Five Questions for Sunrise co-founder Varshini Prakash about climate activism and a Green New Deal

  • Published on December 10th, 2018

The concept of the Sunrise Movement arose out of discussions begun in 2015 by organizers who had been working in various parts of the climate movement, from fossil fuel divestment to building political power for climate policy in the purple and red states. It was decided after the November 2016 election that obviously not enough was being done at the grassroots level to get the nation’s political leaders to take serious action on the climate crisis since most candidates up and down the ballot weren’t even mentioning it in their campaigns.

By Meteor Blades

As so often happens on the left, the discussion among a group of eight, mostly under-30 core organizers came down to whether to focus on protests or elections. They decided to found Sunrise on the premise that both are needed. The strategy they chose in early 2017 was: disrupt, vote in 2018; disrupt, vote in 2020. The goal: Make 2020 the first presidential election about climate change.

Co-founder and Sunrise Lead Spokeswoman Varshini Prakash said in an interview at the time:

After reflecting deeply on our wins and losses, we came up with three key principles. First, if we ignore elections and the power that’s on the table, we’ll lose. Second, the gains made through creative protest have been powerful, but they will only be protected if we achieve institutional, political power. And, finally, if we elect people who only care about the climate crisis in name, but are unwilling to stand up to the fossil fuel industry in practice, we’ll also lose. So we must merge electoral organizing with creative protest to build, alongside others, a political force great enough to win.

And that’s that they’re doing, building an army of volunteers to pressure sitting politicians to get off their behinds and take action on climate change, and working to elect candidates who already take climate policy seriously. As part of that effort, Sunrise backs a Green New Deal with a focus on renewable energy, decarbonization, and jobs. It is calling for a congressional Select Committee for a Green New Deal. Monday, in fact, hundreds of Sunrise volunteers will be in Washington, D.C., doing some of that disrupting, urging members of Congress to join the 22 who have already voiced their support for forming the committee. And Tuesday morning, Sunrise volunteers will demonstrate in a non-violent action in San Francisco, with some members engaging in civil disobedience.

Prakash was born and raised outside Boston. As an undergraduate at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, she joined the UMass Fossil Fuel Divestment campaign and led the campaign for two years. Two years ago, UMass bent under pressure that had included a mass escalation and arrests for civil disobedience. She has for the past three years coordinated fossil fuel divestment campaigns with the Fossil Fuel Divestment Student Network at a regional and national level. Via email, I asked her Five Questions:

Meteor Blades: Numerous youthful activist organizations have emerged in the past decade to educate rank-and-file Americans and push politicians to get serious about dealing with climate change. What about the mission and strategy of Sunrise makes it different enough that the founders decided another such organization was needed?

Varshini Prakash: The founders of Sunrise came from all across the youth climate movement. Some of us led delegations of young people at international climate talks, some of us started the first fossil fuel divestment campaigns in the country, some of us built organizations to push for climate legislation in D.C., some of us fought fossil-fuel extraction in our hometowns. Still, I think each of us carried this sinking unease in our hearts that what we were doing was falling short.

Has the climate movement accomplished some tremendous things in the past decade? Absolutely. Have our victories brought us close to combating climate change on the scale we need? Not yet.

After Trump’s election, it was clear to us that the climate movement needed a strategy that was more deeply integrated with electoral politics and shaping the political narrative in America. We needed a movement that could elect progressives ready to take bold action on climate change, and have a movement ready to hold all elected officials accountable and shift what’s politically possible.

This last piece around shifting what’s politically possible is critical, as we’ve seen these past few weeks with the Green New Deal. Two months ago, top Democrats were saying that climate wasn’t on the agenda (for instance, this Hill article). The Green New Deal was a relatively fringe policy proposal. Thousands of young people, including 51 who were arrested at Rep. Nancy Pelosi’s office, taking action over the past four weeks has completely changed that. Last week Sen. Chuck Schumer wrote an op-ed in The Washington Postthat “Democrats will have an extraordinary opportunity to force action on climate change” in the new Congress. The Green New Deal has been covered by every major news outlet. That could never have happened without thousands of people across the country taking action.

MB: The Green New Deal that you envisage is much bigger than the New Deal of the 1930s. Getting to 100 percent renewables by 2030 is a moonshot goal in and of itself. But what you propose is about a lot more than turning to renewables and creating hundreds of thousands of new jobs. You seek to make thoroughgoing, climate-friendly changes in how we do things in energy, transportation, food, land use, and housing. That’s a tall order. Even if and when Democrats win both houses of Congress and the Presidency in 2020, we’ll not have the huge Democratic congressional majorities that FDR had to pass New Deal legislation 85 years ago. What about your strategy do you think will do the most to persuade enough still-reluctant politicians to support what you’re seeking?

VP: There are some politicians who aren’t worth trying to convince. Too many politicians have shown they’re willing to sell out our futures for campaign cash from fossil-fuel executives. They don’t deserve to lead and our movement has worked and will continue to work to unseat them.

