Climate Generation: The Evolution of The Energy Action Coalition’s Strategy

This Climate Generation series is well-timed. Like every other national group I know working on the transition to a clean energy economy, the Energy Action Coalition is going through a strategic planning / soul-searching process to figure out just what the &$*$ to do next. The outline of the broader movement’s situation is pretty well understood, but few really good ideas about how to solve it have surfaced. Despite some meaningful accomplishments in 2009 — mainly through the Recovery Act and executive actions — the big goals of passing strong federal legislation before Copenhagen and securing a binding international treaty have not been achieved.

The chasm between what’s needed and what is being discussed in Washington grows ever wider and the “pragmatists” inside and outside the beltway can barely hear each other anymore. Every week comes with more dire scientific predictions and, newly, worse polling numbers on public understanding of the impacts and support for action. Major Democratic losses predicted for the 2010 midterm elections confirm the widespread feeling that our golden opportunity for change is slipping away.

We’re still just not powerful enough as a movement to make the changes we so desperately need. As Jamie’s great post yesterday clearly laid out, we need to be thinking about strategies that go big. To complement Jamie’s history, I want to sketch out my understanding of how the Energy Action Coalition’s strategy has evolved over the past 6 years with the hope that a better understanding of our strategic history can inform the decisions we make moving forward.

Three quick notes before I do: 1) I believe the coalition’s collaborative planning processes — and culture of fun, diversity, aspirational thinking, solidarity and action — have been a large part of how we’ve developed smart strategy, but the focus here is on the results and what we actually did, not how we came to the decisions; 2) I’d also commend a look at Sara Robinson’s account of the progression of social change, which provides a broader context in which to situate these decisions; and 3) This is MY interpretation of events, biased as it surely is.

PHASE 1: Finding Ourselves (November 2003 — August 2005)

The story begins with Campus Clean Energy Day (11/13/03), the first distributed day of action of this fledgling movement with 65 schools participating nationwide. It was a zeitgeisty kind of thing — all across the country, filling the void of leadership from politicians and corporations, student groups were beginning to run campaigns to get their schools to purchase clean energy. Student networks like SEAC, EnviroCitizen, Greenpeace and the Climate Campaign built on this interest and planned a day to demonstrate the growing interest in student activism on climate solutions. Our second day of action, Fossil Fools Day on 4/1/04, had exactly twice as many events.

The relationships between the full-time organizers and national student leaders grew stronger and a founding meeting was planned for the first week of June in Washington. Leaders from the 17 organizations present at the meeting developed a founding mission statement: “To unite a diversity of organizations that will support and strengthen the student and youth clean energy movement in Canada and the U.S. Together we will leverage our collective power and create change for a clean, efficient, just and renewable energy future. We will accomplish this by focusing on four strategic areas: campuses, communities, corporate practices, and politics.”

Faced with the upcoming ’04 Presidential Elections, the coalition’s first campaign centered around a Declaration of Independence from Dirty Energy pledge and culminated with 280 youth-organized events on 10/19/04 for Energy Independence Day. We gathered nearly 30,000 pledge signatures, organized hundreds of events to educate young people on the failures of Bush’s energy and climate policies and weakly engaged in some voter registration and get-out-the-vote operations. We had basically no money, no way to reach out to our base with a clear message and campaign, there were only a handful of full-time paid organizers working on the issue, and we were still developing the structures and processes to make collective decisions.

After the shock and trauma of that election night faded, we reconvened in Washington in January with 80 leaders representing a much broader and more diverse cross-section of our movement to strategize together about what to do next. Inspired by the Georgian “Orange Revolution” going on as we met and seeking a way to build our power from the bottom-up, the idea was first thrown out to develop a unified campaign around campus sustainability, modeled in some ways on what the Sierra Youth Coalition had created in Canada. Over the next 8 months, in addition to several days of action and a waste-vegetable powered bus-tour gathering another 30,000 signatures urging the Big 3 auto-makers to build cleaner cars, the Campus Climate Challenge campaign was developed and initial fundraising had begun.

This period was generally characterized by reactive and opportunistic strategy development, a heavy focus on one-off days of action (see Josh Lynch’s EAC Day of Action history from 11/03 to 2/07 for more), and a resulting weak movement narrative. We were just beginning to find each other, just beginning to trust each other.

PHASE 2: Building Power (September 2005 — October 2007)

The Campus Climate Challenge was conceived of as a 3-year campaign to make our schools models of the sustainable future we wanted for our country. The idea was to support local campaigns that could win important victories; recruit, train and empower large numbers of youth organizers and consolidate our base into a single broad campaign that could be mapped on a website. It was the heart of the Bush years and we were building our base. Coalition partners had the flexibility to work with local groups to then leverage their campus campaigns and victories to stop dirty energy projects from being built, influence local and state policy or run corporate campaigns. Days of Action throughout this period built on strategic themes within the campaign and demonstrated a rapidly growing number of groups across the country working on these issues.

