As 2020 Race Heats Up, Sunrise Movement Activists Push for Climate Legislation

For a coalition built in the era of the climate crisis, the question is not just how to save the planet but how to salvage the fate of humanity as we know it.

Members of the Sunrise Movement rallying in Chicago. Charles Edward Miller. CC BY-SA 2.0

Members of the Sunrise Movement rallying in Chicago. Charles Edward Miller. CC BY-SA 2.0

On Monday, April 22, a group of young protestors entered London’s Natural History Museum and lay down beneath Hope, the enormous blue whale skeleton suspended from the ceiling. After about half an hour, most concluded their “die-in,” but a few remained. Wearing face paint and crimson robes, they delivered a classical music performance on the steps beneath the skeleton before walking out.

Four months later, on Thursday, August 22, a group of young protestors entered the chamber where officials with the Democratic National Committee (DNC) were deliberating. After the party’s resolutions committee voted down a proposal to hold a presidential primary debate focused solely on climate change, the activists interrupting proceedings by climbing atop their chairs and delivering a performance of the song “Which Side Are You On?” before walking out.

The group making headlines in April comprised members of the global group Extinction Rebellion (XR), while August’s protesters belonged to the U.S. Sunrise Movement. But each of the young people involved shared a common goal: pushing the powerful elites of their country to pay attention to the climate crisis that is now reaching a boiling point, and by doing so, to potentially salvage the fate of humanity.

As members of the generation finally facing the tangible—and terrifying—effects of climate change, the activists that make up coalitions like XR and the Sunrise Movement are uniquely positioned to lead the charge on curbing the crisis. “We are ordinary young people who are scared about what the climate crisis means for the people and places we love,” reads the Sunrise Movement’s website, hinting at the deeply personal effects of the global political system’s failure to address climate change.

Rallying with the Sunrise Movement in Washington, DC. Becker1999. CC BY 2.0

Rallying with the Sunrise Movement in Washington, DC. Becker1999. CC BY 2.0

The key objectives of the Sunrise Movement are tailored to align with the particularities of the contemporary political landscape. Currently, one of their main goals is electing candidates to the House and Senate who will champion the Green New Deal—proposed legislation that would enact sweeping reforms to address climate change and inequality, partly through transitioning the country to 100 percent renewable energy sources. To this end, the Sunrise Movement plans to register thousands of voters, especially young voters, in time to participate in November 2020, with a particular focus on swing states such as Michigan and Pennsylvania.

Before entering its action stage, Sunrise was in its incubation period during 2016 and 2017, while founding members developed a strategy for the group. The resultant plan coheres around three prongs, the first being people power, or a vocal and active base of public support; the second being political power, or a critical mass of enthusiastically supportive public officials; and the third being political alignment, or a grouping of social, economic, and political forces that are able to define a shared agenda for society. As co-founder and executive director Varshini Prakash explains, the American public has had two significant political alignments in the past 80 years: first the New Deal of the FDR era, and then the Reagan alignment of the 1980s.

After concluding the planning stage, Sunrise began to put its ideology into practice. One particularly conspicuous action came in November 2018, when 200 activists occupied the office of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi a week after the midterms, accompanied by progressive darling and then-incoming representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Following the demonstration, Ocasio-Cortez rolled out her resolution—drafted in collaboration with Sunrise and Justice Democrats, a progressive political action committee started by former Bernie Sanders staffers—to form a select committee in the House concerned exclusively with the Green New Deal.

In April of this year, Sunrise’s largest event to date came in the form of a sold-out launch for the Road to a Green New Deal Tour, where activists were joined in Boston by Senators Ed Markey and Elizabeth Warren (via video) and Representative Ayanna Pressley (who, along with Ocasio-Cortez, makes up one-fourth of the House’s so-called “squad” of progressive women of color). Then, in July, Sunrise helped to bring more than 1,000 young people to Detroit—site of the second round of Democratic presidential debates—where they put pressure on candidates to commit to the Green New Deal. Hours before the first night of debates on July 30, Sunrise activists joined a coalition of progressive groups called Frontline Detroit in a rally, with primary goals of pushing the climate change agenda and encouraging candidates to visit Detroit’s most marginalized communities, many of which have suffered disproportionately from water and air pollution.

