(Published in the Vancouver Observer, Oct 9th 2013)

Power Shift is a global movement that offers training and resource sharing among youth climate justice activists. The latest conference, Power Shift BC, took place in Victoria over the October 4-7 weekend.

To get a sense of just how different the Power Shift approach is, picture the scene that took place at Victoria’s MacPherson Playhouse on Saturday night.

In the midst of a panel discussion of First Nations youth leaders, a trio of university freshmen stroll onto the stage. Each holds up a placard with numbers.

“This is Gregor Robertson’s phone number,” says conference organizer Cameron Fenton. “We’re trying to get Vancouver to divest itself of its fossil fuel investments. Let’s call him up right now and tell him to do it, ok?”

The phone, held up to a microphone, rings, and we hear Robertson’s voicemail message. “Hi Gregor!” says fellow organizer Anjali Attadurai.

“I just have a couple of people who have a message for you.” She holds the phone out to the audience, and around 600 people shout in unison:

Divest now!

The room erupts into applause and cheers.

This, I think, is what empowerment sounds like.

The phone call is more than a stunt. As part of the campaign to help the City of Vancouver divest its pension funds from fossil fuel holdings, the call is a simple demonstration of how easy public participation is, and a powerful moment of solidarity for the nascent environmental activists in the crowd.

Reaching out horizontally, not vertically

For the rest of the Power Shift weekend, little clusters of people can be overheard passing their iPhones around, leaving messages for the mayor. Welcome to the world of Green 2.0.

Organizer Cameron Fenton muses that “within social movements historically young people have always been at the leading edge of change.” He views Power Shift as an evolution of the unscripted opposition of the Occupy movement, consciously employing sophisticated strategies that reach back to the civil rights era.

“I am personally very inspired by stories like the one about the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee,” says Fenton.

“During the civil rights movement, they were the force that consistently would break deadlocks by doing things that the rest of the movement thought was brash, often irresponsible—that was bold and forward driving.”

Power Shift is at the forefront of a sea change in the environmental movement. The shift emerges out of frustration at the lack of climate progress made by many large environmental organizations.

“David Suzuki said it in his keynote on Friday night: the environmental movement has failed,” said Mike Soros, a presenter from SFU. “It’s not to discount the hard work NGOs have put in, but many of them have not delivered. “

Rather than beg support for a branded, top-down mandate, as many “Big Green” groups still do, Power Shift offers a toolbox to help committed young leaders to make change themselves. Breezing past the denialists who constrain the mainstream climate conversation, Power Shift teaches refined communication and advocacy skills that have been lifted from successful campaigns around the world: workshops have titles like “Creative Crowd Funding”, “Brand Jamming and Corporate Slamming”, and “Bird-dogging for the Win”.

“Young people, historically, have been seen as fodder, volunteers, canvassers, to show up and do the legwork on campaigns devised by those higher up in the organizational hierarchy, ” explains Fenton.

“In Power Shift, youth are recognizing that our power is about reaching horizontally, not building up vertically.”

Many young activists extend the anti-corporate “No Logo” ethos of Naomi Klein to form a basis to unsubscribe from branded organizations. They may be wary of aligning themselves with less-than-participatory models which they find to constrain their voices or, simply, slow them down.

The strategies being shared at Power Shift are varied, but essentially involve looking for where the power lies within the fossil fuel industry, and finding the chinks in the armour. Then activists—not NGO executives—design smart, media-savvy campaigns, spread them through online and real-world networks, and watch shift happen.

Where the rubber hits the Road: divestment 101

The “if it works, use it” ethos of the net generation is allowing progressive ideas and strategies that bear fruit to go viral overnight. Fenton cites the divestment movement as an example. Using frameworks established in the 1980’s, when universities were leaders in boycotting the apartheid regime in South Africa, over 300 college campuses in North America have launched campaigns calling for institutions to divest themselves of fossil fuel investments. Just as the civil rights movement offered America a way to restore its moral dignity, Power Shift’s divestment approach is showing a path for Canada to move away from fossil fuels.

