Tar Sands Students: Fighting Environmental Destruction

I never imagined I would be needed in the Senate’s Foreign Relations hearing room, but then again I only recently joined Tar Sands Students. On Wednesday, July 25, twenty-two high school and college students rallied together in D.C. to fight tar sands oil production, thanks to the hard work and dedication of my friend Michael Greenberg, the founder of Tar Sands Students.

It was a big day for the coalition. We had a meeting scheduled with Melanie Nakagawa, Senator John Kerry's (D-Ma) top environmental adviser. Our goals for this meeting were to make a connection with Kerry, a potentially influential figure in the environmental area, and to encourage him to take a more public stand against tar sands oil production.

I stepped off the Metro and made my way towards the Senate. As I looked around I realized that it had been a while since I had been in this part of D.C. Across the street I saw a group of ten or so guys dressed in very expensive looking suits. I knew I was headed in the right direction as I passed them by.

Then I was greeted by Michael and other enthusiastic Tar Sands Students members. We circled up and reviewed how we wanted the meeting to play out: who would speak, what message we wanted to convey, and how we wanted to present ourselves. The way the group conducted itself really spoke to me. I realized that this was a group of teenagers who really cared about the environment, and were passionate about making a change.

At 3:50 PM we entered the senate offices building. We put our blackberries, blueberries, strawberries, and any other electronic devices we had through the x-ray scanners. Twenty-two students strong we marched towards room 444, the Foreign Relations Committee office. We waited outside until we were greeted by Melanie, with her blackberry in one hand and her notebook in the other. I was surprised by how friendly Melanie was and by the way she was dressed: a dress skirt with a summer blouse; not some expensive woman’s suit. We were ready to begin the meeting, but twenty three people would not have fit in Senator Kerry’s office. So we headed down the hall to the Senate’s Foreign Relations hearing room.

I do not know if I will sit in such a glamorous room again, at least for awhile. Immediately behind me were the very seats that important political figures would sit in as they conducted hearings. I could see the microphones into which the senators would speak. In front of me I could imagine the scientific experts, government officials, and business leaders sitting in the very chairs I was looking at, answering the questions that senators would ask them.

We began the meeting by introducing ourselves, saying where we went to school and how we heard about the tar sands. Melanie, Senator Kerry, and Tar Sands students were already on the same page. We were there to make an ally with a friend, not a foe.

We made clear our request to have Senator Kerry take a more public stand against tar sands oil production. Melanie could not promise this would happen, but gave us some useful advice from the perspective of an insider on how a group of students can effectively fight the Keystone pipeline and other climate-related issues. One useful tip – the best ways to get a congressman on your side is to get his or her phones ringing ‘off the hook.’ While e-mail and other forms of contact exist, a congressman would be more likely to think that your viewpoint is reflected by his other constituents if the phones are being bombarded.

Melanie also spelled out the current challenges facing environmental legislation, such as trade-offs. For instance, the senate could have potentially block the Keystone XL pipeline, but the liberal senators would have to make trade-offs, having to possibly negotiate away initiatives such as certain endangered species protections or EPA funding. Another challenge climate legislation faced: the generation gap. Most of the young generation acknowledged climate science as a legitimate science, but most older generations thought climate science was fake or a was a lie. Unfortunately most voters were in the older generation, and hence they would not have supported any climate bills. There was no public outcry against human induced climate change, hence legislation at the moment would have been impossible. Now I really started to understand politics.

One hour later the meeting was done. Members of Tar Sands Students left the room full of new ideas and hoping to have made made an impact. We learned about the current issues facing climate legislation, and about what we can do to move environmentally friendly legislation forward. We celebrated the successful turnout with pumpkin bread from an organic bakery. We discussed the future of the Tar Sands Students organization, now that Michael is headed off to college.

I learned about Tar Sands and climate change, about generation x and generation gaps, about politics and about news press. I not only learned a lot, but also felt rewarded for having participated in something so worthwhile. Tar Sands Students made a stand on something we believed in. We advocated on behalf of something that can not, by itself, speak to the American people. We tried to change the politics of climate science, and made it clear that we would keep trying no matter what. Michael, who made this meeting possible, taught me what it really means to work hard and advocate for something you truly believe in. I will forever remember this lesson as I head off to college, and am introduced to a whole new sphere of issues and ideas.

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