Youth movement tries to revolutionize climate policy


If President Joe Biden’s agenda passes in its current form, it will be the most ambitious climate legislation ever signed into law, without a close second. It would have been hard to imagine when Biden first announced his candidacy, in 2019, even less than five or ten years ago. “The Pelosi sit-in has to be one of the most beautifully managed political plays in American history,” said Bill McKibben, a climate organizer and contributor to this magazine. Ali Zaidi, who worked in the Obama White House and is now Biden’s deputy national climate adviser, a position that did not exist before, told me: “The scope of what was possible, in terms of climate policy, is now a table stake. He added that, throughout American history, “every time we’ve achieved a phase change, it’s the young people who have done it.”

Last fall, Biden gave a speech in the Ocasio-Cortez district, while assessing the damage from Hurricane Ida. “He spoke at length about how our approach to climate must create millions of union jobs,” Ocasio-Cortez recently said. “I was, like, this is the message that we’ve spent years pushing the party to embrace, and now it’s so commonplace and widely accepted that it’s coming out of the mouth of the President of the United States.”

Last September, I traveled from New York to an Airbnb in downtown Philadelphia, where a dozen Sunrise organizers were meeting for a retreat. Normally I would take the train, or maybe a bus. Look out the window, taste the slow Wi-Fi, doze off for an hour – before you know it, you’ve arrived, without feeling too guilty about your carbon footprint. This time, given the pandemic, I drove. It was a beautiful day, so I broke the windows, saving fuel by forgoing the air conditioning. But, come to think of it, it created some drag, which surely made my gas mileage worse. Again, my car is a hybrid! Maybe I could offset the trip by planting a tree?

By the time I arrived at the Airbnb, these frantic mental calculations started to seem a bit silly. Organizers were scanning the menu of a Middle Eastern restaurant on Uber Eats. Aru Shiney-Ajay, Sunrise’s training director, sat in front of a laptop and took the controls. “Can you give me a beef kebab?” Dejah Powell, a Chicago organizer, said. “Or not. Beef is the worst right? Maybe chicken. Or falafel?

“Dejah,” said an activist named John Paul Mejia, mockingly. He began reciting a movement adage, using the singsong beat of a call and response: “The greatest engine of emissions is . . .” The others join him, in unison: “. . . the political power of the fossil fuel industry, not individual behavior. In other words, if you want the beef, get the beef.

During the retreat, activists recycled, but they did not compost. When ordering takeout, they didn’t always tick the “go green” box to refuse plastic forks and straws. At home, some aspired to ride their bikes everywhere, or to eat vegan; others were stealing all the time and found vegans boring. It might sound like apathy or hypocrisy. For Sunrise, trying to prevent climate change by forgoing disposable straws is like trying to stave off a tidal wave with a cocktail umbrella. Also, if you want to build a mass movement, you better avoid lifestyle shaming.

In 1988, a Nasa A scientist by the name of James Hansen testified before Congress on “the greenhouse effect”. This was widely understood by the general public as a matter of interspecies altruism (“Think polar bears!”), not an existential human risk. Culturally, the environmental movement overlapped with the crusty left, but its political instincts were conservative in small “c”, as in “conservation”. The Natural Resources Defense Council, which today is a major environmental group, was founded in 1970; one of his first big cases was to prevent the construction of a hydroelectric plant on the Hudson River. The plant would have made New York City less dependent on fossil fuels, but it risked disrupting the local ecosystem, including a population of striped bass. When so-called Big Greens, like the Sierra Club and the Nature Conservancy, made demands, they tended to use patient forms of persuasion such as letter-writing campaigns and amicus briefs. “The instinct of the proto-ecologists was to convince and convert those in power,” Douglas Brinkley, a historian of the movement, told me. “Do not point fingers or demonstrate in front of their homes.”

