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In '60s style, college students are mobilizing to work for climate change

AMHERST, N.H. — In recent American history, college students marched through the Deep South during Freedom Summer or barnstormed New Hampshire on behalf of anti-establishment candidates such as Eugene McCarthy. But today, students like Sierra Murdoch, a 19-year-old Middlebury College junior, and Jennie Hatch, 20, who’ll attend Wellesley College this fall, aren’t spending their summer vacations effecting political change. Global warming is the issue that motivates them instead, driving them to work long hours for little pay in a state neither one calls home.

Hatch and Murdoch are enlistees in what might be dubbed the post-‘‘Inconvenient Truth’’ student movement. Along with their cohorts in Climate Summer 2007, a program dedicated to spreading the gospel of carbon-emission reduction throughout the Granite State, they burn with the passion that once fueled the civil-rights and antiwar movements of the 1960s. Gathered here in Amherst last week for the  town’s Fourth of July parade, both cited global warming as the defining issue facing their generation.

‘‘People in New Hampshire know it’s a serious problem,’’ said Hatch, who hails from Whitefield, Maine. ‘‘You walk into libraries and churches and town halls, and people ask, ‘What can we do about this? What steps can we take?’ They’re actually relieved you’re not representing one of the political candidates.’’

Murdoch, relaxing on the town common before work began on a Climate Summer ‘‘carbonless’’ parade float, echoed Hatch’s sentiments. The New York native said the group’s message on global warming, spelled out on hand-lettered signs and in slick PowerPoint presentations, goes beyond home-energy conservation and hybrid cars. It calls for a drastic, 80 percent reduction in carbon emissions by the year 2050 — well within the lifetimes of today’s college-age population and by many calculations (preeminently including that of James Hansen, chief climatologist of NASA’s Goddard Institute of Space Studies) a point of no return for the planet’s health. Their mantra of ‘‘green is the new red, white, and blue’’ carries the same urgency that ‘‘we shall overcome’’ did decades ago.

‘‘This is the first time we’ve purposefully left campus and tried to network with all interest groups and age levels,’’ said Murdoch, who’s helping organize the March to Re-Energize New Hampshire, a massive four-day trek from Nashua to Concord in early August. ‘‘It’s where we knew we had to be.’’

On the lawn next to Murdoch sat New Jersey native Corrine Almquist, 20, also a junior at Middlebury. ‘‘A lot of us have struggled with doing schoolwork versus working on climate issues,’’ she said. ‘‘This summer gave us the chance to drop everything else and work on this full-time. And the response we’ve been getting is overwhelmingly positive.’’

Last winter, the 25 members of Climate Summer coalesced into a single body from the many environmental activists on the Middlebury campus, a stronghold for enviro-groups such as the Sierra Student Coalition and Campus Climate Challenge and home to one of the movement’s spiritual leaders, author and scholar-in-residence Bill McKibben. In early June they met in Concord, setting up a command post in the Sierra Club’s offices and settling themselves in four apartments in the Concord area.

Since then they’ve been traveling the state in smaller groups, meeting with town officials, business owners, community leaders, environmental activists, high-school students, and others interested in boosting the call to action on climate change. One point they’ve been hitting hard is the toll global warming is taking on the state’s skiing, fishing, maple sugaring, and tourism industries. By summer’s end, they hope to help the Sierra Club secure 40,000 signatures on a petition supporting the 80-percent/2050 goal. But their biggest statement, Climate Summer’s organizers say, will be next month’s march, which is expected to attract thousands of supporters and heighten national awareness of the issue.

Around half of the program’s members are in college, while the rest are recent graduates. Besides the 17 Middlebury students involved, campuses represented include Cornell, Clark, Swarthmore, the University of New Hampshire, and the University of Maryland.

Program participants are working in New Hampshire and Iowa, two states heavily targeted by presidential candidates and the media this summer. The bulk of Climate Summer’s $150,000 budget is funded through the Sierra Club and other outside donors. Staffers receive stipends averaging $100 a week, or barely enough to meet living expenses. Several say they passed up lucrative jobs and internships to spend their summer doing what they consider to be more pressing work.

Zo Tobi, a folk-rock musician from Nashua, said he would have been touring this summer if he hadn’t heard about Climate Summer at a conference on global warming where he was performing. Asked if his parents were disappointed with his choice of summer employment, Tobi smiled. ‘‘For them,’’ he said, ‘‘this is the best outcome they could have hoped for.’’

Hatch, an environmental science major, passed up an internship with the Massachusetts League of Environmental Voters in Boston to work on the program’s Small Towns initiative. Dispatched to communities such as Litchfield, Hookset, and Pembroke, she has been sharing her personal experiences with climate change, notably the Maine ponds she can no longer skate on because they seldom freeze solid anymore.

‘‘It’s something I needed to do for my personal goals,’’ Hatch explained. ‘‘Research experience can wait, I feel.’’

A work in progress, the program has been evolving almost from the very beginning. Initially staffers were being trained in presentations and public-speaking skills. More than a month later, they’re focused on securing permits and corporate sponsors for the August march, networking with community groups already sympathetic to the cause, or blogging on the program’s website (climatesummer.org). Even the initiative’s name is in flux. Members now refer to themselves mostly as the March to Re-Energize New Hampshire team, or ReEnergizeNH.

‘‘The first week we came back from canvassing, 85 percent [of those contacted] agreed with the 80-percent-reduction goal,’’ said Maura Cowley of Pennsylvania, a Penn State grad and program manager. Because of the shift from education to mobilization, ‘‘Our focus is on the march now, not Climate Summer.’’

The other main event on the program’s calendar happens on Saturday. On ‘‘Climb It for the Climate’’ day, program supporters are invited to hike up all seven White Mountains peaks named after US presidents.

Gail Denemark of Amherst is among the local activists who have embraced the group’s efforts. Denemark helped organize a local Step It Up march last April, another milepost in the national climate-change movement. Hoping to build on its momentum, she asked McKibben to speak here on July 4. He agreed to, she said, but only if the town invited the Climate Summer crew, too.

‘‘It was a package deal,’’ Denemark said as she stood in the basement of the town’s Congregational Church last week. New Hampshire is ‘‘pretty progressive on environmental issues,’’ she continued, and doesn’t need much prodding to get behind an effort like this. ‘‘The whole idea here is about people in small communities coming together to make a difference,’’ she said.

A few blocks away in a backyard off Main Street, a dozen Climate Summer staffers were designing banners for their parade float. McKibben appeared and gazed approvingly on the scene.

‘‘Their energy is fantastic,’’ he said. ‘‘They give me hope for the planet’s future.’’

Joseph P. Kahn can be reached at jkahn@globe.com.

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