Key to developing a campaign that could work for our then 30 odd coalition partners was creating a joint fundraising and budgeting process that all partners could participate in. We soft-launched the campaign in September ’05 and continued to raise money, recruit campuses and create the materials throughout that year. By the summer of ’06, we had raised $3 million dollars and began hiring what soon became 75 FTE staff across coalition partner organizations and the central staff to run the campaign. Two indigenous organizations created the Tribal Campus Climate Challenge, another ran the campaign on Historically Black Colleges and Universities, another developed an endowment strategy, another organized schools into state networks to impact state policy, and on and on.

Nearly 1,000 youth groups around the country ran the campaign, large state and regional trainings provided concrete organizing skills, built state networks and allowed the youth leaders to share ideas and plan larger campaigns together. The victories started to come in — a 10% clean energy purchase here, a commitment to kyoto-level carbon reductions at another college there — but they were too few and too little. At a coalition strategy meeting during the summer of ’06 we developed an idea for a college president’s version of the Challenge, which a partner organization and two allied groups turned into the American College and University President’s Climate Commitment. The combination of bottom-up student organizing and top-down president leadership was a game-changer, and as of this writing, 666 colleges have committed to becoming climate neutral. Spooky number, but amazing results.

Young people were also increasingly frustrated with the lack of leadership from just about anywhere else and began to escalate tactics — a sit-in at the Penn State President’s office that was replicated elsewhere, actions targeting existing and proposed coal plants, a fast in front of the White House, and the Climate Summer marches in Vermont and New Hampshire. The Step It Up 2007 campaign, led by an amazing group of Middlebury students and author Bill McKibben, took the basic concept of a day of action to a new level. By focusing on a single political ask and going inter-generational, they were able to mobilize 1,400 events around the country — more than double the size of any previous Energy Action Coalition supported day of action.

This period in the coalition’s growth was the beginning of a sustained, coordinated strategy that leveraged the strengths of almost all our coalition partners. But “The Challenge” was at core a campus campaign, and didn’t reach the 2/3 of youth 18-24 that weren’t in school. It was also highly decentralized, making it hard to demonstrate our collective power — to our targets, and even ourselves.

PHASE 3: Pushing The National Debate (November 2007 — Present)

The first Power Shift in early November 2007 was our entrance onto the national stage. 6,000 young people in D.C. was at that point the largest climate advocacy gathering in the country’s history. We developed a national platform: 1) Create 5 Million New Green Jobs, 2) Cut Carbon 80% by 2050, and 3) A Moratorium on New Coal Plants and an End to Fossil Fuel Subsidies, and swamped Capitol Hill. All three goals, championed by the youth movement while most others thought they were impossibly radical, have become mainstream, and are in fact endorsed by our current President.

Power Shift ’07 was the beginning of the coalition’s focus on the ’08 elections with the Power Vote campaign. The most disciplined and coordinated coalition campaign yet generated huge results: 350,000 signatures on a Power Vote pledge, hundreds of events and media articles, and a strong presence at the Conventions and Presidential Debates. The coalition began to develop strong online organizing skills and became major power player in Washington D.C..

To call on the leaders we had helped elect to make good on their promises and demonstrate our continued resolve and power, the coalition recruited nearly 13,000 people to Washington for Power Shift ’09 in early March. The huge lobby day and largest-ever climate civil disobedience action — the Capitol Climate Action, organized by allied groups in partnership with the coalition — represented a new level for the movement as a whole and sent an important early signal to the new Administration and Congress.

After Power Shift, the coalition’s focus on federal policy has continued, with mini-Power Shifts in key Senate states, calling and letter-writing campaigns and creative local actions. The It’s Game Time Obama campaign, one of the only large-scale public efforts to call out the President’s lack of leadership on the issue, has succeeded on 2 of it’s 3 asks of him: 1) attending Copenhagen and 2) organizing a meeting between top youth leaders and 5 of his cabinet secretaries, but not 3) making an address to the nation specifically on climate and energy.

And so here we are. Another critical moment stands before us where the broader movement needs the vision and leadership of young people. What does the end of Phase 3 look like? Or Phase 4 or 5? Who will step up to lead us to a set of strategies that allow us to go big, to multiply our power, and win the victories our civilization needs to survive?

