By Garrett Blad
On a rainy Sunday the weekend after the 2018 midterm elections, some two hundred young people filled the pews of St. Stephen & the Incarnation Episcopal Church in Washington D.C. The young faces chanting and singing in the pews belonged to the Sunrise Movement, a new movement of young people fueled with anger at four decades of political inaction on climate change. Politicians on both sides call them naive for demanding change. The next day, they planned to protest and lobby the new Democratic majority, notably the soon-to-be leader Nancy Pelosi, to back what they called a Green New Deal. The plan calls for a nothing less than WW-II-scale mobilization to transform the American economy to 100% renewable energy in just 10 years.
Sunrise Movement was founded in April 2017 by a dozen climate organizers in their twenties with the goal to create the first ever popular movement to stop climate change and transform the American economy. Their campaign to make the Green New Deal a political reality started when two hundred young people occupied Pelosi’s office that Monday, a week after the midterm elections. Democrats had won back the House with commanding numbers, and young people played a significant role. Meanwhile, wildfires fanned by climate change just leveled Paradise, California, killing at least 86 people. Moreover, Pelosi and the Democratic Party had no plan to address climate change until at least 2021.
On that rainy Sunday, an alliance solidified between the scrappy Sunrise Movement and the newly elected Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Initially, Sunrise reached out to see if Ocasio-Cortez could amplify their sit-in at Pelosi’s office with a tweet. Instead, she and her team spent 48 hours drafting a skeleton for what would be known as the Green New Deal and agreed to stop by the sit-in the next day. On her first day of freshman orientation, Ocasio-Cortez would throw her support behind a group of young people protesting her new boss, one of the most influential people in the country.
Sixty-two young people would be arrested in Pelosi’s office that day. And with Ocasio-Cortez backing Sunrise, the media swarmed, giving attention to an issue that has historically received little coverage. However, Pelosi didn’t budge. In the following weeks, Ocasio-Cortez and Sunrise pushed incoming members of Congress to sign on to the Ocasio-Cortez’s GND plan. On December 10th, Sunrise sat-in again, this time 1,000 strong. By the end, Sunrise and Ocasio-Cortez had gained support from 43 members of Congress, including Senators Cory Booker (NJ), Bernie Sanders (VT), and Jeff Merkley (OR), each a potential 2020 presidential candidate.
While Pelosi did not create the House Committee that Sunrise and Ocasio-Cortez demanded, they won the most significant breakthrough on climate change in decades and pulled the Democrats with them. For the first time in history, a solution was proposed in Congress that matches the scale and speed necessary to stop climate change. In a matter of weeks, the largest papers in the nation and top Democratic leaders declared that climate change will be a priority in 2019.
Since then, discussion of the Green New Deal has taken off. A record number of Americans are concerned about climate change, both Democrats and Republican voters support the idea of a Green New Deal, and presidential contenders are racing to jump on the bandwagon because of pressure from Sunrise.
This level of mobilization came after a year of organizing around the midterm elections. In the lead up to the 2018 midterms, Sunrise reached thousands of people on a public speaking tour, opened eight movement houses filled with volunteers, and brought on 85 young people who volunteered full-time in key states to launch the largest youth intervention on climate change in electoral history: Sunrise Semester. In 2018, Sunrise organizers contacted over 250,000 voters and pushed over 1,300 candidates to sign the #NoFossilFuelMoney Pledge, distancing themselves publically from the fossil fuel CEOs, lobbyists, and PACs responsible for the crisis. 19 out of Sunrise’s 30 endorsed candidates were elected, including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
Sunrise and the fight for the Green New Deal is bringing fresh energy and momentum to the climate movement, marking perhaps the first time that a solution to climate change has broken through to reach decision-makers and the public. While Sunrise is by no means finished, its success in turning the Green New Deal from a fringe policy idea into the common sense policy for stopping climate change is remarkable. How has Sunrise been successful when the climate movement has been experiencing defeat for so long? A combination of three characteristics sets Sunrise apart from past efforts to stop climate change: class framing, efficient decision-making, and an offensive party-oriented strategy.
First, Sunrise leaders noticed that old movements focused almost singularly on climate change. To activists, this “climate first” mentality rightly emphasized urgency. However, this framing distanced the movement from key allies and restricted the size and demographic that the movement was able to attract and maintain. Sunrise’s narrative, on the other hand, is one of class domination by the elite, a story that is more reminiscent of Occupy Wall Street than the pipeline protests and climate marches of the past decade. Sunrise knows that the climate movement cannot stop climate change by itself. Sunrise will only be successful if “we stand with other movements for change,” which is one of Sunrise’s defining principles. This explicit class framing has created space for critical alliances with the labor movement, like the Service Employees International Union, and organizations focused on social and economic justice.
Second, the founders of Sunrise noticed the internal conflict that overwhelmed organizations by learning from successful social movements. Movements focused on climate change, and other movements on the left have often been more concerned with internal democracy than on winning and claiming power. Sunrise’s structure is a notable shift from the non-hierarchical principles of Occupy for example. When too much attention and value is placed on process and hierarchy, the result is a paralyzing purism and a crippling, insular culture. Internal conflict is by no means restricted to environmental movements. The Women’s movement, for instance, was marked by constant struggles over the pressure for hierarchy and the will for internal democracy.
Sunrise’s organizational structure didn’t happen by accident. Many Sunrise leaders attended Momentum workshops, which train leaders on how to translate mass protest actions into long-term grassroots power. Sunrise leaders learned that to build a mass movement that is simultaneously autonomous and unified, Sunrise needed to be decentralized and decision-making needed to be efficient. Decentralization requires hierarchy for efficiency, clarity, and focus. For example, the strategy, principles, structure, and story of Sunrise were created by leaders and given right out of the gate to its members. However, democratic decision-making is considered important at moments where input from the movement is critical for momentum and unity, for example, if and who to endorse as a 2020 presidential candidate.
Lastly, Sunrise chose to champion a new generation of leaders and change the Democratic Party with a bold, national policy. The state of U.S. politics is crystal clear: climate change is polarized, and bipartisan solutions that will meet the scope and scale of the crisis are unlikely. Instead of fighting the anti-government and anti-science Republican party which had forced major environmental groups into the defensive, Sunrise chose to tap into the growing progressive and younger flank of the Democratic party to launch an offensive attack. This is the first time in history that the climate movement focused its efforts on systematic change within a political party in the United States. By pushing the Democratic party to reject campaign contributions from fossil fuel CEOs, lobbyists, and PACs, and by backing a popular national plan with demands at the scale and speed scientists say is necessary to stop the worst of global warming, Sunrise is changing politics in America to address climate change for the first time.
Sunrise’s strategy in 2019 is to make the Green New Deal the talk of the nation and ensure climate change is at the top of the agenda in the Presidential election. If successful, the Green New Deal will become the common sense approach to stop climate change, quickly making it a top issue in the 2020 Presidential race and setting up a scenario for sweeping legislation to pass in 2021. It’s certainly a long and complex path to victory, but if the road so far has anything to say for the future, Sunrise is built for success.