The enthusiastic and prominent position given to climate policy by the new United States (US) President, Joe Biden, might have surprised some. If so it could be because they failed to notice the effect of the work of an extraordinary, new youth movement. In the darkness of recent years that saw the shadow of inadequate climate action stretch across the world’s biggest economy, one group in particular kept a light shining in the US. The Sunrise Movement’s tireless work is now bearing fruit in climate action the US administration. But where did they come from, and how did they achieve this rapid transformation of the climate policy agenda?

The new popularity of the term Green New Deal can be credited to this group of young climate activists known as the Sunrise Movement. After Donald Trump became President in January 2017, hopes for positive progress on the climate agenda shifted largely to grassroots groups, municipalities and a range of activist groups representing a range of interests including: feminist, LGBTQ+ rights, climate, economic and racial justice. The stakes were then high – a raging and worsening climate crisis, a growing socio-economic and racial divide, together with a national public health crisis. The dire situation and the progressive political vacuum fed into the fast and successful emergence of the Sunrise movement and its radical Green New Deal program. 

Over the last few years, the rise of youth groups campaigning on climate issues has been unprecendented. Greta Thunberg became one of the world’s most recognisable faces after starting a one-person strike in her home city of Stockholm and spearheaded a global movement – “Fridays for Future” – made up of millions of youth climate strikers. Her passionate calls for action in filled rooms at international political summits and forums have been watched worldwide. 

In 2015 the climate conference in Paris, COP21 was a unique moment for youth groups on the international climate scene and they influenced the outcome of the talks. Young activists even had their own dedicated climate conference – the COY conference of youth – which took place alongside the main UN conference. But this dates back even further to 1999 when at COP 5 in Bonn, a parallel Children and Youth Forum on the Environment was organised. Later, this in turn developed into the regular presence of International Youth Delegations. 

Now, many years later, the state of the climate and nature crisis has significantly worsened and the promises made by politicians at the Paris summit failed to trigger adequate action. If back in 2015 young activists felt that it was their generation’s last chance to act on climate, today their successors have an even greater awareness about the alarming state of the world, reflected in both their transformational political demands and campaigning tactics. 

In the words of the Sunrise Movement’s co-founder, Varshini Prakash, the strength of the movement was to steer the conversation about climate change away from “pathetic incrementalism” to an issue that requires a systemic response at the political-economic level

The Sunrise Movement caught international attention in 2018 when they staged a sit-in inside the US House of Representatives Speaker’s, Nancy Pelosi’s, office to advocate for a Green New Deal to replace what they saw as the Democratic Party’s weak climate programme. From that moment onwards, they benefited from the committed support of the rising political star, and U.S. Democrat Representative, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (known as AOC) who became a vocal advocate for their Green New Deal. Things then moved fast for the dedicated activists whose organisation drew praise from people like the famous author Naomi Klein. Mainstream news outlets like the New York Times now consider the movement to be a force to be reckoned with and a dominant influence on the Democratic Party’s environmental policy. In little over a year the movement succeeded in bringing its Green New Deal proposal centre stage in the Democratic’s race for presidency, managing to shift the narrative around U.S environmental politics

The organisation’s structure and mission are pretty straightforward. The movement is built on a set of 11 core organising principles rooted in social justice and grassroots bottom-up activism, such as being led by communities, being non-violent and standing in solidarity with other movements for social change. It’s structure organised around hubs bears some similarity with the ‘Wide Awakes’, a pre-civil war abolitionist movement who managed to gather between 100,000 to 500,000 youth demanding action on slavery

The movement can also count on a strong mobilised citizen force which responds to the organisation’s calls for action. According to Sunrise’s leaders, up to September 2019 around 15,000 young people were present at direct actions and up to 80,000 took part in emailing and calls to representatives. A testimony to its mobilising success is the Movement’s opening of new hubs (autonomous chapters of activists) across the country which increased from 11 to 290 in just over a year.

