Main image: Rose Strauss, a member of the Sunrise movement, in Santa Barbara, California. Photograph: Alex Welsh/The Guardian
by Adrian Horton, Dream McClinton and Lauren Aratani
Despite being barely two years old, the Sunrise Movement has outpaced established environmental groups in the push to radically reshape the political landscape around climate change.
Closely allied with new congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the youth-led Sunrise Movement has helped set out a sweepingly ambitious plan to address climate change in the form of the Green New Deal. Activists have ramped up pressure on lawmakers to back the plan, staging a high-profile occupation of the office of Nancy Pelosi, the House speaker, and, more recently, picketing Mitch McConnell, the Republican Senate leader.
The movement comprises a small core team of young organizers, supported by a larger group of several hundred volunteers. The group’s elevation of the Green New Deal has clearly riled Trump, who has falsely but repeatedly claimed that the plan would result in the banning of cars, air travel and even cows.
The Guardian spoke to Sunrise members on how the organization has shaken the political and environmental establishment in the US.
Marcela Mulholland, 21, Fort Lauderdale, Florida
A few days after Trump won, I just felt super radicalized. I couldn’t believe that climate change was happening and people were pretending as if we weren’t on this downward spiral. So I went to school wearing a sign that said “Climate change is real.” My teacher is a huge environmental activist and she told me about Sunrise.
I took the fall semester off from school to volunteer full time with them, working on the midterm elections in Orlando, Florida. We were knocking on a lot of doors, talking to people about the candidates that we endorse because they had either signed the No Fossil Fuel Money pledge or had climate policy.
Fossil fuel money in our politics is the main obstacle to climate policy, in my opinion. There’s only so much that public opinion can do if the politicians are bought out by fossil fuel billionaires and executives.
When you look at the polling of public opinion on climate change and the Green New Deal specifically, it’s clear that the public is already with us on this issue, it’s just a matter of turning passive supporters into active supporters.
I feel like young people have always played the role of moral clarity and being willing to be idealists about what the world should be like. I see my generation as picking up the baton from young people in the 1960s and in the civil rights movement who engaged in similar efforts. We totally see our struggle as rooted in the past activism of young people.
Rose Strauss, 19, San Anselmo, California
I grew up next to the ocean in the Bay Area. I was so sure I would become a marine biologist up until two years ago. Studying marine animals is my passion. But as I was walking along the beach year after year I realised the animals I was trying to study were disappearing faster than I could study them, which was really scary. I learned about climate change when I was 12, doing a report on the Canadian seal hunt, and I realized it was one of these issues that you can’t note and do nothing.
Doing nothing is a death sentence to my generation
I had to get political. I’m Jewish, my (extended) family was in the Holocaust. I was brought with the belief that if you become aware of something, you have a responsibility to take action.
In 10 or 11 years, when climate change is irreversible, I’m going to be trying to have kids or get married … that definitely changes the way I can talk about this issue. This is literally my future and you doing nothing is a death sentence to my generation.
Even with young people, there’s always this tendency to want to compromise, to want to talk to people and come to an agreement. That’s a really hard thing to step away from. What we found in Sunrise is that drawing a line in the sand is something that needs to be done sometimes. We can’t have a compromise on stopping climate change – we either stop it or don’t.
You should be a little bit scared if you haven’t endorsed the Green New Deal, because young people aren’t going to vote for you. We aren’t going to be behind you, You can’t claim to be environmentalist if you don’t do this. That’s the line we’re drawing, which is really helpful.
Lily Gardner, 15, Lexington, Kentucky
I grew up in eastern Kentucky. There, I couldn’t escape the generational poverty caused by the fossil fuel industry. A lot of my friends’ parents were unemployed, there were no coalmining jobs. But we’ve known that the end of coal was coming for awhile.
When my mom moved to eastern Kentucky 30-plus years ago, people told her that there were only 30 years left of coal in these mountains. But no one made any preparations. Instead, they just started to deny, and people sunk deeper into poverty. So by the time I was a child, these families had barely enough food to put on their table because they weren’t receiving Black Lung benefits, because they had family members who had died in the mines. I even had friends who were turning to opioids because they were so disenfranchised, discouraged and dismayed that they were going to end up like their parents.
People are not climate deniers because they don’t believe in facts, people are climate deniers because they’re so afraid that they cannot confront another thing that is going to put them deeper into poverty.
Climate change is something that disproportionately impacts my generation. We’re feeling the burden of it, so it makes sense that I would care the most. But I think it’s really difficult to get politicians and legislators to take our voices seriously, especially because they believe that we do not have any voting power.
I think there’s a misconception that we’re advocating for something that’s unattainable, that we are throwing ourselves out there, that we’re becoming extreme, when we’re not. We are advocating for what is necessary to ensure that I have a livable future at all.
Jeremy Ornstein, 18, Watertown, Massachusetts
Sometimes it’s hard because people don’t take us seriously. A lot of us who are going to be most heavily impacted by climate change can’t vote. I couldn’t vote until six months ago.
We want to be part of the debate which we’ve been excluded from because we don’t have the money to buy in to elect politicians who will back us. When politicians don’t listen and don’t represent us, we have the ability to say, “OK, we’re going to show up at your office.”
We’re telling them to go, go, go because we don’t have time to do it any other way
I was there that night when Scott Wagner called Rose Strauss “young and naive”. It was so defeating for me. The next day, it was like “Oh my God, it’s happening.” It picked up steam, and then we were so energized and excited. Not everyone’s story will go viral. But the more stories we have, it’s like a moral, emotional, value-driven path forward for our country.
My official role is helping to put on a tour for the Green New Deal. We’re taking the Green New Deal to every city and town across America, first in seven or eight flagship stops in places that represent real political leadership or really devastating climate impact or economic inequality.
We’re giving anyone who wants to do this the blueprint, and we’re telling them to go, go, go because we don’t have time to do it any other way.
Saya Ameli, 17, Boston, Massachusetts
The first thing that I saw looking out of the airplane window [when I moved to the US] was just how green Boston was. I saw all the trees, the bushes lining the sidewalks. It was a really stark contrast from Tehran. My family and I used to go hiking in the hills behind my Tehran house and once we got to the summit, we just saw this almost gray canvas covering the city. Looking up, we saw the blue sky.
It made me realize that it could be different. With a little more government regulation, awareness and action, we could change the way the city looks and feels.
The movement really has grown since it’s started out. Just looking back in November, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez came out with the Green New Deal. Sunrise was able to send hundreds of people to Washington DC to support her and advocate for the Green New Deal.
Senator Mark Houston has been really helpful and the Massachusetts lead on supporting the Green New Deal. Just a few days ago, Sunrise actually took to his office to thank him and his staffers for their support. The only legislator left on the lower level for Massachusetts is Representative Richard Neal. Currently, Sunrise is at his office, asking him to sign on.
It really is too late to have a debate on whether or not climate change is a hoax, especially when we’re already seeing people suffering the consequences; my heart goes out to all those people that have their school torn down or their houses broken because of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico.
If our leaders aren’t willing to really address the crisis that we’re facing right now, then they need to be replaced.
People say that young people are naive or too inexperienced but every time we get something done, we prove that we aren’t that stereotype. We may be young, but we are not naive. We understand the real-life consequences of climate change on our present and future, and we’ve decided to do something about it.