A growing sea of crusaders known as the Sunrise Movement has helped put climate change on the national agenda. Most aren’t even 30.
This story is part of Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 250 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate.
Unlike some recent college graduates, Sunrise Movement activist Paul Campion doesn’t have a five-year plan. Climate change doesn’t let him plan that far into the future.
“I can’t think more than 16 months out. The other day I was talking with my partner about the magnitude of what we face, and it’s a weight that’s always there,” Campion told me as he sat on the couch in the apartment he shares with four other young Sunrise Movement activists in Northwest Washington, DC.
Their apartment looks like a stereotypical DC group house, but it feels more transient, like its inhabitants could be ready to pick up and move at a moment’s notice. There is no-frills furniture and basic cooking supplies; small “Green New Deal” posters and a huge “Our Time to Rise” banner adorn sparse white walls.
The three-bedroom apartment in Washington’s Columbia Heights neighborhood is one of a handful of so-called movement houses around the country where Sunrise Movement activists live and work together. Their mission is twofold: trying to force politicians to act on one of the most dire issues facing humankind and building an army of young people to send the message.
After they spend their days working at the Sunrise office in downtown DC or meeting with lawmakers on Capitol Hill, they come home to share vegetarian meals at their table each night. A small sign in their kitchen says “everyday I’m brusselin’,” and the apartment wifi password alludes to their shared love of eggplant. They try to minimize their trash impact by composting, which they can take to the local farmer’s market for free.
This small group is part of a much larger national organization whose members are disproportionately in their teens or 20s. (The Sunrise Movement doesn’t have formal membership.) But its core leaders — a small group of activists in their mid-20s — estimate that 15,000 young people have showed up to in-person actions across the country and that 80,000 have participated in less direct actions such as emailing and calling their representatives. As of this month, the group has 290 small, autonomous chapters of activists (called “hubs”) across the country. In November 2018, there were just 11.
The 15,000 people who have turned out in person have spent the past year occupying the offices and hallways of the US Capitol, state houses, and Democratic National Committee meetings across the country, yelling at the top of their lungs.
Their methods are straight out of the playbook of the civil rights movement of the 1960s: Frequently, they sing protest songs. They stand quietly as police officers zip-tie their hands behind their backs and lead them into vans for civil disobedience. Their eyes pleading, they carry signs, including ones that say, “The Youth are Coming for You.”
The new face of climate resistance is young and diverse. It is scared, and it is loud.
In a short amount of time, the Sunrise Movement’s assertive tactics have brought about a profound change, forcing climate change and the Green New Deal — their vision to solve it — to become defining issues of the 2020 election. These would-be young voters have pushed Democrats running for president to release serious, detailed plans to drastically cut America’s fossil fuel emissions.
These recent college graduates are forgoing the entry-level professional jobs their peers get to throw themselves into climate activism full-time. Everyone in the DC apartment is in their early or mid-20s; no one has a permanent plan, other than working like hell to try to stop climate change.
“Traditional adult markers of getting a house, getting married, having kids … that’s 11 years,” said housemate Lauren Maunus, tallying up how long it might have taken her, under more ordinary circumstances, to achieve them all. Eleven years has a different significance for her and her friends; it marks the year 2030, the deadline set by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change for countries worldwide to drastically lower their emissions or suffer the effects of a climate catastrophe after average worldwide temperatures pass 1.5 or 2 degrees celsius.
Some of those effects are already apparent. Hurricane Dorian wreaked devastation on the Bahamas, and wildfires are raging worldwide, from the Amazon to Siberian forests and the western United States. It can also be felt closer to home; the day I interviewed the group in early September, it was a sweltering 96 degrees in Washington, DC, a new heat record for that date.
“We’ve got to lay it all out on the line over the next year,” Campion said. His housemates nod gravely.
Sunrise has been incredibly effective at drawing attention to climate
Sunrise is known for two things: how young it is, and how effective it has been so quickly.
The group was born out of the college divestment movement, in which student activists pushed administrators to divest assets and holdings from fossil fuel companies. Sunrise co-founder and executive director Varshini Prakash spearheaded the movement at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, using protests and sit-ins to accomplish the goal. Fellow Sunrise founders Sara Blazevic and Stephen O’Hanlon (now the group’s managing director and spokesperson, respectively) helped lead the divestment movement at Swarthmore College, while organizing director Dyanna Jaye did the same at the University of Virginia.
In 2013, the rough outline of a Green New Deal was being drafted by Sunrise co-founder and current political director Evan Weber when he was a senior at Wesleyan University. Their project was a response to then-President Barack Obama’s Climate Action Plan, which Weber believed was “wholly insufficient to tackle the climate crisis.” He and his co-authors, fellow student Matthew Lichtash and then-visiting professor and environmentalist Michael Dorsey, wanted to put out an alternative vision that was much bolder in scope.