Wider relevance

The latest recommendations from the climate scientists of the IPCC are dire. They warn that we have less than a decade to overturn the current catastrophic trajectories which our climate and ecological systems are on. Sunrise activists who grew up in times of mass-ecological destruction are acutely aware of both the scale of the challenge and the rapidity of the response required to face-up to it. This generation of activists was born with UN climate conferences well underway and grew accustomed from an early-age to an awareness of the destruction of planetary systems and their impacts upon communities in the Global South. This is what Varshini Prakash recalls when talking about what prompted her activism. But it is only through groups like the Sunrise Movement that young people found a political movement that would directly speak to their generation’s concerns:  good green jobs, a safe planet, healthy communities – and provided them with a platform to influence the political debate. 

The group is strongly dedicated to principles of climate justice and actively supports movements like Black Lives Matter. For the movement, it is fundamental to recognise that the United States was “built by African slaves on land stolen via indigigenous genocide”. As such they argue that the destruction of our life-supporting systems go hand in hand with the exploitation of people and the racial injustice which is rampant in America. This is why their concept of the Green New Deal is what is known as ‘intersectional’, meaning that it actively works in solidarity with other campaigners for social justice, and is strongly rooted in the wider fight against white supremacy and colonialism. This approach has opened up the traditionally white, middle-class climate movement to a wider, more diverse groups of people. 

Using strategies from the 1960’s civil rights movement, by staging sit-ins and acts of civil disobedience, activists have also managed to wield influence on the political and policy level by helping to elect progressive politicians in the New York state legislature. These victories played a role in the adoption of the Climate Leadership and Community Protection act (a precursor to the Green New Deal at a State level)

The group’s greatest political success came before Joe Biden’s Presidential victory, in the re-election of Ed Markey, Democrat Senator and Green New Deal advocate. Markey wasn’t a favourite against his Democrat rival, Joseph Kennedy III. But thanks to the grassroots political support provided by groups like Sunrise, Markey won the primary challenge

In the Democrat race to the U.S. presidential elections, Sunrise activists were supporters of the more radical senator, Bernie Sanders, who was a vocal Green New Deal defender. After he lost the Democrats’ nomination to Joe Biden, the group published an open letter in the press to critique the nominee’s climate agenda. The Democrats were, however, aware that they had to reckon with the young progressive wings of the party in order to win the elections, and invited Sunrise leaders Prakash and Weber to meet with Biden’s aide and his policy directory. Thanks to their determination, the movement succeeded in being taken seriously by the political establishment. As a result, Sunrise’s influence on Biden’s climate policy proved effective in electing progressive candidates to positions of importance for climate issues. However, the movement’s leaders are more than aware that despite this victory they will need to keep applying pressure and use their grassroots voice to push for more realistic, ambitious action on the climate.

Context and background

The current Sunrise leaders mainly came from the student fossil fuels divestment movement. The rise of the divestment movement, which started on University campuses, soon led to a global movement of citizen groups demanding that public institutions, such as pensions funds, divest their assets and holdings from fossil companies. While Sunrise co-founder, now executive director, Varshini Prakask led the movement at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, several other co-founders did the same at their universities. These divestment movements helped politicise student activists and taught them useful organising, protest and movement-building skills. 

Back in 2013, Sunrise co-founder and current political director, Evan Weber, and his partners Matthew Lichtash and Michael Dorsey started to draft an alternative response to the then US President, Barack Obama’s, Climate Action Plan which he deemed “wholly insufficient to tackle the climate crisis”. Their report received a lot of attention, in particular from the young public, and was perceived as an opposing voice to the Democrats approach on climate issues. During 2016, the activists prepared for an expected victory from Hillary Clinton. But, the presidential election results changed the stakes altogether and pushed them to revisit their approach. Founding members Prakash and Jay wrote in a Medium article in 2017 that Trump’s victory meant a full reconsideration in the role played by youth climate movements on the political scene. In this piece, they also laid out Sunrise Movement’s vision and its forthcoming plans, starting with activists training sessions in the summer.

Sunrise came at a perfect moment politically with the climate issue becoming a greater concern for many voters – especially Democrats. According to a survey from the Pew Research Center, 84% of Democrats polled were worried about climate change. Another poll by Glocalities found that around 64% of young US Republicans (aged 18-34) either “agreed” or “strongly agreed” that humans were responsible for harming the planet.

