US climate breakthrough

IssueApril - May 2019
Hundreds of young people from the Sunrise Movement flood congress in Washington DC to push for a Green New Deal, 10 December. Photo: Rachael Warriner / Sunrise Movement
Feature by Nick Engelfried

At the end of February, over 250 young people converged on US senate majority leader Mitch McConnell’s office in Washington DC for a sit-in marking one of the latest escalations in the youth-led campaign for a Green New Deal.

The action, led by youth from McConnell’s state of Kentucky, was planned in direct response to what they saw as his attempt to quash a senate resolution on the Green New Deal by scheduling a premature vote. (The senate in Washington DC is the upper chamber of congress, like the house of lords in the UK except that the senate is entirely elected, with two senators for each US state.)

“We’re here to demand Mitch McConnell look us in the eyes and tell us the $1.9 million he’s gotten from fossil fuel CEOs is more important than my generation’s future.”

‘We’re here to demand Mitch McConnell look us in the eyes and tell us the $1.9 million he’s gotten from fossil fuel CEOs is more important than my generation’s future,’ 17-year-old Destine Grigsby of Louisville said as the group arrived. ‘We’re here to share our stories and show him Kentucky needs a Green New Deal to ensure we have clean water, clean air, and stable jobs. This is the only solution we have for a livable future in Kentucky and throughout the world.’

The next day, young activists descended on senate district offices around the country. Just a couple days later, in a stunning sign of the movement’s effectiveness, McConnell announced he would postpone the senate vote until much later this year.

The idea for a Green New Deal – a massive nationwide investment in jobs and infrastructure that would shift the United States to a clean energy economy while rapidly cutting carbon emissions – took off in November when hundreds of young activists held a sit-in at the office of congressmember Nancy Pelosi less than a week after the 2018 election. Some 51 were arrested while calling on Pelosi and other Democrats to establish a select committee for a Green New Deal with power to advance legislation.

A few weeks later, on 10 December, over 1,000 youth flooded the halls of congress again. They lobbied more than 50 congressional offices and held sit-ins at the offices of Pelosi and other key Democratic leaders. A total of 143 were arrested.


Kentucky youth from Sunrise Louisville demand climate action outside senate majority leader Mitch McConnell’s office, Washington DC, 25 February. McConnell is a Kentucky Republican. Photo: Sunrise Movement

Breaking dawn

The leading force behind this wave of action is an organisation called Sunrise Movement, which launched in 2016 with the immediate goal of making ambitious climate action a key issue in last year’s midterm elections.

In the longer term, Sunrise seeks to use high-visibility actions that put pressure on candidates and elected officials as a strategy for building power and rallying public opinion behind a Green New Deal. After the election, Sunrise immediately began mobilising to put Democratic leaders on the spot over years of failure to address the climate crisis.

With Democrats taking back the house of representatives [the equivalent of the house of commons in Britain – ed] in November, some observers saw a chance to advance bold progressive policies. But when it came to climate change, Sunrise organisers worried that Democrats would merely pursue the cautious strategy they have used in the past – most notably in 2009–2010, when a weak cap-and-trade bill riddled with corporate giveaways passed the house only to fail in the senate.

Sure enough, Democratic leaders announced plans to resurrect a version of the house select committee on energy independence and global warming, which was first established in 2007 and has no authority to advance legislation. Sunrise, along with new members of congress like representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, argued for the alternative: a select committee for a green new deal.

While the Green New Deal committee was never formed, from the perspective of advancing bold ideas about climate legislation this may not matter. Sunrise’s November and December protests accomplished their most important objective by popularising the Green New Deal and putting both parties in congress on notice that young activists will not be content with tepid action on climate change.

On 7 February, Ocasio-Cortez and senator Ed Markey of Massachusetts introduced identical resolutions in the house and senate formally calling for a Green New Deal. [The full text of the Green New Deal resolution follows this article – ed.] The senate version was quickly co-sponsored by most Democratic senators running for president. Thanks to Sunrise successfully pressuring McConnell to delay his rushed vote, both resolutions remain in play.

Getting started

The concept of a Green New Deal isn’t new. According to the US news website Vox, the term was first used in 2007 and soon became part of Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign platform. However, while some elements of the Green New Deal – like pairing clean energy with an economic stimulus – made modest progress during Obama’s presidency, the administration never seriously attempted the type of sweeping policies today’s Green New Deal advocates are demanding.

One reason for this lack of progress in the early Obama years was insufficient grassroots support. At the time, the climate movement just wasn’t large enough or politically savvy enough to create the type of massive grassroots mobilisation that’s needed to transform bold ideas into policy.

“On 10 December, over 1,000 youth flooded the halls of congress again.”

Today, that may have changed. From mass protests that stopped pipelines and closed coal plants to grassroots organisations advancing clean energy at the local level to a nationwide divestment campaign that galvanised students around energy justice – the climate movement has grown a lot in the last decade.

Many Sunrise Movement founders got their start organising in one or another of the waves of climate activism that helped set the stage for a powerful Green New Deal movement. A recent story in the New Republic describes how young activists involved in campaigns like fossil fuel divestment came together to launch Sunrise. They united behind a vision for a slate of policies to dramatically cut carbon emissions, while creating millions of jobs, ensuring economic security for all and combating racial injustice.

