Billy Parish is empowering and training the next generation to transform communities into models of sustainability.
The New Idea
Billy believes that the youth climate change movement will take off when students at universities across the country are equipped with the proper tools and resources to work on a common agenda. He recognized that while far more students were interested in addressing the climate crisis through their schools than through politics, most campus-based environmental groups were working in a disconnected way toward the same goals. Billy’s idea unites these disparate student groups into a single, coordinated effort that helps youth on each campus make their college a climate neutral model of sustainability. He organized a summit of seventeen organizations across the U.S. and Canada to form the Energy Action Coalition (EAC), a group that is leveraging the collective power of diverse partners to achieve a clean, efficient, just, and renewable energy future.
Billy believes that young people can and must make building a green economy the unifying, defining issue of their generation. His goal is for EAC to engage people in practical, effective solutions to environmental challenges. In the process, the coalition will create a new generation of private, public, and citizen sector leaders. This student movement brings new vitality to the work of pioneering environmentalists via a hopeful, solutions-oriented and achievable agenda. Billy saw that academic institutions could be a powerful intellectual and economic force. If institutions of higher education achieve climate neutrality, their collective impact will dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Beyond that, their leadership will influence students, faculty, vendors, employees, corporations, and communities to adopt environmentally friendly practices. To move from climate harmful to climate neutral, for example, colleges will have to examine and consider changing almost every aspect of institutional operations. Billy believes this change will only occur if clean energy advocates speak in one voice, increase and sustain public pressure, achieve a supportive public policy framework, and offer practical solutions.
In February 2007 the International Panel on Climate Change released its Fourth Assessment Report, describing expected impacts of global warming: Huge disruption to agriculture, floods, droughts, heat waves, desertification, violent storms, and melting glaciers. Sea levels will rise, coastal flooding will increase, and oceans will become so acidic that some reefs will dissolve. These changes will create hundreds of millions of “climate refugees” and bring water scarcity to billions of people by the century’s end. Hundreds of millions of people will experience food scarcity. To avoid this scenario, by 2050 global greenhouse gas emissions must be reduced 50 to 80 percent. They must peak and start declining within ten years. The U.S. is the leading emitter of greenhouse gases, contributing more than 25 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions with only 4 percent of the global population. Rather than taking the lead in finding global solutions, the U.S. has stalled international efforts to address the problem. Current U.S. policies increase emissions and reliance on fossil fuels. Across the border, Canada is also one of the top emitters of greenhouse gases.
The American higher education sector is a $317 billion per year industry that employs millions of people, maintains thousands of buildings and owns millions of acres of land. It spends billions of dollars on fuel, energy, and infrastructure. College and university campuses are responsible for 4 percent of America’s greenhouse gas emissions, yet when Billy began his work, only a few of the 4,400 campuses had a comprehensive plan and timetable to reduce greenhouse emissions substantially and achieve energy independence. Just four years later, 585 colleges have committed to becoming climate neutral, a pace of success far beyond Billy’s wildest dreams.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon recently observed that the world’s poorest people “Will suffer the most, even though they are the least responsible for global warming.” Similarly, young people and future generations will suffer from a problem they did not create. Global warming advocacy in the U.S. and Canada has been led by conservation and science-oriented organizations, whose members are largely upper-middle class Caucasians. These groups have not effectively used a moral framework to define the problem, and have not offered a positive vision that connects to people’s values. The most affected constituencies have not been engaged in solving the problem. Most Americans don’t know how they could reverse the current climate trends or what reforms policymakers and institutions should adopt to turn the situation around. Most environmentalists have been tuned out as radical protesters or prophets of doom. No cohesive, future-oriented grassroots movement has emerged.
Billy Parish founded the Energy Action Coalition in June 2004 to increase the effectiveness of hundreds of student environmental initiatives by providing a unified structure to share ideas, best practices, and resources. The Energy Action Coalition works in four strategic areas: Campuses, communities, corporate practices, and politics. Its first coordinated initiative, The Campus Climate Challenge, aims to make campuses energy independent and dramatically reduce their impact on global warming. EAC members chose to work first on changing the practices of the institutions they know best, and where they have the most influence. Since universities are centers of innovation as well as economic drivers and major employers in their communities, they can set the pace for change by implementing alternative energy, energy efficiency, and sustainability projects to demonstrate their feasibility and impact.
Billy astutely matched the program to the population and the problem. Energy Action Coalition’s structure is well suited to a youth-led movement. It is governed by consensus, with a steering committee and both permanent and ad hoc working groups. Each prospective partner must meet defined criteria to join, but maintains its own identity and affiliations. They come together to gain more clout and move their shared agenda forward. In 2007, for example, sixteen coalition partners worked together in a joint fundraising effort, raising $2.1 million to run The Campus Climate Challenge. This allowed the EAC to hire five central staff and over 70 full-time-equivalent staff to help student groups advance different parts of the agenda. The budget nearly doubled the following year. Resources are raised and budgeted collectively, but central staff manage the fundraising, budgeting, application, and allocation processes. The coordinating staff, led by Billy, includes a digital organizer (blogging, web design and technology), an operations manager and a partnerships and alliances director who works on expanding EAC’s network, particularly by engaging environmental justice and historically underserved groups.
