This week across the US, hundreds of young people are visiting their Senators in order to plead for the Green New Deal (GND). They’re telling personal stories about why the GND holds hope for their future — for green trees and parks, for clean air to breathe and safe water to drink, for a system of energy that’s renewable, not rigged by fossil fuel billionaires. In what is likely their first acts of civil disobedience, these young people are getting a taste of democracy in action, and some of the images coming out of those tete-a-tetes with the powerful and wealthy are enough to make us adults in the room cringe. Importantly, these (adult) people whom we expect to lead are making tremendous political miscalculations.
Masses of young people are delivering a clear message about climate change to reps on both sides of the political aisle: Americans want a GND, and young voters will remember where Senators stand on the resolution the next time they want their votes. These young activists believe they are making progress, too: the Green New Deal resolution has more than 90 cosponsors, including every Senator running for President.
Sunrise Hubs form the backbone of the movement by growing people power locally, elevating climate change as an urgent priority, contesting political power in our country, and working with other local organizations to build the people’s alignment. Now, lest you think these young people are college-aged, reminiscent of the Vietnam War protests, let me assure you that you’re both right and wrong. Yes, a good number of supporters are in college, but there are also huge numbers of high school and even middle school aged Sunrisers.
In an interesting turn of events this week, two generally savvy politicians lost their tempers and ways with these Sunrise youth. And in their inability to show calm, patience, understanding, and even a bit of a knowing smile, Senators holding onto tenuous political power may have overplayed their hands and, in doing so, strengthened support for the very GND resolution which makes them grit their teeth.
It is Monday, February 25. A queue of Kentucky high school students who had traveled to Washington, D.C. march in quiet double file until they’re outside the office of their Senator, Mitch McConnell. The students at the head of the queue raise clenched fists, and the mass comes to a stop. It is only the media who flank them who are speaking. One student steps forward.
“Is there any way we could meet with him? Talk with him?” A staffer responds that she’ll have to check his schedule, but, in the meantime, it would be important for the youth to keep the corridors clear so others could come and go into the Senator’s office. She also admonishes the group that the cameras she sees are not permitted. The student speaker replies that they’re here to tell their stories about climate change.
In the hallway, they take turns speaking about the reasons they support the GND.
- “I was raised as a conservative, and I was raised that, if you see a problem, you have to fight it.”
- “To stand for our rights: to our water, to our air, to our homes.”
- “Europeans are running on renewable energy, and America prides itself on being the main country in the free world, so let’s take the initiative.”
- “I’m the great nephew of coal miners, and I’ve seen firsthand the devastation it causes to our community.”
- “I want to grow old and sit in rocking chairs like my grandparents did. We need to fight now. And we need Mr. McConnell to support us.”
But support these young people? No, that’s not the approach that the Senator and his staffers took.
“We’ve been fighting all week to see Senator McConnell,” the lead student speaker announces with the “Mitch, look us in the eyes” banner aloft behind her. “We are only high schoolers, but we support the Green New Deal. But, right now, we’ve been told that, if we don’t get the minors out of here, they’re going to start arresting all of us. We came all the way to DC so he would finally look at us in the eyes. He didn’t come home for recess — he continued to ignore us then, and he’s pushing us now. I’m sorry, Kentuckians, but it’s clear that he’s not gonna look us in the eyes. It’s clear that he doesn’t have the decency, the courage, to look us in the eyes. He’s pushing us out.”
With the media in tow, the students furl their banners, walk back down the halls of justice, and emerge out into a nearby park to rally.
In the Sunrise Movement trainings, a clear message goes out to supporters that the strategy to pull off the Green New Deal is by taking every opportunity to expose the urgency of the climate crisis and relentlessly push for the solutions needed to see its implementation.
Arguing that the climate action movement failed to harness political power as part of the 2016 Presidential election strategy, the Sunrise Movement now embraces a theory of change that focuses on building people power, political power, and a people’s alignment.
To engage in escalated, moral protest.
To take action in powerful ways that inspire others to join along.
To expose the urgency and make sure that all of society is feeling called to act on it.
“You know, the future is right here,” a GND supporter exclaims outside Mitch McConnell’s office. “The future is with young people.” But is he listening?
Urgency of the Green New Deal Clashes with the Sssllllooooowwww Pace of Government
“If we are willing to work for it, and fight for it, and believe in it, then I am absolutely certain that generations from now, we will be able to look back and tell our children that this was the moment…when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal.”
– Barack Obama at June 3rd, 2008 Primary Victory Speech
A significant part of the GND urgency rests with young people. With what’s been called “an epic tour followed by mass training summits,” the Sunrise Movement intends to provide its supporters with the skills to run the GND campaign anywhere. A People’s Alignment for dignity, justice, and the common good is emerging that, at every presidential debate, at every speaking event, will have young Sunrisers ready to turn up the proverbial heat.
Hoping to elect more candidates like Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, and Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, youth across the US will unite with dozens of other groups and millions of people, knocking on doors, making phone calls, and talking to family and friends to defeat the malaise about climate change that has been sweeping this country.
Harnessing the energy and enthusiasm of youth Sunrisers is not a secret. So why were Senator Dianne Feinstein and her staff caught off guard when young school students, at least one as young as age 7, visited her San Francisco office in hopes of persuading her to support the Green New Deal climate legislation?
The group of youth was determined to elicit the Senator’s support for the GND climate legislation. Were they insistent? Sure. Were they a bit irritating? Okay, some might say so. But there are many ways to persuade a recalcitrant crowd to move over to your side, and Feinstein didn’t wield her magic semantic wand.
“You know what’s interesting about this group? I’ve been doing this for thirty years,” Feinstein lectured. “I know what I’m doing. You come in here and you say, ‘It has to be my way or the highway.’ I don’t respond to that. I’ve gotten elected, I just ran, I was elected by almost a million-vote plurality,” she continued. “And I know what I’m doing. So, you know, maybe people should listen a little bit.”
Oops. Never underestimate the energy, enthusiasm, and wherewithal of US youth, Senator.
Bill McKibben commented in a subsequent New Yorker article that, in such a reaction, Feinstein was “demonstrating why climate change exemplifies an issue on which older people should listen to the young.”
It is her constituents who are going to be dealing with “climate chaos” for the entire lives. All it takes is to recall the weather catastrophes of the past few years: drought, flood, and fire.
McKibben reminds us that the very period in which Feinstein has served — 30 years — is the “precise time period during which we could have acted.” It’s clear to these Sunrise youth that people like Feinstein didn’t act because they were indebted to fossil fuel billionaires — the oil and gas companies who have successfully “gamed our political system” and who didn’t want to admit that they were the primary causes of climate change.
“But, having blown our chance at leading,” McKibben admonishes, “it’s time for those of us of a certain age to follow, with all the grace that we can still muster.”
Are you listening, Dianne and Mitch? Because you should be.
[Post-script: I called Senator Whitehouse’s office in Washington and asked him not to have the Sunrisers arrested if they came to visit him!]
Images from the Sunrise Movement’s Facebook page.