An army of young people fighting climate change

The American youth who wants to end the corrupting influence of fossil fuel executives on politics

Photo by Christina Liu, San Diego

Words

Anne-Sophie Garrigou

This interview with Varshini Prakash was featured in The Beam #10 – Local Heroes of the Energy Transition. Subscribe now to read more on the subject.


 

“Sunrise began because our political leaders have utterly failed us.”

You may have heard about the Sunrise Movement when its members occupied Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s office (joined in the action by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez). Or maybe after their recorded confrontation with Senator Dianne Feinstein. Varshini Prakash is the Co-Founder and Executive Director of Sunrise, a movement that is “building an army of young people to stop climate change and create millions of good-paying jobs in the process”. 

Born and raised outside Boston, MA, Prakash became involved in the climate movement as an undergraduate at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. She joined the UMass Fossil Fuel Divestment campaign early in her time at UMass and lead the campaign for two years. In Spring 2016, the campaign won after a two-week-long mass escalation in which over 700 students, faculty and alumni participated. For the last three years, she has coordinated fossil fuel divestment campaigns with the Fossil Fuel Divestment Student Network at a regional and national level. 

Today, Prakash and the Sunrise Movement are putting pressure on politicians to support the Green New Deal and to be more progressive on climate initiatives. They describe themselves as ordinary young people who are scared about what the climate crisis means for the people and places they love, and their ultimate goal is to end the corrupting influence of fossil fuel executives on U.S. politics.

© All photos by Sunrise Movement. Members of the Sunrise Movement rally outside the U.S. Capitol as 51 people are arrested in Rep. Nancy Pelosi’s office demanding Democrats create a committee to develop a Green New Deal. © All photos by Sunrise Movement. Members of the Sunrise Movement rally outside the U.S. Capitol as 51 people are arrested in Rep. Nancy Pelosi’s office demanding Democrats create a committee to develop a Green New Deal.

What inspired you to create Sunrise?

Sunrise began because our political leaders have utterly failed us. Some take millions of dollars in bribes from fossil fuel CEOs, others don’t seem to have the courage to stand for the solutions we need to preserve life as we know it. We need to build a movement that’s ready to relentlessly demand politicians fight for what we need, not just what pundits say is politically possible, and when needed, elect new leaders who will represent our generation.

What are Sunrise’s main modes of operation? How do you intend to make your voice heard in the lobbying cacophony?

In 2019, we are building support for the Green New Deal in every corner of the USA. We are cementing the Green New Deal as a litmus test for every politician seeking the Presidency: if you want to lead our nation, you need to have a plan to protect life as we know it.

One of the ideas you promote is that the transition to a greener world will support the creation of thousands of jobs in the U.S. Do you feel like job creation is an argument that the climate movement should use more? And how does the U.S. population react to that idea?

Automation and decades of trade agreements have enriched corporations at the expense of the rest of us, hitting working families the hardest. In too many places across America today, well-paid jobs are few and far between, and young people don’t see a future for themselves in their hometowns. The Green New Deal is an opportunity to create good jobs for our generation in every corner of the country. The Green New Deal is a common-sense policy, regardless of a political party or where people live. Polls show that the Green New Deal is broadly supported among voters of both parties and a top-two issue for Democratic primary voters.

Senator Ed Markey of Massachusetts and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, both original sponsors of the Green New Deal resolution, exchange laughs backstage at Sunrise’s Green New Deal tour stop at Howard University in Washington D.C. Senator Ed Markey of Massachusetts and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, both original sponsors of the Green New Deal resolution, exchange laughs backstage at Sunrise’s Green New Deal tour stop at Howard University in Washington D.C.

What else is shaping the debate around climate change in the U.S.?

The world’s leading scientists sounded the alarm in 2018 when they said we have a decade to transform our economy and society to stop the collapse of civilisation as we know it. The uncontrollable fires in California, the devastating storms like Hurricane Maria and Harvey, and the wide-spread floods this spring across the Midwest are all clear signs that the climate crisis is hurting people right now. The American people know we need a solution, and we need it now.

