Feinstein’s Green New Deal response puts her out of step with the public and 2020 contenders

Polling indicates that most Americans are deeply worried about climate change and want action.

U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA). CREDIT: Alex Wong/Getty Images
U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA). CREDIT: Alex Wong/Getty Images

A testy exchange between Sen. Dianne Feinstein and a group of young climate activists has gone viral, putting the California Democrat under fire at a time when public sentiment is pushing Democratic presidential contenders to embrace climate action.

In a video posted Friday by the youth-led nonprofit Sunrise Movement, climate activists ages seven to 16 arrived in the senator’s San Francisco office and requested her support for the Green New Deal resolution. That proposal was introduced by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) two weeks ago and offers a blueprint for how to rapidly decarbonize the U.S. economy in roughly a decade.

“We are trying to ask you to vote yes on the Green New Deal,” one activist asked Feinstein in the edited video, holding a large letter on the topic written to the senator.


But Feinstein appeared unmoved. Arguing that countering climate change can’t be done in 10 years, the senator critiqued the young activists’ approach to lobbying for the resolution.

“You know what’s interesting about this group is, I’ve been doing this for 30 years,” she said. “I know what I’m doing. [And] you come in here, and you say it has to be ‘my way or the highway.’ I don’t respond to that.”

Pushed by the activists to elaborate, Feinstein seemed to grow increasingly terse, pointing to her recent 2018 election victory. “We’re the people who voted [for] you,” one 16-year-old activist fired back. “Well, you didn’t vote for me,” Feinstein responded, referencing the activist’s age. The full and seemingly unedited video of the 15-minute exchange is available on the Sunrise Movement’s Bay Area Facebook page. 

Conservative commentators tweeted support for Feinstein’s comments, with both Ben Shapiro and Erick Erickson expressing “love” for the California Democrat as the video began to circulate widely on Feb. 22.


Seeking to put out fires, Feinstein’s office downplayed the exchange, saying in a statement following the confrontation that the children “were heard loud and clear” and that the senator remained committed to combatting climate change. In a now-deleted tweet, she also mistakenly referred to the group as the “Sunshine” Movement.

“We had a spirited discussion and I presented the group with my draft resolution that provides specific responses to the climate change crisis, which I plan to introduce soon,” Feinstein said in her statement. “I always welcome the opportunity to hear from Californians who feel passionately about this issue and it remains a top priority of mine.”

The senator pushed instead for an alternative resolution to the Green New Deal, one that activists have slammed as too limited in its scope.

That didn’t please the Sunrise Movement, which has made a point of targeting virtually all lawmakers in an effort to secure support for the Green New Deal resolution.

As the video of the confrontation went viral, the nonprofit Oil Change U.S. noted that Feinstein had broken her 2018 pledge not to accept fossil fuel money. Months after making the promise, the group says Feinstein accepted a $5,000 contribution from the Tesoro Petroleum Corporation Political Action Committee (PAC), along with a $2,500 contribution from the Phillips 66 PAC.


“This is the kind of stale, establishment thinking that has been keeping us from real climate solutions for over a decade,” the Sunrise Bay Area Chapter wrote in a statement following the confrontation with the senator.

“This is why young people want new leadership in Washington DC,” said Jackie Ali Cordoba, of Sunrise Movement Bay Area, in a statement shared with ThinkProgress. “How many wildfires and lost lives will there be before Dianne Feinstein treats climate change like the crisis that it is, and backs the Green New Deal? We don’t have 30 years. California youth demand that our elected officials take the bold action that science and justice require.”

The Green New Deal resolution has received mixed reactions from Democrats. At least 65 Democrats in the House and a dozen in the Senate have backed the resolution, including a number of 2020 presidential contenders like Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Kamala Harris (D-CA), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), and Bernie Sanders (I-VT). But more conservative Democrats have expressed qualms with the resolution’s sweeping demands, which would see every sector of the U.S. economy overhauled, from transportation to agriculture, potentially costing trillions of dollars.

Republicans, who have largely mobilized against the resolution, are seeking to make the Green New Deal a wedge issue for Democrats. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has called for a show vote on the resolution in an effort to force Democratic divides out into the open. That vote is expected as early as next week.

Democrats may not be united on the Green New Deal, but the U.S. public is more open. Following a dramatic few years of hurricanes, wildfires, and heat waves, polling shows that most Americans believe in climate change and many feel it is impacting their lives.

And many are open to the Green New Deal’s proposals. According to a Business Insider poll published Feb. 14, a plurality of respondents said they supported the Green New Deal resolution as a whole. Well over 80 percent of respondents also said they supported the points laid out in the resolution, including investing in climate-resilient infrastructure, shifting to renewable power sources, and supporting energy-efficient transportation.

While Feinstein’s resistance to the Green New Deal represents a real hurdle for supporters looking for Senate backing, 2020 election polling is also swinging in favor of climate activists.

According to a January Hart Research Associates and Normington-Petts poll, likely primary and caucus voters in California, Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire and South Carolina are all more inclined to back a candidate with a Green New Deal-like proposal. Those states will play a major role in selecting the Democratic nominee.