“We started coming up with an idea. What would it look like to actually demand action at the scale that was needed and put forward solutions actually at the scale of the problem?” Weber, 27, said. Their report made some waves as a dissenting voice criticizing a Democratic administration on climate, and Weber started noticing young people in particular were latching onto their idea. Soon after, he met Jaye at the 2014 People’s Climate March in New York City.
Sunrise’s co-founders spent much of 2016 preparing for Hillary Clinton’s election. The rise of Donald Trump raised the stakes dramatically.
“Our old plan exploded, and when the dust settled, one thing was crystal clear: We’ve gotta figure out how to win some elections,” Prakash and Jaye wrote in a 2017 Medium post. “Trump’s victory has blown over the barriers between young people and political engagement, pointing towards the possibility of a sea change at every level of government.”
The group officially launched in April 2017 with some grant seed money from the Sierra Club and 350.org. But the world first took notice of Sunrise on November 13, 2018, when 200 of its activists filed into incoming Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office and refused to leave.
The protesters sang and shouted in the hallways of the Cannon Office Building. They weren’t asking for action on climate; they were demanding it. They got a high-profile boost from progressive star and representative-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), who stopped by to high-five them and encourage them to keep up their work. They stayed for hours, continuing even after police arrested 51 of them.
“It felt like divine intervention,” Weber said. “No members of Congress gave a shit about what we did before we occupied Nancy Pelosi’s office, and now we’re one of the most influential groups in the progressive movement that almost every single presidential candidate has reached out to before releasing their climate plans.”
Since 2017, the group has called on state and national politicians to forgo donations from fossil fuel companies. It has taken its occupations to state houses around the country, calling for Green New Deals on the state level. A month after occupying Pelosi’s office, Sunrise came back to Congress with 1,000 young people, quintupling the size of the protest.
And this month, the activists of Sunrise will join thousands — perhaps even millions — of other young people in global youth climate strikes calling for action on climate change. The Global Climate Strike, set for September 20 and 27, aims to capitalize on the United Nations Climate Action Summit on September 23. The protests are being organized by multiple groups, including Swedish activist Greta Thunberg’s Fridays for Future, and the US Youth Climate Strike (a group led by Isra Hirsi, the 16-year-old daughter of Democratic Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota).
“I’m incredibly excited. I think the youth mobilization and the mobilization of environmental activists and frontline mobilization as well, that kind of activism is what’s actually moving a lot of the legislative agenda on climate and making it much more pressing,” Ocasio-Cortez told Vox. “I think their work has been invaluable, there’s no way we’d be in this moment without groups like Sunrise and Climate Justice Alliance.”
The group has also done electoral work that has paid off, especially in state and local elections. They helped elect progressive politicians to the New York state legislature, which passed the wide-reaching Climate & Communities Protection Act, modeled after the Green New Deal, this summer.
Sunrise caught lightning in a bottle; the climate is a growing concern for many voters, especially Democrats. A July Pew Research Center survey showed that 84 percent of Democrats surveyed are worried about climate change. Republicans aren’t nearly as concerned, but polling shows rising climate anxiety among young Republicans. A global poll by Glocalities showed 67 percent of US Republicans ages 18 to 34 “agreed” or “strongly agreed” humans were causing damage to the planet.
This speaks to the fact that climate is a huge generational issue. A May Gallup poll showed 70 percent of Americans ages 18 to 34 were worried “a great deal” or “a fair amount” about climate change, compared to 56 percent of Americans 55 and older.
“It creates an aggrieved party,” said Andy Hoffman, a professor of sustainable enterprise at the University of Michigan. “It’s young people, it’s their future. I do think that’s significant in terms of getting a group to cluster around a common cause, to say, ‘I am being harmed.’”
With the effects of climate change so noticeable and with a climate-change denier in the White House, it makes sense for a coalition of young people to come together in the US, Europe, and elsewhere around the globe to demand action on climate. Their message is clear: If older generations won’t do anything, we will.
“We have grown up our entire lives watching this issue completely sidelined in the political discourse,” said Prakash, 26. The recent attention on climate policy “is not because members of the media or political establishment woke up one day. It is a direct result of the active energy and the demand from thousands of young people on the front lines of the crisis.”
This has most recently been seen in the group’s work to secure a climate change forum on national television. Despite the Democratic National Committee voting down a climate-specific presidential debate, major networks like CNN and MSNBC stepped up to fill the void after months of Sunrise activists protesting, showing up to DNC meetings, and tweeting. CNN recently held a seven-hour climate town hall — the longest, most substantial discussion of climate change ever held on primetime television. MSNBC is set to hold another one on September 19.
