The Activist Trying to Bend the U.S. Congress Toward Climate

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The young climate activists working under the banner of the Sunrise Movement are poised to send more lawmakers to Washington next year than in 2018, with a congressional faction that could rise to as high as 10 after the election. It may seem modest, but several of these Sunrise candidates overtook establishment Democrats or else beat out party rivals who didn’t support the group’s Green New Deal agenda. That energy even helped U.S. Senator Ed Markey, who first introduced the climate resolution, fend off a primary challenge from a Kennedy in Massachusetts.

$69.​9B Renewable power investment worldwide in Q2 2020 23% Carbon-free net power in the U.K., most recent data

Spokane, U.S.Most polluted air today, in sensor range

50,​820 Million metric tons of greenhouse emissions, most recent annual data

As a result, 27-year-old Sunrise co-founder Varshini Prakash has found herself reshaping the Democratic Party from the inside. In a conversation with Bloomberg Green, she discussed the work it will take to enact policies big enough to address global warming—she was also a member of presidential nominee Joe Biden’s climate task force—and how to keep pressure on cautious Democrats. (This interview has been edited for space and clarity.)

Sunrise has had tremendous success in a very short time. What’s worked?

Our aim is to not just elect people who have a “D” next to their name, but to elect people who are going to fight for working people and care about the climate crisis, who are not just going to vote the right way but fight every day and take the political risks to enact the Green New Deal.

Even just having four people in the Squad [insurgent Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley, and Rashida Tlaib] completely shifted the dynamic on thenational scale. Now we could double the Squad by electing Marie Newman, Cori Bush, Jamaal Bowman, Mike Siegel, Mondaire Jones, and others. That will be a huge, huge boon to the progressive movement.

Sunrise wants to change the political alignment of the U.S. How do you go about that?

For the last 40 years we’ve had an alignment, kick-started by the Reagan era, focused on deregulation of industry, disinvestment in the public sector, and removal of environmental protections that has led to the climate crisis and the worst economic inequality in 100 years. It’s essentially aset of values tied to bootstrapped individualism, creating economic winners and losers.

If we want to address the climate crisis, we need a set of values that protect human rights and provide clean water, clean air, affordable housing, public transportation, and health care for all. We need not just protests and elected officials, but we need aseismic shift in the culture and values in which policies are created.

There are a lot of signs that show that people are far more in that kind of alignment than were even a few years ago. You see the emergence of movements on gun violence, immigrant rights, and saving Black lives.

You were brought in to help shape Biden’s climate plan. What impact did you have?

There were some significant improvements made that would not have happened if the delegates from the Bernie Sanders team were not a part of it. For example, we were able to push up the timeline on decarbonizing the power sector by15 years, which is huge.

If Biden is elected, what’s your ideal start?

The biggest opportunity in the first 100 days is to pass asweeping economic recovery plan, with its core component around climate and environmental justice, as Joe Biden has pledged. That could have tremendous ripple effects, sending market, economic, and cultural signals that we are prioritizing the climate crisis. If that capital does not go directly toward projects that combat the climate crisis, we’re screwed.

You’ve not been afraid of calling out Biden. If Sunrise doesn’t like his policies, how might you react?

I have no problem communicating that some part of Joe Biden’s plan has fallen short. We know that we will have a lot of work to do even if he’s elected. We’re going to need incredible levels of people and political power to pass the huge pieces of legislation to tackle the climate crisis. Our movement will have to be constantly active and vocal to make sure our priorities come across.

Will you consider running for office?

The question is: What’s the role that is most useful to the movement? Right now it’s being part of Sunrise. At a future date, it could certainly be running for office.

Join us this week for the virtual Bloomberg Green Festival, with speakers including Varshini Prakash, Bill Gates, Christiana Figueres, and Matt Damon. Register here.

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