The Green New Deal is suddenly on everyone’s lips. Freshman superstar Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is championing it. The GOP’s anti-tax jihadi Grover Norquist is trashing it. But what is it? And where did it come from? And why were its backers protesting Nancy Pelosi?
Rolling Stone spoke to Varshini Prakash, a co-founder of the Sunrise Movement, the grassroots outfit that is partnering with a new generation of Democratic leaders to push the ambitious agenda to the fore. The Green New Deal has three pillars, according to Sunrise: 100 percent clean energy by 2030; investment in communities “on the frontlines of poverty & pollution”; and the guarantee of a quality job for “anyone ready to make this happen.”
The push for this climate-focused revival of the economic mobilization that rescued America from the Great Depression in the 1930s has surprising momentum. After the midterms, Sunrise organized sit-in protests at Pelosi’s office, including one joined by Ocasio-Cortez, prompting the incoming Speaker to launch a new Select Committee on the Climate Crisis. The platform is a hit among progressive voters, and support for the Green New Deal is emerging as a litmus test on the 2020 campaign trail. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), one of the first declared Democratic candidates, has embraced “the idea of a Green New Deal” in her presidential platform. Beto O’Rourke calls himself “supportive of the concept.”
Prakash, who hails from Boston, recognizes that the Trump presidency creates an insurmountable obstacle for the next two years. But Sunrise believes the moment is now to lay the moral, policy and political foundation for a socio-economic transformation to begin after 2020.
Where did the Sunrise Movement start?
We’re a youth movement that’s been in existence for about a year-and-a-half now. All of the founders were under 26 years old. We were young people from across the youth-climate sphere, people who were leading delegations of young people to the U.N. climate talks, people who had started some of the fossil-fuel divestment campaigns on college campuses in the country — actually inspired by the 2012 Rolling Stone article Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math. That was actually a huge moment for a lot of us — including myself.
All of us were feeling excited about our work and the victories we had, and at the same time feeling terrifying unease that the hurricanes were getting bigger, the fires were getting more powerful, but that our movement wasn’t growing alongside that. So we launched Sunrise as an organization to move thousands of young people to participate in the political process and to push for the real solutions, at scale, that we need. We launched Sunrise in June 2017 and since then have grown from six young people to thousands of young people and hundreds of local chapters, especially after the past couple of months.
The Green New Deal is not very specific yet. How do you imagine it?
The Green New Deal is an umbrella term for a set of policies and programs that will rapidly decarbonize our economy, get all of us off of fossil fuels, and work to stop the climate crisis in the next 10 to 12 years. But we see it as a socio-economic project, big enough to rival some of the biggest, greatest socio-economic projects we’ve seen before. This is a project that helps us get to 100 percent renewable energy, fast. A project to create tens of millions of jobs for working people. And we’re going to fight for these jobs to be good-paying jobs, with the right to collectively bargain and include family-sustaining wages and benefits. We’re pushing for the Green New Deal to massively invest in communities that have been on the front lines of poverty for decades and communities that historically have been left out of the political process — communities of color and low-income communities. At its core, it’s a program designed to stop the climate crisis and fight poverty at the same time.
How did you go from an upstart group to suddenly putting “the Green New Deal” on everyone’s lips?
At Sunrise, our tagline is: building an army of young people to stop the climate crisis and create millions of new jobs for our generation. And we largely do this by exposing the urgency of the crisis, and relentlessly demanding the solutions we actually need to solve the crisis. We sit at the nexus of protest organizing and electoral politics. An example of protest organizing would be the action that we did at Nancy Pelosi’s office. And an example of the electoral organizing: This past summer we ran a massive youth program, 75 people full-time, from June through November, to get climate champions elected to office and to create a pro-climate-action majority in Congress and in statehouses across the country. We contacted a quarter of a million voters. And we got 19 out of our 30 endorsed candidates elected. We’ve been working to kick fossil-fuel funded politicians out of office, and working really hard to elect climate champions into the halls of power like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
Tell me about your partnership with the new generation of leaders like Ocasio-Cortez. It seems like there’s a true synergy there.