However, as the climate crisis has accelerated, it has become clear that reversing it will require building new clean energy infrastructure, which is, politically speaking, a heavier burden. In 2006, Davis Guggenheim and Al Gore released “An Inconvenient Truth”, a documentary that accurately depicted the scale of the crisis before offering solutions such as “Plant trees” and “Buy energy efficient appliances + bulbs”. William Lawrence, one of Sunrise’s co-founders, told me, “Even if you change all the light bulbs in the country, you’re nowhere near preventing a disaster. What kind of plan is this, where even if you win, you still lose? Sunrise approached the problem the other way around, first determining what would alleviate the crisis – leaving most of the remaining gas, coal and oil reserves in the ground – and then trying to build the political will to let that happen. The only way forward, the group argued, was to act less as a lobby of special interests and more as a confrontational social movement. If the Great Greens were like medical researchers at the start of the AIDS epidemic, politely asking for more government funding, then Sunrise would be like THINKING UPscattering ashes on the White House lawn.

Internally, Sunrise draws inspiration from the civil rights movement, which was very unpopular in its time. “Some people wanted them to do pure outdoor play and street protests; others advised them to only negotiate with LBJ,” Prakash told me. Instead, she continued, they used a hybrid strategy: “You make a moral argument, get the public on board, and then you try to secure policies that lock this new common sense in place. It’s not a foolproof plan. When Martin Luther King, Jr. first called for federal civil rights legislation, it was seen as an impossibility; it was only after a series of galvanizing events, including the march on Washington and the church bombing in Birmingham, that this became a reality. Taylor Branch, the civil rights historian, told me that King “spent years fumbling in the dark, looking for tactics that would resonate.” He added: “Trying to mobilize people to save the planet now, in a time of deep polarization and cynicism, is in some ways a more difficult task.” This analogy can be interpreted in favor of Sunrise: perhaps the organization’s moment of maximum influence is yet to come. It is also possible to read it as a cautionary tale: what if the Green New Deal, like the poor people’s campaign of 1968, was a dream that will never fully come true?

Prakash grew up in suburban Boston; her family is from southern India, which in recent decades has been hit by floods, droughts and heat waves. For as long as she can remember, she has experienced climate change as a source of deep anxiety. “As a child, you first thought: this is the biggest problem, so surely there are adults in the room solving it,” she said. “It quickly turns into, Oh no, it’s actually the adults making it worse, and nobody has a plan.” As a high school student, she desperately wanted to take action, but the only group she could join was her school’s recycling club. “Then I got to college and it dawned on me, Oh, you don’t sit around waiting for people in power to fix things,” she continued. “We have to force their hand.

As a junior at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, in 2014, she got a call from William Lawrence, then a recent Swarthmore graduate. Both were involved in campus fossil fuel divestment campaigns, modeled on the campaigns that pushed American universities to divest from apartheid South Africa. Lawrence was starting a nonprofit organization, the Fossil Fuel Divestment Student Network, and he asked Prakash to join. The year after graduation, UMass Amherst became the first major public university to abandon its direct fossil fuel holdings. “But we didn’t feel like we were winning, in the scheme of things,” Prakash said. “Because we kept doing the math: even if we win every divestment campaign, it still doesn’t get us where we need to go fast enough.”

In late 2015, a coalition of youth organizations — climate groups, racial justice groups, immigrant rights groups and others — led a march to the White House. “It was supposed to be our show of force,” Sara Blazevic, one of the organizers, told me. “It ended up being a pretty sad scene.” Activists tried to condense their various demands into one compelling message, but “the best we could come up with was ‘Our Generation, Our Choice’, which meant nothing to anyone. The White House offered to send a senior official to meet with them, but activists, unable to agree on who should represent them, declined. Afterwards, Prakash, Blazevic, Lawrence and another climate organizer named Guido Girgenti went out to get Ethiopian food and had a candid chat. “The result was: we have to take a step back and find a new strategy, or we will find ourselves in an impasse,” Prakash said.

They sought advice from an organizer training institute called Momentum. Founded by millennials who had met in the aftermath of Occupy Wall Street, Momentum aimed to leverage the strengths of these spontaneous movements (their ability to galvanize public attention) while addressing their weaknesses (once they attract attention, they don’t always know what to do with it). When organizers want to start something new, Momentum trainers guide them through a laborious year-long process called front-loading, during which they come to a detailed consensus on what they want to achieve and how they plan to achieve it. achieve it. Beginning in the summer of 2016, Prakash, Blazevic, Lawrence, Girgenti and about eight others gathered in rented farms and movement homes, giving their project the placeholder name Divestment 2.0. As students, they had demanded a say in how their universities’ money was invested. Now they realized that as American citizens they also had a stake in a much larger pool of money – that which was appropriated by the US government.


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