The Youth Movement Trying to Revolutionize Climate Politics

If President Joe Biden’s agenda passes in anything like its current form, it will be the most ambitious climate legislation ever enacted, without a close second. This would have been difficult to imagine when Biden first announced his candidacy, in 2019, much less five or ten years ago. “The Pelosi sit-in has got to be one of the most beautifully handled pieces of political theatre in American history,” Bill McKibben, a climate organizer and a contributor to this magazine, said. Ali Zaidi, who worked in the Obama White House and is now Biden’s national deputy climate adviser, a job that did not previously exist, told me, “The outer reach of what was possible, in terms of climate policy, is now table stakes.” He added that, throughout American history, “whenever we have achieved a phase change it’s been young people making it happen.”

Last fall, Biden delivered a speech in Ocasio-Cortez’s district, while assessing the damage from Hurricane Ida. “He spoke at length about how our approach to climate must create millions of union jobs,” Ocasio-Cortez said recently. “I was, like, This is the message we spent years pushing the Party to adopt, and now it’s so commonplace and widely accepted that it’s coming out of the mouth of the President of the United States.”

This past September, I travelled from New York to an Airbnb in downtown Philadelphia, where a dozen Sunrise organizers were gathering for a retreat. Normally, I’d take the train, or maybe a bus. Gaze out the window, sample the sluggish Wi-Fi, spend an hour dozing off—before you know it, you’ve arrived, without feeling too guilty about your carbon footprint. This time, given the pandemic, I drove. It was a beautiful day, so I cracked the windows, saving fuel by forgoing air-conditioning. But, come to think of it, this created drag, which surely made my gas mileage worse. Then again, my car is a hybrid! Maybe I could offset the trip by planting a tree?

The moment I got to the Airbnb, these frantic mental calculations started to seem a bit silly. The organizers were scanning the menu of a Middle Eastern restaurant on Uber Eats. Aru Shiney-Ajay, Sunrise’s training director, sat at a laptop, taking orders. “Can you get me a beef kebab?” Dejah Powell, an organizer from Chicago, said. “Or, no. Beef is the worst, right? Maybe chicken. Or falafel?”

“Dejah,” an activist named John Paul Mejia said, in a mock-scolding tone. He started reciting a movement adage, using the singsong rhythm of a call-and-response: “The biggest driver of emissions is . . .” The others joined him, in unison: “. . . the political power of the fossil-fuel industry, not individual behavior.” In other words, if you want the beef, get the beef.

During the retreat, the activists recycled, but they didn’t compost. When they ordered takeout, they didn’t always check the “go green” box to decline plastic forks and straws. At home, some of them aspired to bike everywhere, or to eat vegan; others flew all the time and found vegans annoying. This could seem like apathy, or hypocrisy. To Sunrise’s way of thinking, trying to prevent climate change by giving up disposable straws is like trying to ward off a tidal wave with a cocktail umbrella. Besides, if you want to build a mass movement it’s best to avoid life-style shaming.

In 1988, a NASA scientist named James Hansen gave congressional testimony about “the greenhouse effect.” This was largely understood by the general public as a matter of interspecies altruism (“Think of the polar bears!”), not as an existential human risk. Culturally, the environmental movement overlapped with the crunchy left, but its political instincts were small-“c” conservative, as in “conservation.” The Natural Resources Defense Council, which is now a major environmental group, was founded in 1970; one of its first big cases sought to prevent the construction of a hydropower plant on the Hudson River. The plant would have made New York less reliant on fossil fuels, but it risked disrupting the local ecosystem, including a population of striped bass. When the so-called Big Greens, like the Sierra Club and the Nature Conservancy, made demands, they tended to use patient forms of persuasion such as letter-writing campaigns and amicus briefs. “The proto-environmentalists’ instinct was to convince and convert those in power,” Douglas Brinkley, a historian of the movement, told me. “Not to finger-point or protest outside their homes.”

