by Sarah Hodgdon, Sierra Club
© Javier Sierra / Sierra Student Coalition members met with EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson at Howard University in October 2011.
"We ask with great urgency that the University of Kentucky be a leader and move away from the combustion of coal on campus."
Those are the words of Elaine Alvey (watch her in this Lexington TV news clip), a University of Kentucky student, to the school’s board of trustees this week. She is one of many UK students taking a stand against burning coal on campus, and one of thousands of college students nationwide leading the charge against the dirty coal industry and for a clean energy future.
Every generation of college students has had the cause that rocked their college campuses: In the 60s and 70s it was Vietnam, in the 80s the fight to end apartheid and today young people are mobilizing for a clean energy revolution with savvy campaigns to move their campuses off coal and fossil fuels to cut pollution, protect public health and avert climate disruption.
It is critical now to highlight the work of these amazing young people as news has spread recently of a questionable study claiming that young Americans aren't engaged with their communities and care less about the environment than their parents. Nothing could be farther from the truth when it comes to the hard-working young people of the Sierra Student Coalition.
These students are running sophisticated operations and using 21st century tools and creative ideas, from giant art installations on campus to flash mobs to university sports sponsorships - and they are just as likely to be found donning suits to meet with campus presidents or the head of the EPA in Washington, D.C. as they are to be collecting petitions between classes.
And they're winning. More than 60 college campuses in the US have a coal burning power plant on their campus. Outraged students who are sick of the stranglehold that Big Oil and King Coal have on our energy system and our politics are speaking out to move their campuses towards clean energy - and so far have won commitments to retire nearly one-third of those aging campus coal plants.
Elaine and the work of the UK Beyond Coal student coalition made news this week, and that’s just one of many news-making activities on the environment that we're seeing from young Americans.
Another example: Iowa State University students have been working tirelessly for the past five years to retire the second largest campus power plant in the country and get it replaced with clean energy. Last month dozens of students, faculty, staff, and community members descended on the front steps of their new university president’s office building to welcome him with a human billboard asking him to move the campus beyond coal.
© Sierra Club / University of Virginia Beyond Coal students before a university board meeting on campus energy issues.
Other inspiring campaigns include students at UNC and the University of Illinois pushing for their schools to go beyond just retiring their campus coal plants, but to divest university endowment funds from the dirtiest coal companies.
From Missouri State to Michigan State and beyond (look how busy young Americans were at this year's United Nations climate meetings in South Africa), these young Americans are getting it done. Their successes are making universities top leaders in clean energy nationally and are developing a new generation of clean energy entrepreneurs, engineers and innovators.
This work by young Americans is also getting noticed: leaders are listening. In just one example, this past October Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson met with 30 young college leaders to talk clean energy and other public health and environmental issues, and later that day the same students were invited to a meeting with top White House staffers.
These innovative and very active young Americans are not just changing the way universities operate, but proving that young people are some of the most passionate drivers building the 21st century clean energy economy.