Climate Action Group Reunites

On Jan. 17, alumni from, the largest international campaign for climate action, and SNG, the College’s first environmental group gathered for “What Works? New Strategies for a Melting Planet.” (Rachel Frank/The Middlebury Campus)

By Viviana Altamirano

On Jan. 17, alumni from the Sunday Night Group (SNG) and held a ten-year anniversary reunion for the conference “What Works? New Strategies for a Melting Planet.” SNG is Middlebury’s first environmental activism group, and is the largest international campaign for climate action.

Ten years ago, this conference  helped establish SNG. Three years later, SNG alumni and Scholar in Residence in Environmental Studies Bill McKibben co-founded In celebration of the conference’s 10-year anniversary, alumni returned to campus to reflect on what has worked and to generate new ideas for the local and global climate movement .

Co-organizers Jeannie Bartlett ’15, Hannah Bristol ’14.5 and Teddy Smyth ’15 opened the event. Alumni shared their stories and held roundtable discussions.

Executive Director at May Boeve ’06.5 reflected on SNG’s founding in 2005.

“We were beginning to experiment on campus like lowering the thermostats in dorms and changing light bulbs. But then we marched in Montreal with 40,000 people, the largest climate demonstration that had ever happened up to that point. And we got this infusion of energy we brought back to Middlebury,” Boeve said.

“It’s one of the most wonderful feelings to be back here with all of you in this community and to remember that the relationship between Middlebury and the world beyond Middlebury is so alive,” she added.

According to Boeve, the capstone of this was the People’s Climate March in September, the largest to have ever occurred.

“If history is any guide, there will be other, larger marches because we need every large climate march we can get. We are in a race against time,” she said.

In addition to sharing their experiences, the alumni also discussed their thoughts on current events.

U.S. Policy Director at Jason Kowalski ’07 spoke about fighting the Keystone Pipeline.

“One cool thing coming back to Middlebury is seeing the carbon neutrality goal. That was a campaign we were pushing [when I was a student here]. Now it’s something the campus has bought into,” Kowalski said.

 “Just last week I had 30 different senator staffers asking for talking points. We have produced a sea change with this campaign that is really similar with what’s happened with carbon neutrality on this campus. We started on the margin, and we’ve dragged the mainstream to our position. Bold ideas can have power in Washington, and that to me is what carbon neutrality and SNG is all about, and that to me is what the keystone campaign is all about. That’s what I’m really excited about.”

The manner in which language and psychology influence how people view climate change interested Hilary Platt ’12.5, an environmental policy and psychology major.

 “A study found that the most effective strategy was to say, ‘Save energy in your home; your neighbors are saving energy too.’ This study led to [the founding of] a company called Opower, where I am working today…we are using behavioral science to impact the way people use power in their homes and reduce consumption. We saved enough energy to take all the homes in Hawaii and Alaska off the grid for a year. Together we’re making a big impact on the climate,” Platt said.

Alumni reflected on their efforts to have fair-trade coffee available in the dining halls by reducing food waste and saving money.

 “The path to victory is often not what you expect. People are beginning to do that with climate change. People thought that we would get one big climate bill out of Congress and the world will be saved. Clearly that was never going to happen,” said Communications Director at Jamie Henn ’07.

He continued, “The solution is going to be diverse and come from different directions, it’s not one beautiful linear from problem to solution. The media doesn’t get it and politicians can’t track it, but I think that’s part of our generation. There’s innovation out there and people are beginning to realize that we can piece it together.”

He added: “What I’m excited about is how do you tell that story. It’s a harder story to tell but it’s a more exciting story and it will require more people telling it, not just one voice.”

Henn explained the mechanics of getting a message out.

“One of the things we’ve learned is that if you’ve set up in the right way, what you’re really doing is finding many different messengers who can then speak to their community in a way they already know how. We can expand the messenger base and find people that can speak to their own communities about climate change and provide resources to support them,” Henn said.

Greta Neubauer ’14.5 spoke on how the movement embodies a lot of historical privilege.

“One thing we’ve been thinking a lot about in the divestment movement is with Black Lives Matter happening, and how we can not just go to rallies and then come back to our own movement and do our work independently, but really see those [efforts] as being connected. We can be proud of being climate activists but also do the work of being allies,” Neubauer said.

A roundtable group suggested creating a map linking different movements such as social inequality and racial inequality with current activism and demonstrating it in a visual manner.

Faculty Director of the Center for Social Entrepreneurship (CSE) and Professor of Economics Jon Isham expressed his enthusiasm for seeing alumni interact with current students.

 “What I can do as a faculty member is provide a certain kind of support just by encouraging them to try things and not get frustrated. But the best part of SNG is not only that its 100% student conceived, but it remains 100% student run. And that’s exactly one of the many reasons it’s so effective. I guarantee you some of these ideas will see fruition,” Isham said.

 “Our goal was for current and past SNG students to meet each other and create these connections so we can continue to share ideas across generations and different places in our lives,” concluded Bartlett.