Sunrise joined Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Markey to launch the Green New Deal resolution with 64 co-sponsors (to start with). Could you please explain to our global audience what are the main objectives of this resolution?

The Green New Deal is nothing less than our generation’s last and best hope at survival. The resolution is a 10-year plan to mobilise every aspect of American society at a scale not seen since World War II to move to 100% clean and renewable energy, guarantee a living-wage job for anybody who needs one and ensure a just transition for both workers and frontline communities.

 

In the context of the U.S., why was it so important for you to launch such a resolution? And how is it different from everything that has been done before?

For the first time in history, politicians have introduced a plan to match the scale and speed of the climate crisis. The Green New Deal would be America’s biggest job creation program in a century, employing millions to upgrade roads and bridges, supporting family farms to be both economically and ecologically sustainable, and building renewable energy that powers America’s new 21st century economy. It is the first plan for the U.S. to lead the world in stopping climate change and creating an economy that works for everyone, not just the wealthy few.

 

Your goal is to build the largest coalition in history to campaign for the Green New Deal. What do you think should be the role of local organisations in this battle? And what are the main advantages of local movements, campaigns and lobbying when it comes to climate action?

We can’t do this alone. Just like the unprecedented alliance that brought us the original New Deal, we need to build the largest coalition in history to campaign for the Green New Deal. We all have something to lose to climate change and something to gain in coming together. The movement for a Green New Deal is powered by the local organisations that have been fighting for clean air, clean water and good jobs for decades. We’re excited to build the largest coalition in history to transform our country.

Varshini Prakash and over 250 members of Sunrise Movement line the halls of Rep. Nancy Pelosi’s office inside the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington D.C. demanding a plan to stop the climate crisis. This is the moment that sparks the rise of the Green New Deal. Varshini Prakash and over 250 members of Sunrise Movement line the halls of Rep. Nancy Pelosi’s office inside the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington D.C. demanding a plan to stop the climate crisis. This is the moment that sparks the rise of the Green New Deal.

How would you explain the political inaction that has been going on globally for decades, despite the science backing up climate change?

For decades, fossil fuel executives and their billionaire friends have executed a strategic campaign to confuse the American people about the science of climate change and buy out politicians on both sides of the aisle who oppose them. To keep up this scheme, they pit us against each other—by political party, skin colour, and where we live. They tell us that one community has to suffer for another to thrive. They say some children must breathe toxic air so that others can have electricity. They say some parents must choose between a dangerous and polluting job and no job at all. They say climate refugees from other countries are simply not our concern. They divide us up and exploit us each in different ways, while they get massive bonuses.

 

There have been a lot of climate action movements over the past 20 years, and it can be really disheartening to see that many things remain unchanged. Companies are still polluting and making millions of benefits selling unsustainable products, and most governments are not doing much to correct this. How do you stay positive and combative every day? And what do you do when you have doubts about the impact of everything you’re doing?

There are hard and sad days, to be sure. This isn’t easy work. But we strive to bring a spirit of positivity and hope to everything we do. Changing the world is a fulfilling and joyful process. Already, we’ve defied the odds and the political pundits who told us climate change would never be a top political issue in this country. We’ve already made the impossible possible and we’re not going to stop fighting until we win.

 

Last, and again, something we’re wondering ourselves, here at The Beam: how do we make sure that this time, we’re going to change things for real? It seems like there is a momentum going on with you and Greta Thunberg’s Fridays For Future movement, among others, but how do we make sure that we make an impact?

Get involved! Everyone has a role to play. Public opinion is already with us—if we unite by the millions, we can turn this into political power and elect leaders who stand up for the health and wellbeing of all people. 2020 is our last and best chance to change the future of this country, and we need you to get involved if we are to win. If you are reading this from the U.S., join us at www.sunrisemovement.org and join a Sunrise hub near you. Together, we can pass a Green New Deal for America, stop the greatest threat to humanity as we know it, and save the lives of millions of people.