Representative Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez speaks on the Green New Deal with Senator Edward Markey. Senate Democrats via Wikimedia Commons. CC BY 2.0

Representative Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez speaks on the Green New Deal with Senator Edward Markey. Senate Democrats via Wikimedia Commons. CC BY 2.0

While Sunrise has partnered with fellow activists of all ages—from 29-year-old Ocasio-Cortez to 70-year-old Warren—their generational identity means they have a few key differences from climate change movements of prior years. First, like Extinction Rebellion, they have reframed climate discourse to represent not just saving the Earth but saving the Earth as well as ourselves—a distinction thrown into sharp relief by recent reports of humanity heading toward its sixth mass extinction event. As Prakash tells Vox’s Ezra Klein in her discussion on the state of the climate debate, “[I]t feels like for the last 40 years it’s been gated to the realm of environmentalism … it’s about saving the environment or preserving the environment, not salvation for humankind more broadly and preserving our way of life.”

Along with this comes a shift in the way climate change is viewed from abstract to immediate, and from far off to dangerously proximate. As Emily Witt writes for the New Yorker, environmentalist rhetoric has long invoked the future generations who will have to live with the challenges of global warming, but “[t]he young people of Sunrise are telling lawmakers that the future is here: they are the children in question, and the consequences of climate change are affecting them now.” This also means that Sunrise activists primarily tell stories not of melting ice caps and dehabitated polar bears but of the concrete manifestations of climate change in their own communities and lives: Prakash, the daughter of two South Indian immigrants, recounts her feelings of horror and helplessness watching footage of the tsunami that struck the Indian Ocean in 2004, when she was just 11 years old.

Rallying in San Francisco to pressure Nancy Pelosi to support the formation of a Select Committee to advance a Green New Deal. Peg Hunter. CC BY-NC 2.0

Rallying in San Francisco to pressure Nancy Pelosi to support the formation of a Select Committee to advance a Green New Deal. Peg Hunter. CC BY-NC 2.0

Fast-forward 15 years to Prakash and her climate cohort again being hit by the agony of helplessness as the DNC struck down requests for a climate debate. “BREAKING: Tom Perez just killed the #ClimateDebate,” Sunrise broadcasted via Facebook, referring to the chair of the DNC. But despite the defeat—which came on the heels of Washington Governor Jay Inslee, an ardent champion of climate legislation reform, withdrawing his presidential bid—other plans are afoot to give candidates a forum on the issue. CNN plans to hold a climate change town hall in September, while the Georgetown Institute of Politics and Public Service will air a climate forum with candidates on MSNBC a few weeks later.

Reporting on climate activism for the New York Times, Astead W. Herndon notes that the emergence of these alternative avenues for political discourse are expressions of a broader political shift: “The announcements reflected the urgency with which Democrats have mobilized around an issue that was hardly mentioned in the 2016 election.” Opinions from the American electorate illustrate the necessity of this paradigm change, given that 82 percent of Democratic voters now list climate change as a top priority. And, the Times reported in early August, 16 of what was then 24 presidential hopefuls have signed onto Sunrise’s Green New Deal goals.

Sunrise Movement protesters in Chicago. Charles Edward Miller. CC BY-SA 2.0

Sunrise Movement protesters in Chicago. Charles Edward Miller. CC BY-SA 2.0

Yet despite the reframing of climate change legislation from a niche progressive issue to a liberal litmus test, members of Sunrise remain (perhaps rightfully) dubious about the party’s ability to address the crisis. Expressing dismay engendered by decades of inaction, Prakash told the Times, “We don’t trust that a Democratic Party that has reneged on their responsibility, a complete dereliction of duty for the last 40 years, will actually rise to the challenge at this moment.” Given that America’s current president has described climate change as a hoax, the action that is so crucially needed will certainly not come before a Democrat reclaims the Oval Office in 2021—and ultimately, only time will tell if that yet unnamed POTUS will follow through on his or her promises. Until then, Sunrise, along with similar youth coalitions around the country and the globe, will be building activist infrastructure from within their shared “movement houses,” maintaining momentum through coordinated planning and action, and inhabiting a planet that—without coordinated mobilization on a mass scale—will grow ever more inhospitable to human life.




TALYA PHELPS hails from the wilds of upstate New York, but dreams of exploring the globe. As former editor-in-chief at the student newspaper of her alma mater, Vassar College, and the daughter of a journalist, she hopes to follow her passion for writing and editing for many years to come. Contact her if you're looking for a spirited debate on the merits of the em dash vs. the hyphen.