Climate change presents the biggest human rights issue of our generation, said 18 Yale students who traveled to the nation’s capital this past weekend to listen, present and protest at a conference.

Rick Herron ’13 led the group of 16 Yale undergraduates and two graduate students to Powershift 2011, a conference of 10,000 young people discussing climate and environmental activism, where several Yalies hosted a panel on the future displacement of hundreds of millions of people in developing nations. The four-day conference, held by the Energy Action Coalition, an umbrella organization of over 50 youth environmental groups, featured speakers such as Environmental Protection Agency administrator Lisa Jackson, environmental justice advocate Van Jones, Al Gore, and writer and environmentalist Bill McKibben.

“Don’t wait to be the leaders of tomorrow, tomorrow is not promised; be the leaders of today,” Herron said Van Jones told Powershift attendees.

In addition to rousing speeches, Powershift included workshops, panels and film screenings that ranged from campus sustainability to broader policy efforts, Herron said. The Yale panel was led by five undergraduate founders of the nongovernmental organization Climate Voices, which addresses what Max Webster ’12, who founded Climate Voices, predicts will be the biggest human rights crisis of our time — the human fallout that will result from climate change.

“The conference is about realizing that being right is not enough,” Webster said.

The regional Powershift coordinator reached out to the students when she was on campus in February and the group successfully applied to host a panel at the D.C. conference, Webster said. Through the opportunity to share information about the global crisis, Webster said the group, which was founded in the fall, hopes to build popular momentum and encourage local action. Gilad Tanay GRD ’11, who guided the creation of the organization after serving as the teaching assistant of some its members in Thomas Pogge’s philosophy and political science class last fall, accompanied the group to Powershift.

Tanay, who said he was proud of his ex-students, also said that he was thrilled by the energy and intelligence of the conference’s attendees. Tanay said he, as a native Israeli, saw the qualities he admires most in Americans at work in the conference, both in his students and in the other attendees.

“It’s a truly democratic spirit in which having the force of the better argument does not mean that you separate yourself from your fellow man, or lock yourself in a tower,” he said.

Powershift was about planning action, not just talking, Tanay, Herron and Justin Haaheim DIV ’10, who also attended, agreed. The stakes are high enough to warrant drastic action, said Haaheim, who works for the environmental activism group Act New Haven and, a grassroots movement against climate change.

“There’s no time to waste, no time to lose, we have to give everything we have,” Haaheim said.

And indeed, Haaheim gave it all he had this weekend. On Monday he took part in a nonviolent protest against coal use in the lobby of the Department of the Interior. Storming the lobby, Haaheim and his more than 100 fellow protesters, he said, blocked the department’s exits, but instead of speaking to the Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar, 21 people were arrested by police officers. Haaheim was not among those arrested.

The next step for the Yale Powershift attendees will be to reinvigorate a state coalition of students, Haaheim and Herron said.

The past weekend’s conference was the largest Powershift event yet. The two prior conferences took place in 2007 and 2009.