This story is part of Now cover the climate, a global journalistic collaboration that strengthens reporting on climate history.
T.today The nation and other Covering Climate Now partners are hosting a First-Time Voter Youth Day to highlight the voices of the generation hardest hit by climate change as we launch a week of co-reporting on Climate Change Policy 2020. More than any other group, the Sunrise movement put the Green New Deal on the public agenda. Because of the climate emergency, its members, mostly teenagers and 20 years of age, organized protests (sit-in strikes against Democrat Nancy Pelosi and Republican Mitch McConnel), but also helped draft laws (those of Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Ed Markey). In a new book Winning the Green New Deal: Why we have to, how we canAccording to Varshini Prakash, the group’s executive director, the key to Sunrise’s success lies in the group’s use of both protest and electoral organizations to build political power.
– Mark Hertsgaard
We have long seen that leftists and progressives have a real aversion to political power, a real fear of what it means to get caught up in politics. For us we have realized that legislation depends on who is passed [an elected official] feels responsible. I think that differentiated Sunrise from many climate organizations that operated it: We are not afraid of marrying civil disobedience and protest organization with hardened electoral organization.
MH: Sunrise wasn’t a huge fan of Joe Biden in the Democratic primary, but when Biden won the nomination, you didn’t pick up your ball and went home. You are now working hard to choose Biden. That must have been a difficult decision for many of your members.
VP: It was a depressing, painful time after Super Tuesday when it emerged that our backed-up candidate, Bernie Sanders, wasn’t going to be the candidate. But especially in the last few weeks, with all the forest fires and storms and the overtly criminal negligence of Donald Trump in denying climate science, many of our members, especially in the swing states, are realizing the importance of youth in droves to defeat Trump . Only then will we have the political terrain we need to make progress on a Green New Deal.
MH: Politicians have traditionally discounted the youth vote because young people in the US tend not to vote as much as older people. In 2016, only 46 percent of eligible voters under 30 cast a vote. How does Sunrise get young people to believe in electoral activism?
VP: Sunrise activates young people by doing electoral work about our larger mission, not the political candidate. Our mission is to carry out a 10 year transformation of practically all parts of our society in order to cope with the climate crisis. A politician is ultimately a tool for achieving this goal. We often say that defeating Trump is only the first step in getting a Green New Deal through. And even if Biden is elected, we will need a movement force unprecedented in recent history to make sure he keeps his election promises and to fight the fossil fuel industry and the GOP, who are doing everything in their power to keep us away discourage taking action.
MH: Sunrise will compete in a completely different political terrain for the next six weeks. After your major Democratic victories, you are now facing not only Democratic voters, but Independents and Republicans as well. How do you customize your approach, both for the Biden-Trump race and for the 18 congressional candidates you supported?
VP: We plan to make 2.5 million calls to voters to support the election of the Green New Deal champions [to Congress] and defeat Donald Trump, especially in three swing states: Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin. We will reach out to people who often fail to reach the Democratic and Republican parties, especially young and color-skinned voters, and make sure they understand how these elections can affect their communities. And there are a few other races that we prioritized from the start – for example Mike Siegel’s race [in Texas’s 10th district] and Cori Bush’s breed [in Missouri’s 1st district].
MH: Looking at election day itself, there is a strong likelihood of voter intimidation and even election violence, along with a president who openly states that he will not accept results that show he has lost. How is Sunrise analyzing the situation from now until the day of the inauguration in January and what are you preparing for?
VP: It’s scary. We recognize that we must be ready to take action if the president is essentially attempting a coup. We plan to send thousands of young people to vote on election day to protect the right to vote. We are examining what direct action we can take alongside the thousands of other progressive organizations that I have adopted, specifically to target Republican governors and elected officials who may be completing a Trump takeover. We have to make it very clear that this is not just about counting votes, but about the future of our democracy. Will there be equal representation for all in this country or will we turn to authoritarianism?