Student-Run Northeast Climate Conference Brings Hundreds to UVM

In case you missed it, the third annual Northeast Climate Conference at UVM on February 18-20 was a huge success-just as energetic, fun, and inspiring as the first two at Yale and Harvard. The student-organized conference drew 300 activist students, including a busload of students from McGill and Concordia universities in Montreal, 45 students from UVM, 30 from Middlebury, and groups from two dozen schools in the northeast US. On Friday night the students were joined by 100 community members at the kickoff at Ira Allen Chapel with Governor Jim Douglas, former Phish drummer Jon Fishman, and an impressive list of speakers and films on climate change. Even after late-night music with UVM student band Bubblin’ Upstream and lots of social activities, these die-hard students were back at Cook Commons early Saturday morning, fueled by fair-trade coffee, and eager to hear Burlington Mayor Peter Clavelle’s welcome. Saturday and Sunday were packed with presentations, workshops, regional meetings, displays, networking, laughing and socializing, and very little sleep. The program was diverse and, by all accounts, excellent. The conference organizers, anticipating that learning about climate change can be sobering and even overwhelming, kept things upbeat with music and comedy, including a showing of a trailer for Melting Planet: A Toxic Comedy.

Perhaps the most moving event was a talk with short films by Elaine Alexie, a 25-year-old filmmaker and member of the Tetlit Gwichin First Nation from Fort McPherson, Northwest Territory, Canada. Elaine described the dramatic warming arctic region is already experiencing the disruption of the natural systems upon which her people have depended for thousands of years, and the resulting loss of her culture.

Tears flowed freely in the audience upon seeing the images of her land and people and hearing her journey starting as an indigenous child living in a subsistence culture on the tundra, going away to school, and now having to leave her people to tell the world to about global climate change and the suffering of those in the arctic. Between keynote speakers in the morning and evening, there were 32 workshops on topics ranging from renewable energy, environmental justice, organizing tools, sustainable living strategies, and special projects (see for the full agenda). The only complaint was that the workshops were all excellent and it was difficult to choose among them.

By Sunday afternoon, there were still more than 100 tired, determined, students assembled in Ira Allen for the last event, an inspiring and intimate talk by author Bill McKibben. Energized once again, they affirmed their group commitment to direct action in Detroit in late summer, and set off to work on their home campuses. Unlike professional conferences, where nametags are glossy and expenses high, the student-run conference relies on volunteers working feverishly behind the scenes, making the whole event function smoothly and keeping costs to a minimum so the conference can be free. The conference is organized by the Climate Campaign, a collaborative effort of Northeastern student environmental networks to help schools and states lead the way in the fight against global warming. Key organizers are all under 25. Meg Boyle of the Climate Campaign is from Bowdoin College in Maine.

Billy Parish, this year’s winner of the Sierra Youth Award and former director of the Climate Campaign, is taking time off from Yale to coordinate of Energy Action, a youth-led North American coalition of 17 student networks and progressive organizations committed to creating change for a clean, efficient, just and renewable energy future. Liz Cunningham, recently graduated from Green Mountain College and now with the Vermont Campus Energy Group, excelled as the local coordinator. At UVM, Jessica DeBiasio, VSTEP president, assumed the huge responsibility of soliciting and keeping track of volunteers. The most daunting task was linking 75 housing hosts with hundreds of visitors, who brought sleeping bags and pads. Student volunteers also got donations of fair trade coffee, ran the registration process, put up signs, managed the media services, and handled last-minute challenges with good humor and resourcefulness. This was the first time in recent memory that a student-run conference happened at UVM. Thanks to all the UVM students for their hard work, and to the administration for allowing it to happen!