Coming on the heels of the disastrous COP-17 in Durban, when Canada became an international climate pariah by pulling out of the Kyoto accord, divestment, says Fenton, “tapped into that need the climate justice movement had to see a pathway to victory.” Led by Bill McKibben’s organization 350.org in the U.S, the campaign has scored commitments from six colleges and universities, 18 cities, and 13 faith-based insitutions. This shi(f)t is real.

“Divestment is a very hard ask, it’s not something we go to lightly,” he adds.

“Yet when the movement began (in 2012), it was so important to give people something they thought they could win. In a place like Canada, with the tar sands, the win is so far off. It requires us to change government, the economy, our entire way of doing business as a country… in many ways these fundamental changes once seemed impossible.”

The route from impossible to possible, laid out at Power Shift in a seminar called “Campus Divestment 101”, goes like this:

• map out how power works within the university and seek engagement;

• mutually establish that tackling climate change is a shared goal;

• recognize the particular social responsibility of universities, as thought leaders, to withdraw support for industries which imperil the public;

• divest from making new investments in fossil fuels immediately and scale back current investments in a managed retreat.

“Once we have over 300 universities all together saying—’not only are fossil fuels not a viable part of the future, but we are putting our money where our mouth is’—it shifts the entire conversation about the legitimacy of the industry,” says Lily Schwarzbaum, a divestment campaign coordinator.

“It’s not a cute thing students do… It’s our future. It’s students standing up for, literally, the planet. If the university, the institution that is building the future, isn’t’ going to stand up, who will?

Power Shift trainers like Schwartzbaum articulate an argument based not only on ethics, but on market logic. In Canada, fossil fuel companies hold $11 trillion in carbon liabilities, according to Mark Lee of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.

Presenting at Power Shift, Lee mapped out the enormous risk investors are exposed to by holding stock in volatile, carbon intensive markets. Given the global consensus that warming must be contained below 2 degrees celsius, Lee calculates that 80 per cent of the fossil fuel reserves which give energy companies in Canada their long term market value must remain in the ground.

“Of all the actions people can take to bring about structural change, (divestment) is probably the easiest,” said Bill McKibben in a recent interview.

“Severing our ties with the guys digging up the carbon won’t bankrupt them–but it will start to politically bankrupt them.”

The power of boycott is not simply preventative: it can be generative as well. According to a recent study from the University of Oxford, while today there may be few non-fossil fuel investment opportunities even within the realm of ethical investment, as more and more institutions divest themselves of carbon intensive assets, the movement will create a huge demand for alternative investments. This can spawn opportunities for renewable technology enterprises to access capital.

“We’re not going to bankrupt Exxon; a few billion dollars going into the renewable energy industry, on the other hand, can be great. It has the potential to democratize the biggest source of wealth generation on the planet,” says Fenton.

There are currently 13 active divestment campaigns at Canadian universities, along with campaigns in municipalities across the country. The next move involves a tour by experienced activists to Ontario and Quebec, to provide training and resources to the snowballing campus divestment movement.

In coordinating those efforts, Lily Schwarzbaum observes that each campaign, while informed by the Power Shift movement as a whole, has a particular local flavour.

Schwazbaum said, “You see awesome initiative come from students, beautiful creativity and humour and motivation. That’s also representative of our generations’ activism, in the context of how tired we are of asking for permission.”

“A specific objective within Power Shift has been for formal organizations to take a backseat to grassroots activism,” she added. “The national organizing role is more about providing resources to allow for independent campaigns to come up organically. You find great leadership coming out of this approach.”

“With divestment, there’s a viral element to it that I don’t think anyone predicted,” says Fenton.

“That’s what we hear from students: they’re worried about climate change and they think we can win this. They’ve not felt we can win, before.”

Within the crisis trajectory of climate change come not only warnings but opportunities. ‘Common-good’ ideas like divestment run completely counter to the empire model of globalized capitalism and represent the contribution Power Shift is making to shaping politics in the era of climate change.

Divest SFU’s Mike Soron added:

“I think you can have more impact through co-operation…You don’t need a board of directors to approve it, you don’t need to follow all of these policies and procedures: if it’s worth doing, just get out and do it.”