It’s Getting Hot in Here: Climate Generation is a month-long series reflecting on the state of the youth climate movement. As we pivot into 2010, the series will provide a forum for discussion on the history of the youth climate movement, recent victories and setbacks, potential for growth in capacity and influence, and how to orient the movement in the post-Copenhagen landscape. Please join youth leaders for posts on Monday, Tuesday and Thursday afternoons and early evenings.

7 Responses to “Climate Generation: The Evolution of The Energy Action Coalition’s Strategy”


  1. 1 jamiehenn Jan 13th, 2010 at 6:39 pm

    Thanks for the great history Billy, but you naturally left out an important piece: you. Like Morgan, who wrote a few days ago about meeting you for the first time, I remember that snowy February back in 2005 when we first hung out up in Vermont. You came up to speak to the class Jon Isham was leading on the climate movement. I remember walking you over to the room where we were about to have meeting and you politely asking if you could take a nap in the hallway for a few minutes because you’d “been traveling a bit lately.” I’d find out later that what you’d really been doing was sparking a bit of a revolution. Thanks for the leadership (and the b-ball and parties). Here’s to rocking out even more in the future.

  2. 2 Subsidy Eye Jan 14th, 2010 at 12:14 pm

    There is also an NGO that is working to eliminate fossil-fuel subsidies at the international level, in support of the G-20 Leaders’ commitment to do so. It’s called the Global Subsidies Initiative. Check it out at http://www.globalsubsidies.org

  3. 3 Meg Boyle Jan 14th, 2010 at 2:34 pm

    Twinkles (ditto) to Jamie’s comments. For introducing me to this work and this world, Billy, thanks just doesn’t cover it. And I think this type of institutional memory is super important and sometimes hard to come by in youth organizing, so thanks for mapping it out.

  4. 4 michael beer Jan 15th, 2010 at 1:31 pm

    Impressive summary. EAC has done such terrific work.

    Good luck in figuring it all out.

  5. 5 Kyle Jan 17th, 2010 at 12:36 am

    I remember organizing one of the original Campus Climate Challenge campaigns, but not really making the connection between what we were doing on campus and the broader movement or the Energy Action Coalition. It was probably two years after organizing and our campaign and graduating before I thought…”oh, THAT was EAC!” Exactly that decentralizing problem Billy talks about.

    It’s exciting to see how our identity and coordination as a youth climate movement has grown since then, though we still have a lot to do. Just as Billy talked about reaching youth who are not on traditional college campuses, we also haven’t made a movement big enough for many groups of college students and other youth to feel comfortable being a part of our movement or feel like they have a say in what we do. Yet.

  6. 6 Caroline Howe Jan 19th, 2010 at 1:24 am

    Twinkles to Jamie, too. I’ve said it too many times, but I wouldn’t possibly be where I am today without you, Billy. I remember with so much love and gratitude the first time I met you, sitting on the floor after the girl across the hall said there was actually a group on campus that was making positive change and not just talk – a group getting stuff done. Plus, she said, I could meet a man who could pull off a jumpsuit and cowboy boots, and I was totally sold. A few hours later, I was in the thick of getting students mobilized on campus, taking petitions to Connecticut legislature, dancing in Connecticut suits on Fossil Fools’ Day, headed to Montreal. Change is addictive, and you helped so many people make it. You empowered so many of us around the nation, and inspired so many around the world. I’m grateful to be a part of this movement with you.

    Even then, though, I didn’t realize just how big the movement was, just how many people were involved all across the country. I’m so grateful to the powers of social media, and the people of EAC, 350.org, and the Step It Up campaigns for knowing how to use those tools and for showing such how big and beautiful we were and are.

    Simultaneously, EAC has inspired a global revolution, with dozens of countries (and hundreds more to come in the next few years) creating their own national coalitions to build their movements. I am very much looking forward to seeing where EAC goes and how the global movement builds along with it.

  1. 1 How Will We Define This Decade « It’s Getting Hot In Here Trackback on Jan 19th, 2010 at 3:27 pm
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About Billy


Billy Parish is co-founder and president of Mosaic, a solar investment platform. He's also co-author of Making Good: Finding Meaning, Money & Community in a Changing World. In 2002, he dropped out of Yale to found the Energy Action Coalition and grew it into the largest youth advocacy organization in the world working on the climate crisis. A serial social entrepreneur, Parish has helped launch dozens of clean energy, youth, and green jobs related companies and organizations. He has been honored as a Rolling Stone magazine “Climate Hero,” one of Utne Reader's "50 Visionaries Who Are Changing Your World," and was elected as a Fellow by Ashoka, the global association of the world's leading social entrepreneurs. He lives in Oakland, California, with his wife and two daughters. @BillyParish

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