Capitol Hill staffers knew them last week as “the kids in the green hard hats.” Activist Van Jones called them “the generation we’ve all been waiting for.” Rep. Ed Markey (D-MA) said they were “the largest student conference ever focused on climate and energy.”

They were, in fact, the 12,000 student activists who traveled across the country to Washington, D.C. to attend Power Shift 2009. The conference included four days of speeches, trainings and rallies for students to promote clean energy and fight for climate change legislation.

“We wanted to give [the students] a sense of power and to help them realize we’re not just 12,000 individuals, but that we have a combined power to influence the agenda,” said Josh Tulkin, the national field director for the Energy Action Coalition, a collaborative of more than 50 partners that organized, planned and recruited for Power Shift 2009.

Tulkin said the group wanted to influence Congress and the White House in four areas -- cutting carbon emissions, investing in green jobs, transitioning the United States to clean energy and making the U.S. a world leader on global climate change.

Kari Fulton helped organize Power Shift 2007, and said the second installment of Power Shift was scheduled for 2009 to influence Washington in the first 100 days of the new administration.  “In 2008, we wanted to elect leaders who make the environment a priority and we did that,” said Fulton.  “Now that they’ve been elected, we want to hold them accountable.  We want them to know we’re not just going to go away.” (Full disclosure: Kari Fulton is a member of MNN’s advisory board.)

The Obama administration and the new Congress seem ready to listen.

More than 350 congressional offices met with Power Shift students during their bi-partisan lobbying day on Capitol Hill, while Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson gave keynote addresses to the group, with Jackson declaring, “The Obama EPA is here.”

The four-day schedule also featured concerts, a snowy rally on the Mall against global warming, an impromptu and raucous march to the White House, and seminars for attendees on the finer points of activism in the 21st century, namely organizing, fundraising, media outreach and lobbying.

Andrew Nazdin, a junior at the University of Maryland at College Park, helped recruit 600 students from Maryland to attend Power Shift and led a group of about 80 to meet with House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer. In their meeting, Nazdin said the congressman warned of political realities that could slow progress on energy and climate change legislation, but offered his support for the Power Shift goals, and even donned one of the student’s green hard hats at one point. The hard hats were meant to be a symbol of Power Shift’s goal of promoting green jobs, and garnered plenty of attention and a few thumbs up from staffers passing them in the halls.

Overall, Nazdin said the group’s recognition and reception on Capitol Hill inspired him and his fellow students. “It was like we had put in all this work and it was the first time we were about to reap the rewards of the power we built,” he said.

Will there be another Power Shift? Josh Tulkin said the Energy Action Coalition and its partners want to see what is needed legislatively in the future and go from there. In the meantime they’ll continue working with the students who came to Washington to help them stay active and influential in their local communities. They’ll also press their agenda in Washington leading up to the U.N. Conference on Climate Change in Copenhagen.

When asked about the irony of six inches of snow falling on Power Shift’s 3,000-strong rally, Tulkin said if the priority had been avoiding cold weather, they would not have scheduled Power Shift to be in Washington in February.  “But we’re like the post office -- rain, hail, sleet or snow -- we’re on a mission and nothing will stop us.”

Speaking truth to power
Washington welcomes thousands of eco-minded student activists to Power Shift 2009.