As the climate crisis has accelerated, though, it has become clear that reversing it will require building a new clean-energy infrastructure, which is, politically speaking, a heavier lift. In 2006, Davis Guggenheim and Al Gore released “An Inconvenient Truth,” a documentary that accurately described the scope of the crisis before offering such solutions as “Plant trees” and “Buy energy efficient appliances + lightbulbs.” William Lawrence, one of Sunrise’s co-founders, told me, “Even if you change all the light bulbs in the country, you don’t come close to preventing catastrophe. What kind of plan is that, where even if you win you still lose?” Sunrise approached the problem the other way around, first determining what would mitigate the crisis—leaving most of the remaining gas, coal, and oil reserves in the ground—and then trying to build the political will to make that happen. The only way forward, as the group saw it, was to act less like a special-interest lobby and more like a confrontational social movement. If the Big Greens were like medical researchers at the beginning of the AIDS epidemic, politely asking for more government funding, then Sunrise would be like ACT UP, scattering ashes on the White House lawn.

Internally, Sunrise patterns itself on the civil-rights movement, which was very unpopular in its time. “Some people wanted them to do pure outside game and street protest; others advised them to only negotiate with L.B.J.,” Prakash told me. Instead, she continued, they used a hybrid strategy: “You make the moral case, rally the public, and then you try to secure policies that lock that new common sense into place.” This is hardly a foolproof plan. When Martin Luther King, Jr., first called for a federal Civil Rights Act, it was seen as an impossibility; only after a series of galvanizing events, including the March on Washington and the church bombing in Birmingham, did it become a reality. Taylor Branch, the civil-rights historian, told me that King “spent years groping around in the dark, looking for tactics that would resonate.” He added, “Trying to mobilize people to save the planet now, during a time of deep polarization and cynicism, is, in some ways, a harder task.” This analogy can be interpreted in Sunrise’s favor: maybe the organization’s moment of peak influence is still to come. It’s also possible to read it as a cautionary tale: what if the Green New Deal, like the Poor People’s Campaign of 1968, is a dream that will never be fully realized?

Prakash grew up in the Boston suburbs; her family is from South India, which, in recent decades, has been battered by floods, droughts, and heat waves. For as long as she can remember, she has experienced climate change as a source of profound anxiety. “As a kid, you first have the thought, This is the most dire problem, so surely there are adults in the room who are fixing it,” she said. “That quickly turns to, Oh no, the adults are actually the ones making it worse, and no one has a plan.” As a high schooler, she was desperate to take action, but the only group she could join was her school’s recycling club. “Then I got to college and figured out, Oh, you don’t sit around waiting for the people in power to fix things,” she continued. “You have to force their hand.”

As a junior at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, in 2014, she got a call from William Lawrence, then a recent Swarthmore graduate. Both were involved in campus fossil-fuel divestment campaigns, modelled on campaigns that had pressed American universities to divest from apartheid South Africa. Lawrence was starting a nonprofit, the Fossil Fuel Divestment Student Network, and he asked Prakash to join. The year after she graduated, UMass Amherst became the first large public university to give up its direct fossil-fuel holdings. “But we didn’t feel like we were winning, in the scheme of things,” Prakash said. “Because we kept doing the math: even if we win every single divestment campaign, that still doesn’t get us where we need to go fast enough.”

In late 2015, a coalition of youth organizations—climate groups, racial-justice groups, immigrants’-rights groups, and others—led a march to the White House. “It was supposed to be our show of force,” Sara Blazevic, one of the organizers, told me. “It ended up being a pretty sad scene.” The activists tried to condense their various demands into a cogent message, but “the best we could come up with was ‘Our Generation, Our Choice,’ which didn’t mean anything to anyone.” The White House offered to send a senior official to meet with them, but the activists, unable to agree on who should represent them, turned it down. Afterward, Prakash, Blazevic, Lawrence, and another climate organizer named Guido Girgenti went out for Ethiopian food and had a frank conversation. “The upshot was: We have to take a step back and figure out a new strategy, or we’re going to hit a dead end,” Prakash said.

They sought the guidance of an organizer-training institute called Momentum. Founded by millennials who had met in the aftermath of Occupy Wall Street, Momentum aimed to build on the strengths of such spontaneous movements (their ability to galvanize public attention) while correcting for their weaknesses (once they command attention, they don’t always know what to do with it). When organizers want to start something new, Momentum’s trainers lead them through a painstaking, year-long process called front-loading, during which they arrive at a detailed consensus about what they want to achieve and how they plan to get there. Beginning in the summer of 2016, Prakash, Blazevic, Lawrence, Girgenti, and about eight others gathered at rented farms and movement houses, giving their project the placeholder name Divestment 2.0. As students, they had demanded a say in how their universities’ money was being invested. Now they realized that, as American citizens, they also had a stake in a much bigger pot of money—the one appropriated by the U.S. government.

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