And media attention begets policy; the day before the CNN town hall, Democratic presidential candidates Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, Pete Buttigieg, and Julian Castro put forward a fresh wave of climate change plans, joining much of the rest of the field. Climate experts and even presidential candidates including Beto O’Rourke credited Sunrise with making the change, saying “they have forced those in power, and those in public trust, to solve these challenges.”
Though Warren didn’t address Sunrise by name, she filmed a short video after the forum thanking youth climate protesters for their persistence.
“The best part was who was in the audience; it was a bunch of young people who made it happen,” Warren said, comparing youth activists to generations of civil rights marchers, suffragettes, and LGBTQ activists that came before them. “They’re going to make their voices heard in 2020.”
Sunrise’s place in the larger environmental movement
As the youth climate movement rises to prominence, older groups in the environmental movement are grappling with where exactly they went wrong on climate change.
“The movement has evolved, because it wasn’t working. We’re losing,” Greenpeace USA executive director Annie Leonard said. “The science is stronger than ever, and we’re still losing.”
What’s been missing, according to Leonard, is a mass movement to galvanize public sentiment on climate change. Older groups have historically pursued their own projects, such as land conservation, protecting endangered species, or trying to ban plastic bags. Few have been as overtly political as Sunrise, and few have been able to offer as succinct a tagline as a Green New Deal for their proposed climate change solution.
“The environmental movement started with talking about climate change as an environmental issue, and I think still in a lot of ways is stuck in that box,” said Susan Ruffo, the executive director of the Circulate Initiative, who formerly worked at the Nature Conservancy and Ocean Conservancy. “It’s still stuck in that box, the classic picture of a polar bear. It’s much more about the future and their lives, and not as much about, ‘This is an environmental issue.’ ”
Sunrise sees itself as more akin to the civil rights movement of the 1960s or the Occupy Wall Street protests in 2011 than it does to older environmental groups. It does draw similarity from 350.org, the group founded by environmentalist Bill McKibben and a group of college students also active in the divestment movement.
“It takes time to build movements,” McKibben said in an email interview. “We’ve gone from the place where we could organize small, scattered protests a decade ago, to putting 400,000 people in the streets in New York in 2014 [during the People’s Climate March] to events like the big all-ages climate strike coming on Sept. 20, which I imagine will be the largest day of climate action yet.”
Part of the reason Sunrise has been so effective is the way it communicates the scale of the crisis. This component is important because Republicans and fossil fuel companies successfully muddled the message for years, claiming climate change either wasn’t happening, or wasn’t manmade. The environmental movement thought science would convince the public, but that hasn’t worked, in part because scientists aren’t the best messengers.
“They’re not very effective,” said Leah Stokes, a political science professor at the University of California Santa Barbara, who studies environmental movements. “Scientists trade on uncertainties and caveats. We needed a voice to say climate change is happening now, and get that into the media and public consciousness.”
Rather than focusing on abstract or far-away things like melting ice caps in the Arctic or rising CO2 levels that no one can see, Sunrise strategically focuses on something much more immediate and — in some ways — selfish. It homes in on what climate change will do to humans.
“I know a very small number of people who get very excited about decarbonization as a thing,” Prakash told me. What she and her colleagues at Sunrise are trying to get at is their vision for solving climate change through massive mobilization and, most importantly, the creation of green jobs.
“Those are things people intuitively understand because they relate to their everyday lives,” Prakash said. “I feel like climate activists are always frustrated people don’t care about their issue … the problem is we’re not listening to what people care about.”
It’s not to discount the work of past environmental groups, which Leonard, the executive director of Greenpeace US, calls “formidable.”
“Forests still standing, chemicals banned. The world is a better place because Greenpeace did that work, and if we did the same things in the next 50 years, we’re toast,” she said. “It’s not enough.”
Sunrise has a bold, controversial five-year plan
Sunrise’s purpose over the past year has been championing the Green New Deal. But the difference between laying out the boldest vision and actually passing something Democrats and Republicans — or even just liberal and moderate Democrats — can agree on are two totally different things.
As it stands, the Green New Deal is a broad framework rather than a single piece of legislation. It aims to make the United States carbon neutral by 2030, turning the country into a global leader of renewable energy along the way. It’s no accident the Green New Deal takes its name from Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal; it would amount to a massive transformation of the US economy, calling for everything from making every residential and industrial building energy efficient, to decarbonizing major industries and infrastructure. It aims to create millions of jobs in the process, a key component of the plan that Sunrise leaders believe will boost its chances with moderates and Republicans.