As of 2008, student groups at 622 schools had signed up to take part in the Campus Climate Challenge. By 2010, EAC plans to recruit and train 10,000 youth leaders from diverse backgrounds to lead The Campus Climate Challenge. EAC will broaden its membership through outreach to environmental justice and faith-based organizations, and to youth who are not students. It hosts national conferences, including a national job fair to help youth find jobs that align with their environmental values. EAC aims to create life-long leaders committed to advancing climate goals and energy justice. It will build the capacity and understanding of student groups to promote sustainable living and be effective agents of change on their campuses. Billy is working with Ashoka Fellow Van Jones and others to create a “green jobs” program similar to the Civilian Conservation Corps or AmeriCorps. To gain top-level support for this challenge, Billy and his colleagues came up with the idea of having university leaders sign a pledge that gives them some ownership over the student-led effort. As of the end 2008, over 585 leaders of academia had signed the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment, which includes developing an institutional action plan for becoming climate neutral, short and long-term goals to reduce greenhouse gases, advancing shareholder climate and sustainability proposals to companies in which their endowment is invested, and a publicly accessible tracking mechanism. A large majority of these colleges have hired sustainability managers. Students issue annual report cards on progress at their campus. With Brian Siu of the Apollo Alliance, Billy co-authored New Energy for Campuses: Energy Saving Technologies for Colleges and Universities. By 2010 the Campus Climate Challenge aims to engage and educate 1,000,000 students, involve 1,000 campuses, and help students secure 1,000 signatories to the Presidents’ Climate Commitment. EAC also aims to pass comprehensive policies for climate neutrality, education, research, and community relations on 250 campuses. Billy expects that one way universities will promote clean energy is by buying high quality local carbon offsets and investing the funds in projects such as weatherizing homes in low-income neighborhoods. These investments would save energy, benefit the local community, and improve “town and gown” relationships. Energy Action Coalition’s public policy agenda calls for joining with other organizations (both domestically and abroad) to influence elections, an “adopt a rep” program in which students adopt and work closely with members of Congress to lobby for the passing of many climate-friendly policies, etc. In 2008, EAC ran an aggressive campaign called “Power Vote” to build a voting bloc of 1 million youth for the Presidential election.
Billy and his sister grew up in New York City, where their parents practiced law. He started out at a Montessori school, then went to a small private boys’ school from first grade through high school. He was “a golden child”—teachers loved him. He was a leader and moral compass in school, sports, and social groups. With a strong social conscience, he always stuck up for the underdog. His best friend Jawn was the only black student in his first grade class. The school kept the boys together year after year, because Billy always protected Jawn.
In eleventh grade, Billy spent a semester at The Mountain School in rural Vermont, where he lived and worked on an organic farm. The school had a strong environmental ethic and a social contract of mutual trust between students and adults. While there, Billy read Daniel Quinn’s Ishmael, which cracked open his thinking about what his purpose was, at a moment in history where human civilization was using resources at an unsustainable rate. He pursued environmental studies at Yale, with a focus on globalization and economic injustice. Before his junior year, he spent a summer in India studying community forestry. His life changed when he hiked thirty-five miles to a glacier top in the Himalayas—the source of the Ganges River on which 400 million people rely—and saw it was rapidly melting. That summer India had floods, droughts, and record heat waves. Billy decided to leave Yale to build a youth-led climate movement in the U.S. He convened a Northeast climate summit that drew seventy participants and caused great excitement. There were some student networks in New England then, but they weren’t collaborating. He founded The Climate Campaign to bring existing student networks together. Four hundred students from 100 schools attended the first conference. In 2004 Billy founded Energy Action Coalition, which is fiscally sponsored by the Earth Island Institute, an environmental projects incubator.
Billy is married to Wahleah Johns, co-director of the Black Mesa Water Coalition, a Navajo and Hopi organization working on indigenous rights, youth empowerment, and water and global warming. They have a daughter and live in Flagstaff, AZ on the Navajo Reservation. Billy travels across the U.S. and Canada, mostly by train or on a school bus retrofitted to run on waste vegetable oil. To “bring more music into the movement” Billy partners with popular rock bands (e.g. Guster), on campus consciousness tours. He helped start Green Owl Records, which teamed up with Warner Bros. to issue a benefit CD series for EAC. He also partnered with MTV, which promotes the Challenge as its primary pro-social campaign.
Billy says the science is conclusive, we have the technologies and know the policies we need—it’s time to do the work of transforming communities into models of sustainability, empowering and training the next generation to effectively address the problem, and build a movement for change. He fills notebook after notebook with ideas. For example, he is exploring the feasibility of a for-profit wind development energy company in North Dakota which could supply 1/3 of the electricity needs of the U.S. and support a clean energy training center for youth based on the Highlander Center. When asked how he stays focused with so many ideas bubbling up, he smiled and said, “That’s what notebooks are for.” Bill McKibben, author and environmentalist, called Billy “One of the most powerful individuals I’ve ever come across.” Young people who care about the future of our planet appear to agree.