean to his children and grand-children. Or as Casper ter Kuilie, co-director of UKYCC, explained, if you ever find yourself in a meeting with an MP tell them you have started a Facebook group about them, "they have no idea, it'll scare the s*** out of them!"

Next stop Copenhagen.

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