But Sunrise’s hopes for enacting a Green New Deal rest on everything going right for Democrats in 2020. Democrats would need to win the White House, keep the House, and win the Senate (where they would either have to win by a large margin or abolish the filibuster to get big pieces of legislation through).
“I think that getting climate change legislation done is doable,” former Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid, who supports abolishing the filibuster, told Vox recently. “If we have a Democratic Congress and president that will make it a lot easier, and that’s an understatement.”
Activists are under no impression that they’ll get everything they want, but they act like they will.
“We believe the people in power are ultimately most responsive to power,” Weber said. “We believe you can shift the terrain of what’s possible by shifting the conversation and by building power.”
Ahead of the election, Sunrise plans to use the climate issue to mobilize thousands of young people across the country to get out and vote for a Democratic president and lawmakers. They will turn activists participating in the September climate strikes into get-out-the-vote leaders ahead of November 2020. To mobilize youth voters, the number of movement houses like the one in Northwest DC is planned to grow in pivotal states for the next presidential election.
There are plenty of Democratic members of Congress who are content nibbling around the edges of climate policy and concerned with passing a bipartisan package that Republicans can get on board with. And even the most moderate Republicans on climate regard the Green New Deal as a pipe dream.
“We’re grateful to [Sunrise] raising the salience of the issue, but it’s vital conservatives hear the message of climate action in their own language, rather than the language of the left, because it’s a totally different language,” said former South Carolina Rep. Bob Inglis, who founded RepublicEN, a Republican climate group working to persuade the GOP to act on climate. “It’s a language of scarcity, doing less. It’s a left-tilting, moralistic message. And we talk about energy abundance and the power of the free enterprise system to deliver innovation.”
We’re far from knowing whether these discussions will even be able to take place. If Donald Trump is reelected in 2020, they most certainly won’t. But Sunrise is preparing for the alternative scenario, continuing to needle members of Congress by whatever means necessary.
“Sunrise should keep doing what it’s doing. It’s not their job to be reasonable and cultivate favor with Republican leaders,” Stokes said.
The climate pessimism and optimism of Sunrise
A number of Sunrise members talk about the concept of “millennial dread” or “millennial nihilism,” the sense that things are bad and won’t get better for younger generations. That encompasses a lot of things, like student loan debt and the inability to save enough to buy a home, but the climate crisis is a huge part of it.
Joanna Zhu, one of the DC house activists, tells me about a dark joke circulating among her friends: “I don’t have a 401(k). I’m just counting on the apocalypse taking me out sometime soon.”
And so, at its essence, Sunrise is a group of scared young people looking for a way to do something. While they’ve speedily become savvy, they are kids — not seasoned activists.
“I’d say a lot of our members are showing up for the first time,” Weber, the Sunrise political director, told me. “They’re young adults that are just kind of freaked out about the climate crisis and political moment we’re in.” Sunrise’s name alludes to that feeling, that the night is always darkest before the dawn of a new day. The youth are scared, but they’re also hopeful.
Almost every Sunrise member of the DC house has a story about how climate dramatically made a mark on their lives.
Maunus grew up in Palm City, Florida, which had back-to-back Category 3 and 4 hurricanes when she was in the fourth grade. After one of the storms hit, she and her sister took inner tubes and floated down their street like it was a waterpark. They were the lucky ones; their house was still standing, she told me.
For Christian Galo from Houston, it was another hurricane. Hurricane Mitch slammed into his family’s home country of Honduras in 1998 as a Category 5 storm, killing more than 7,000 people and displacing thousands more.
“Most of my mom’s family ended up moving outside of Honduras as refugees after,” Galo told me. “Just thinking how vulnerable those populations are now, it feels more urgent now with the migrant crisis.” In 2017, he was afraid for his family again as they took shelter from Hurricane Harvey, when the storm dumped more than four feet of rain on Houston.
Gabbi Pierce remembers the earthquakes that started in her hometown of Wichita, Kansas, after oil and gas companies started fracking there. (Wichita is home base for Koch Industries.)
“Kansas had never had earthquakes, but around the time I was 14-15, that was the time I felt my first earthquake in Kansas,” she said. A few years later, when she moved to California, she witnessed the wildfires near Los Angeles and the clouds of smoke rolling over the mountains.
“I could smell the smoke in the air, everyone was walking past wearing masks,” Pierce said. “Dimming out the sun, it was apocalyptic.”
It was Galo who summed up why they were all in DC, working with Sunrise: “I would not know how to live with myself if I were not involved.”
Ella Nilsen covers the 2020 election and Congress for Vox. She previously reported on the 2016 primaries for the Concord Monitor newspaper in New Hampshire.
Author: Ella Nilsen