SANTA CRUZ — The battle to save the planet will create an "eco-apartheid" if the environmental movement fails to engage the most numerous inhabitants of the world — the poor and nonwhite.

Community leaders and students have rallied around that message delivered Wednesday at UC Santa Cruz by Van Jones, an Oakland-based progressive leader whose vision of environmentalism puts poverty, racism and social justice at the fore.

"There's a huge buzz," over the speech, said fair-trade coffee promoter Karie Boone, who missed the event.

Jones' vision calls for a massive effort to reboot the nation's economy, built around clean energy projects such as solar panel installation and building retrofitting that would allow low-income areas and communities of color to get their share of new "green-collar" jobs.

"In order for the green economy to work, all of us have to have a stake in it," said Jones, a Yale Law School grad who directs the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, an Oakland-based nonprofit.

At the outset, Jones introduced his lecture before an audience of more than 500 people as "the PowerPoint presentation that Al Gore would give if he was black"

Jones continues the legacy of the civil rights movement through steady and traditional one-on-one organizing while also embracing new tools, said Manuel Pastor, professor of Latin American and Latino studies at UCSC and director of the Center for Justice, Tolerance, and Community, which co-sponsored the lecture.

Pastor noted that Jones teamed up with MoveOn.org veteran James Rucker in the wake of Hurricane Katrina to create ColorOfChange.org, an online community focused on black issues that is now the largest such group in the United States.

The image of mostly black victims left behind with the wreckage in New Orleans punctuates the need for climate change activists to think bigger, Jones said.

"This country can save the polar bears and black kids, too," he said.

UCSC senior Biseat Horning, who helped organize the event, said she often feels lonely being one of two black students in the school's environmental studies department. Since the department doesn't offer any courses on environmental racism, Horning launched her own "student-directed seminar" on the subject.

"If us African-Americans are not present in the institutions of higher learning, then when it comes to fighting court battles or when it comes to grassroots activism, we won't be equipped to understand the biological and political processes that make our communities disproportionately affected by issues of environmental racism," Horning said.

Role models like Jones are crucial, said Tony Hill, a team-building consultant who specializes in diversity issues.

His paradigm-shifting message "is clearly the wave of the future for young people," said Hill, who belongs to the Community Coalition for a Sustainable Economy, a group formed last year by Santa Cruz City Councilman Tony Madrigal.

County treasurer and former state Assemblyman Fred Keeley agreed.

Last week, Keeley hosted a closed-door summit on how to deal locally with the effects of climate change and ways to attract green businesses to Santa Cruz. He introduced Jones on Wednesday at a pre-event reception.

"Van Jones has a message of inclusion that integrates the notions of environmental protection and justice that plows new ground in the effort to literally save the world," Keeley said. "Mr. Jones voice is one that is certainly worth listening to as we struggle to overcome the effects of global climate change and global poverty"

Contact Roger Sideman at rsideman@santacruzsentinel.com.