She is a young person. I don’t think it’s any surprise that the person who is calling for the most ambitious climate action is a 29-year-old woman of color. There is a whole new face of Democratic Party leadership that is unabashedly and unapologetically calling for the solutions that we need to the most pressing issues of our time. Yes, climate. But also on a whole host of issues like health care, guaranteeing basic dignity to people across America, guaranteeing livable wages and supporting people to collectively unionize and have workers’ rights.
And we’ve seen the new generation of party leadership confronting questions about who is the Democratic Party? What does it stand for? And who should it serve? They’re the vanguard of leadership on the left. We’ve felt a lot of synergy with these young women — people like Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley, Rashida Tlaib and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. They were all people that we endorsed at Sunrise, and several of them we did electoral work for.
Why were you protesting Nancy Pelosi? She passed a cap-and-trade climate bill through the House in 2009 — to her political detriment. Her record on this stuff is as good as anyone in Washington.
That’s a good question. Following the [midterm] election, we realized that all of that wasn’t going to matter if we didn’t push this new Congress to put climate on its agenda and make sure the climate remained on the map for the duration of the entire Congress. We actually believe that Democrats care about tackling climate change and they want to do something about it. We just know that they need to be urged to take action at the scale and scope of the crisis.
When we look at what the recent science tells us, the IPCC report that came out a couple months ago, this landmark report said that we need an unprecedented, war-time-esque mobilization of our society and our economy over the next decade to stop the climate crisis and protect the lives of millions of people. So we are talking about ambition and urgency. The only mobilizations that are in any way remotely analogous are the economic mobilizations around World War II and the New Deal-era policies that existed under FDR.
That is why we’re pushing Democrats. We see that there’s a real pathway here. But we were also seeing a lot of articles that said “Dems Tamp Down Hopes on Climate.” And we saw Nancy Pelosi reviving a decade-old committee [the lackluster Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming]. And we were like, this is not enough. We need to make sure that the real solutions to the crisis are foregrounded in the Democratic Party’s agenda.
You’ve generated a lot of hope and momentum. There’s also a big obstacle in the Trump administration.
You can say that again.
Do you see any possibility of action over the next two years?
A lot of people ask us, “How are you going to get a massive program like this passed in the next two years? That’s impossible!” Yes, we agree. That’s completely impossible. We’re not trying to push any type of legislation through in this Congress.
But we need to start laying the groundwork. We need to start building the governing coalition that will actually come together and agree on the types of policies for what an actual plan around the Green New Deal could look like. Simultaneously, we need to think about how we’re going to put people into political office who will champion such a thing, and take out the people who will be major obstructionists to it.
We cannot afford to do only one of those things. This plan cannot work if we don’t both build the governing power and also develop the plan far in advance. Both of those things need to be done simultaneously.
What do you make of the yellow vest protests in France, with people taking to the streets to protest higher gas prices designed to meet that country’s climate goals?
We need policies and programs that don’t put the burden of fighting the climate crisis on the middle and lower-income classes, who have experienced failing or stagnating wages for decades. There are 100 companies that are responsible for over 70 percent of the climate warming emissions. Those are the companies that should actually be paying for the crisis. The people who are silencing science and stymieing any ability to take action on the crisis are the ones who should be paying for the damages that have been done. So we’re seeing revolt on that front [in France] because they’re actually passing on the cost and the burden of climate action to people who should never have to pay for that. We should actually be talking about the opportunities — the economic opportunities, the social opportunities that exist in tackling the climate crisis.
What brought you to the climate fight, and when did you first become an activist?
I’ve been organizing on climate for five or six years now, starting out when I was about 19 years old. I joined the fossil-fuel divestment movement and launched a campaign on my college campus with others to push the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, to divest its endowment from holdings in oil and gas and coal. I helped organize that for two or three years, and then went on to coach young people across the country on strategy for their own campus divestment campaigns.
I come to the fight because climate change affects my family and the places that I deeply love. A lot of my family is from Southern India, which has seen the ravages of climate change already. In December 2016 a flood absolutely wiped out Chennai, India, and other parts of the southern portion of India where my grandparents and lots of my family members live. Thousands of people displaced, hundreds of people killed. This crisis is really hitting home, affecting the people that I love in the most direct way. I need do something about it. Because my country [the U.S.] is largely responsible for the inaction, both domestically and internationally.