Like Medicare for All, the Green New Deal is a bold progressive proposal with the potential to inspire the kind of mass support cautious Democrats in Congress have largely failed to attract for their ideas. However, in order to build that momentum Sunrise needed to grow from a small group of organisers – based mostly on the East Coast of the US – into a true nationwide grassroots campaign.

Coast to coast

The Green New Deal movement’s rapid growth over the last few months was made possible by the existing network of climate activist groups that formed across the United States over the past decade or so.

One example is the Cascade Climate Network, or CCN, a regional organisation that promotes climate justice on college campuses in Oregon and Washington. Last school year, CCN organised a conference that hosted a workshop by Sunrise Movement co-founder Victoria Fernandez, who invited students to sign up for Sunrise Semester – a fellowship that engaged young people in pressuring politicians to support Green New Deal policies in the months leading up to the 2018 elections.

“From mass protests that stopped pipelines and closed coal plants to grassroots organisations advancing clean energy at the local level to a nationwide divestment campaign that galvanised students around energy justice – the climate movement has grown a lot in the last decade.”

Lisa Grimm, a 21-year-old student at University of Puget Sound in Washington state, was among those who heeded the call. Becoming a Sunrise fellow last summer, she was sent to Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where she worked to pressure candidates running for office in a key swing state.

Grimm also learned during the fellowship that Sunrise was launching decentralised hubs to continue organising work in Congressional districts throughout the country. ‘When I got back to school [university – ed] in Washington, I really wanted to keep the momentum going and organise a hub here,’ Grimm said. ‘I realised it made sense to build power locally.’

After Sunrise garnered national attention with its November and December actions on Capitol Hill in Washington DC, ‘interest in the Green New Deal really skyrocketed,’ Grimm explained. So she put out a call to other youth activists in Washington state. Over a period of a couple months, they launched local hubs in several Washington communities. Among the most active is Sunrise Seattle, which held a town hall meeting on 22 February to highlight public support for a Green New Deal.

‘It was really exciting for us,’ said 22-year-old Harry Katz, one of the town hall organisers. ‘Thirty-six people, mostly young people, were able to get up in front of a full room and speak about why the Green New Deal matters to them. About half hadn’t come to previous meetings or events. These are young people getting involved in a progressive movement for the first time – I think because they admire Sunrise’s willingness to fight for a solution that would actually address both the climate crisis and the crisis of inequality.’

Seattle Sunrise’s co-co-ordinators include Katz, 23-year-old Lily Frenette, and 26-year-old Sam Farquharson. They held their town hall during a congressional recess with the hope that Washington’s US senators would attend. It was part of a series of actions across the country Sunrise organised after McConnell announced the hasty senate vote on the Green New Deal resolution.

While Washington senators Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell were both invited to the town hall, neither managed to attend or send staff. So Sunrise Seattle visited their district offices the following week and delivered recordings of the public testimony. The youth organisers spoke with office staff, but neither senator has yet taken a public position on the Green New Deal.

‘They seem to hope their previous record voting for environmental policies will be enough,’ Frenette said. ‘But our message is: While some of their past environmental votes may have been great, we need them to show they support a Green New Deal. Otherwise, they aren’t taking the concerns of constituents and scientists seriously.’

Over 120 Sunrise hubs have launched across the US, from Alaska to Florida and from California to Maine. Their immediate priority has been organising actions like the Seattle town hall and confronting members of congress.

In one of the most visible examples, video of a meeting between California middle school students and senator Diane Feinstein went viral when it showed Feinstein treating the students dismissively. After the incident drew nationwide public scrutiny, Feinstein backed away from plans to introduce a much weaker climate resolution that would have competed with the Green New Deal.

McConnell abandoning the rushed Senate vote was the most important result of this wave of action, an outcome that seemed to take even Sunrise members by surprise.

‘During our day of action, almost 2,000 people around the country visited their senators demanding they co-sponsor the Green New Deal,’ Katz said. ‘The fact that McConnell backed off shows he’s afraid of what our movement has accomplished.’

Youth lead the way

While Sunrise welcomes solidarity from older activists, the campaign is determined to remain youth-led. After all, young people will be dealing with the effects of climate change longer than anyone else alive today, so keeping their voices at the forefront makes sense.

Like the early 20th century women’s suffrage movement – which decided not to include men in its pickets outside the White House – the modern Green New Deal movement is making strategic use of political theatre to highlight a deadly serious injustice. By visibly pitting people with a unique stake in the climate fight against entrenched corporate and political interests, the movement is building a compelling public narrative.

“While Sunrise welcomes solidarity from older activists, the campaign is determined to remain youth-led.”

Many young activists have already witnessed the effects of a changing climate for themselves. Grimm, for example, was visiting family in Japan last summer when she experienced firsthand some of the extreme weather gripping the country. A July heat wave killed at least 80 people and sent more than 35,000 to the hospital. That same month, over 220 people died in record-setting floods. ‘It stuck with me all summer that this is real, weather exacerbated by climate change is hurting families around the world,’ Grimm said.

Yet a common theme among Sunrise organisers talking about their experience is a feeling the Green New Deal has given them hope that the worst effects of climate change can be averted.

‘It’s a vision for our future that can fight the climate crisis at the scale scientists say is necessary,’ Farquharson said. ‘It’s more than incremental change, rhetoric, or any piece of legislation we’ve seen in the past. It gives me hope that if it gains enough momentum and eventually leads to legislation, we could actually see change that makes it possible for our kids and our kids’ kids to have a brighter future in this beautiful world we live in today.’