There are also other politicians who say they want to take action on climate change but aren’t supporting anything near the scale or scope of action that’s needed to give our generation a livable future. We’ll be using the same tactics we’ve used these past few weeks to put the Green New Deal on the map to ramp up the pressure on them to support a plan that’s actually in line with what the science and justice demand.

During the push to repeal Obamacare, we saw just how powerful everyday people can be when we unite and push for what we need. The protests all across the country made it politically toxic to vote for the repeal and, against all odds, the bill failed in the Senate.

That’s what we have to do—make it politically impossible for a Democratic lawmaker to vote no on the Green New Deal. And we do that by building power. We get droves of constituents to light up the phone lines, we get colleagues in Congress to reach out, we show up at their offices, we become inescapable. And if they don’t move, we’ll consider supporting a primary challenger to them in 2020 or 2022.

MB: Sunrise urges those who agree with your goals and strategy to organize locally by first talking to their families, friends, and neighbors about a Green New Deal. Given that Democrats just won new majorities in the legislatures of several states that have less than aggressive climate policies, will you also be supporting local ordinances and state legislation that mirrors what you have in mind nationally? And if so, how?

VP: A key point of movement building is finding something that anyone, anywhere can do. Anyone can talk to their friends and families and representatives about the Green New Deal.

We know that stopping climate change will require more than one bill or one level of government. So we’re going to need states to take action and support a Green New Deal. Since our sit-in at Rep. Pelosi’s office put the Green New Deal in the spotlight, we’ve started conversations with lawmakers in a number of states about what it would take to implement a Green New Deal on a state or city level.

However, we need to be clear that confronting climate change demands a massive government-led intervention in the economy away from fossil fuels for the benefit of all people. It demands federal action.

There are things the federal government can do that state governments can’t. The federal government can print money, break up energy monopolies, end oil subsidies, and so much more. States have a much more limited toolkit.

MB: Both in your declared principles and strategy, the message comes through that achieving your goals with gender, racial, and class intersectionality in mind is not a luxury but an essential, embedded aspect of a Green New Deal. Specifically how do you see this being played out as a matter of environmental justice domestically as well as shaping America’s role in dealing with the climate crisis internationally?

We know climate change and fossil-fuel pollution hurt communities of color, working-class communities, and people across the Global South first and worst. We’ve seen this in America with Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans and Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico. And we’ve also seen this around the world. In India, where my family is from, thousands died and over a million were displaced when climate-fueled floods devastated communities earlier this year. It’s black and brown and poor communities that are hit hardest and are the last ones to be rebuilt. Stopping climate change and moving to justly sourced, renewable energy is critical to combating inequality.

But, the Green New Deal isn’t just about stopping climate change, it’s about taking action to reverse decades and decades of inequality that have led us to this moment in the first place. A key part of a Green New Deal is a job guarantee to give any American a job who’s ready to do their part taking on climate change. That would be transformational for our economy and give us the opportunity to nearly eliminate poverty in America. In addition, we need to make sure that we’re investing in low-income communities, communities of color, and all places that have been left behind by today’s Wall Street-driven economy.

MB: A Green New Deal will inevitably be attacked by foes who will argue that what you propose will cost too much and, among other negative effects, impose an extra burden on low-income people. How do you respond to such criticisms?

VP: That argument misses the forest for the trees. If we continue on the path we’re currently on, there will be unprecedented financial burdens on low-income people and—quite frankly—everyone but the ultra-rich. The Trump administration’s own climate report estimates that climate change will cost Americans hundreds of billions of dollars.

What’s at stake right now is whether we have a livable future for my generation and future ones. That’s something that needs to be a priority and that’s something huge majorities of Americans all across the country want to prioritize.

The cost argument is never argued in good faith. It’s a tactic to scare people who don’t have an economics degree. When we declare endless war, when we build the latest fighter jet, when we bail out the banks who deliberately scammed millions of Americans, the same people who shout down proposals to fund a jobs guarantee suddenly shut up, fall in line, and sign off.

I’ll leave it to others—economists like Stephanie Kelton and Ann Pettifor—to make the very convincing intellectual case that “costing too much” is exactly the wrong question to ask about the Green New Deal. Meanwhile, Sunrise is going to do what we always do, which is build the power we need so that when it comes to the votes, we win.

With a few clicks, you can read about Sunrise’s Movement Plan, its principles, its strategy, and in outline form, its views of a Green New Deal. Here is a more granular look at a Green New Deal.

More of our coverage of the Green New Deal:

(Crossposted with DailyKos)

About the Author

Meteor Blades is a writer and contributing editor at DailyKos. He believes there is something profoundly wrong with our system. - the unchecked accumulation of wealth and power into the hands of a very small group of corporate business interests has contributed to the wholesale corruption of our political system. For an understanding about the level of corruption in our country, he encourages you to view these two PBS documentaries: (1). ,The Untouchables; (2) The United States of ALEC.