The conference aimed to bring together “a broad, diverse movement to tackle the root causes of climate and change a fundamentally unsustainable economic system based on corporate greed and perpetual growth.” Attendance was so high that the keynote speeches on Saturday night overflowed into three separate large university auditoriums and had to be simultaneously linked by video stream.
Power Shift billed itself as coming at a key moment in history where “the reality of climate change is one of the central challenges of our time, showing the problem of corporate power and the urgent need for alternatives.” Conference organizers said that “economic and climate crises we are facing have the same roots — the relentless drive to put short-term economic profits over the interests of our communities and the environment.”
The participant’s mood was upbeat and inspired by the major youth mobilizations of the past year with the Occupy movement, the Quebec student uprising, and also the powerful show of opposition to the expansion of tar sands pipelines and tankers along the west coast with the rally of 5,000 people at the BC provincial legislature last month.
“I think this is the first time I’ve been at an environmental conference that is actually talking about the system, not just the symptoms,” keynote speaker Naomi Klein told participants. “For a very long time the climate change movement has behaved as if it were the one issue that didn’t have an enemy, and we’re all in this together,” she said.
“You are coming of age in a society at war with your future” Klein said to loud cheers, pointing to reactionary governments, big corporations, war and especially the energy industry as the culprits.
Former co-spokesperson of the CLASSE, Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, was equally frank. "The problem is not consumption, it is our economy and production. Our system is broken on a systemic level. The destruction of our environment is a natural and inevitable result" he told the conference, blaming the capitalist system.
"We will not get a second chance. Without radical change we will be faced with extinction. Resistance in these times is not an option, it is a duty", Nadeau-Dubois said.
Several speakers came from Quebec to talk about the student strike as an example of the power of mass popular mobilization in the streets, and also the less-well known victory against Hydraulic Fracturing or Fracking used to extract shale gas.
The new Parti Québécois government of Pauline Marois has indicated serious concerns over the safety and environmental impact of hydraulic fracturing with the environment minister talking about a full and permanent ban. Currently, fracking is partially banned in Quebec pending on the results of two environmental studies. The energy company Talisman suspended all shale gas exploration in October.
A number of delegations, presenters and speakers also came from First Nations communities. “We have one thing that industry and government will never have, and that’s the truth” Crystal Lameman with the Alberta-based Indigenous Environmental Network told delegates on the Saturday night session.
“My children have the right and … the government has a fiduciary [Treaty] responsibility to give us clean drinking water. And it's not okay that … when I walk past [the boarder between municipalities], our drinking water is different than others” said Lameman, who is a member of the Beaver Lake Cree First Nation, about the impact of the Tar Sands on her community and environmental racism.
“It’s not okay that my 14-year-old niece have an asthma attack, that my son got a bleeding nose - that’s not okay. And that’s what we’re living every single day. It doesn’t matter if you’re indigenous or not - it’s not okay. This is what our future looks like, because they have desecrated a site the size of Switzerland - and they want to expand it ten times,” she said.
The Power Shift conferences were first organized in Australia, New Zealand, Britain and Canada after a US conference kicked-off the initiative around 2009. Future meetings are planned for India, Africa and Japan.
From the beginning, Power Shift has drawn a very broad range of voices speaking out against climate change. The US conferences have featured speakers like former US Vice-President Al Gore on the one hand, and journalist and activist Bill McKibben on the other hand.
McKibben (founder of the group 360.org which uses social media to coordinate climate change protests globally) also spoke at Power Shift 2012 in Ottawa. He called upon young people not to fear getting arrested in non-violent civil disobedience in order to halt plans like the Enbridge Northern Gateway or Keystone XL pipelines and spoke of his arrest last August outside the Whitehouse in Washington, along with about 70 other activists protesting Keystone XL.
Outside of the presentations from big-name speakers, an almost overwhelming series of workshops dealt with activist training lead by campus, community and labour activists. Many local student unions as well as the Canadian Federation of Students sent delegates and trainers. While the contribution of the labour movement to Power Shift was smaller, a number of young workers came from unions including the CAW and CEP.
Training sessions addressed anti-oppression and environmental justice, explained climate change issues, policy and science, and discussed questions like indigenous people’s perspectives and working together in local action. There was also discussion of direct action as well as lobbying, perhaps reflecting a certain lack of consensus around a common strategy and way forward beyond discussion.
Future preparations are now focusing on the international climate negotiations, continuing building links with social justice issues, and further campus and community training to draw more young people into the environmental movement.