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Youth climate group sets its sights on 2020

The Sunrise Movement is looking to the future.

Supporters of the "Green New Deal" participate in a rally at Howard University May 13, 2019 in Washington, DC. CREDIT: Alex Wong/Getty Images
Supporters of the "Green New Deal" participate in a rally at Howard University May 13, 2019 in Washington, DC. CREDIT: Alex Wong/Getty Images

WASHINGTON, D.C. — On a damp Monday evening, more than 1,000 people arrived at Howard University to watch a movement of young climate activists lay out their vision for the future.

“Say it with me,” Varshini Prakash, the 25-year-old co-founder and executive director of the Sunrise Movement, instructed the room. “Green! New! Deal!”

The event in the nation’s capital served as the conclusion of an eight-city tour across the country, with prior stops in Massachusetts, Michigan, Iowa, California, Kentucky, and Louisiana. Those events were part of a wider effort to support the Green New Deal resolution introduced in February by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA).

But for Sunrise, a youth-led climate activist group instrumental in pushing for the resolution, the tour’s stop in Washington, D.C., also offered a glimpse at how the movement plans to approach the 2020 presidential election cycle.

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In addition to Markey and Ocasio-Cortez, speakers at Monday night’s rally included activists, policymakers, and one other lawmaker: Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), who is seeking the Democratic nomination for president. The senator gave a standard stump speech at the event, critiquing “an economy that is rigged and a political system that is corrupt,” in addition to emphasizing the need for climate action.

“[We need] a global approach that emphasizes the Green New Deal,” Sanders declared, reiterating his support for the blueprint, which calls for a radical 10-year mobilization to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions in the United States. The plan is intended to create new jobs and bolster the economy, in addition to prioritizing communities impacted by environmental degradation or the loss of fossil fuel jobs, along with also enshrining social justice principles like access to education and health care.

Since its roll-out, the Green New Deal resolution has won support from many lawmakers and the backing of numerous environmental groups. But the proposal has drawn the ire of Republicans, who have incorrectly argued that it will ban hamburgers and airplanes, as well as from some Democrats who have rebutted the plan’s timeline as unrealistic along with its restrictions on fossil fuels.

Whether its detractors like it or not, however, rhetoric around the Green New Deal and climate change more broadly is likely to play a major role in the election — as is Sunrise.

A year ago, Sunrise was relatively unknown on a national level. But that changed dramatically with the 2018 midterms, as the group allied with popular new lawmakers like Ocasio-Cortez. After a Sunrise sit-in outside the office of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) went viral, the group catapulted to national attention, playing a key role in the crafting of the Green New Deal and in its subsequent marketing to the public.

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Now, Sunrise is looking to next year’s presidential election. Polling shows Americans consider climate change a leading issue and many are demanding action. One Democratic candidate, Gov. Jay Inslee (WA), is basing his entire campaign around climate action. Many have also signed on to the Green New Deal and virtually all have spoken about the need to confront the climate crisis.

On Monday, Sunrise activists and other partners offered an idea of what they might be seeking in a candidate. Rhiana Gunn-Wright, who works with the New Consensus think tank that is crafting the Green New Deal’s policy components, emphasized that “intersectionality” will be a key component.

“If you’re talking about climate and climate alone, you’re doing it wrong,” she said.

Gunn-Wright also advised pushing for candidates that show “a willingness to put the full might of our country behind” climate action. She addressed the timeline sought for action as well. While the Green New Deal is vague in how it approaches an end date for zeroing out emissions, Sunrise has pushed hard for bringing them down within the next decade.

Some experts have deemed that timeline infeasible, but Monday night’s rally indicated that Sunrise and some Green New Deal backers may still push for this more rapid approach. They have pointed to a report released last fall by the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which argued that the world only has a little over a decade to bring down emissions before passing a global warming threshold that would bring unprecedented climate impacts.

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“The next decade is crucial,” Gunn-Wright said to cheers, adding that, “2030, 2050… net-zero by this date but nothing in the middle, that’s a problem.”

So far, only a few Democratic presidential candidates have offered concrete climate plans. Sens. Elizabeth Warren (MA) and Cory Booker (NJ) have respectively released proposals for public lands and environmental justice. But only two candidates have rolled out full-scale climate action plans with the intent of decarbonizing the entire U.S. economy.

Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (TX) rolled out a sweeping climate proposal at the end of April, one that would see $5 trillion powering a national effort to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050. Some climate scientists and environmental groups cheered that plan, but Sunrise criticized O’Rourke’s timeline as not ambitious enough. After initial hesitation, however, he backed the No Fossil Fuel Money Pledge that Sunrise has been campaigning for, and the group softened some of its criticism. 

Inslee, a self-styled climate candidate, also released a detailed climate proposal days after O’Rourke. The governor’s plan offers an ambitious timeline — with 2045 the latest possible date for net-zero emissions and much of the progress underway by 2030 — but failed to put a price tag on the endeavor. Sunrise was more supportive of Inslee’s plan, but called for a greater emphasis on social justice elements and protections for frontline communities.

And while Sanders called for dramatic climate action Monday night, he has yet to release a specific climate proposal.

Sunrise has not issued an endorsement of any candidate, but on Monday one candidate came under fire more so than any other. Former Vice President Joe Biden has yet to release a climate proposal, but Reuters reported last week that he would seek a “middle ground” on climate issues, one that would not completely abandon fossil fuels.

The Biden campaign has argued the report is incorrect but has not elaborated on that rebuttal, saying instead that the candidate’s “bold” environmental vision will be unveiled in coming weeks. On Monday night, however, speakers repeatedly knocked the idea of a “middle of the road” approach, including Ocasio-Cortez, who went on to slam “conservatives on both sides of the aisle.”

Going forward, it is unclear if Sunrise will demand climate plans from candidates in exchange for their support. But the group is pushing all presidential hopefuls to pledge not to take fossil fuel money, in addition to making the Green New Deal a “day one” priority and agreeing to a Democratic debate focused solely on climate change. The deadline to do all this? July 30, says Sunrise — the date of the second Democratic presidential debate.