Enabling factors

The movement’s success lies in its ability to advocate for a systemic policy response to climate change: the Green New Deal. This approach is testament to a wider cultural shift within the climate and broader environmental movement, led by the more progressive wings like the Sunrise Movement and its counterparts. The Sunrise Movement was born in times of large-scale climate and ecological destruction and a recognition that piecemeal policies had proven wholly inadequate to solve any of the issues at stake. In the few years, words like “intersectionality”, “systems change”, “climate justice” have become commonplace among green and climate NGOs’ public communications. This shows a growing awareness in the movement about the interconnectedness of issues like the climate crisis and other forms of social and economic oppression. As Sunrise activists argue, policy changes will need to address these intersecting crises and reflect the scale of the challenge that is climate breakdown.

“There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle, because we do not live single-issue lives.”

– Audre Lorde, writer and activist

The Sunrise movement’s greatest tool however is its political and communication strategy which proved to be decisive in bringing the movement to the front of the political stage. Sunrise leaders are effective strategists with a difference from other groups being that they have one, main policy to advocate for – the Green New Deal . Other social movements like Occupy and Black Lives Matter taught Sunrise a lot about organising tactics.

The organisation was able to coordinate with other groups too such as the Justice Democrats and New Consensus to elect “Green New Deal champions” on the national stage. With the support of politicians like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Bernie Sanders, they were able to capture media attention and put pressure on the elected President Joe Biden to have a progressive climate agenda.

Part of Sunrise’s strength lies in in it ability to communicate the scale of the crisis which has been continuously diluted and brushed aside by powerful alliances between mostly Republicans and fossil fuel companies. The movement is also very effective at using language in a way that speaks to everyone; talking about the need for green jobs and creating safe and liveable communities. This is an area where other environmental organisations have been less successful, by mostly using the language of climate science. As political science professor, Leah Stokes, reports, scientists talk about uncertainties and caveats, but what is needed is for the public to realise the unprecedented impacts of climate change happening right before our eyes

The Green New Deal (GND) was inspired by American President Roosevelt’s original New Deal in the 1930s and pioneered first in the UK in 2008 in response to the financial crisis. This green version focuses on large-scale public investment aimed at achieving climate and economic justice.  Sunrise’s GND resolution plans to mobilise all aspects of society behind a fully clean and renewable energy transition, guaranteed good jobs and a just transition for workers and communities within the next 10 years.

The New Deal has a particular historic resonance in the United States and it is therefore not surprising that the Green New Deal became so popular in the public realm, in comparison with other countries like the UK where GND advocates initially had less success. 

Another important explanation for Sunrise’s ascent is its ability to tap into a generational divide. If Greta Thunberg was able to spearhead a global youth movement of climate strikers, the Sunrise Movement’s success among young people similarly builds on this generation’s greater involvement with climate issues. In fact several polls show that concerns about the climate crisis and support for action against climate change finds its largest support among young voters.

To Varshini Prakash, it is no wonder that young people are more motivated to be vocal about the climate and support the Movement’s actions after seeing the issue repeatedly dismissed by politicians. For her, the recent focus on climate policy “is not because members of the media or political establishment woke up one day. It is a direct result of the active energy and the demand from thousands of young people on the front lines of the crisis”. The absence of action from politicians on climate issues left young activists with no other choice other than taking the matter into their own hands. Their efforts paid off. In a few years, not only did Sunrise mobilise thousands of other activists to join their cause, but they exerted direct influence on political results and brought their Green New Deal onto the US presidential election. Sunrise’s unprecedented rapid rise is proof that their demands for bold action on climate change resonate strongly with citizens and progressive politicians alike. One thing to be sure, is that over the coming years Sunrisers will keep making their voice heard loud and clear until politicians take their demands for a Green New Deal seriously. 

Scope and evidence

  • In April 2017, the Sunrise Movement officially launched with $6.5 million grant money from organisations like the Sierra Club and
  • In August 2018, the group launched a nationwide “HeatWeek” where young people participated in mass distributed actions of civil disobedience to denounce politician’s entanglement with the fossil fuel industry.
  • In November 2018, Sunrise activists set up a sit-in at House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office to demand an ambitious Green New Deal programme in replacement of the 2050 net zero emissions target put forward by her team. Sunrise protesters refused to leave Nancy Pelosi’s office and 53 of them got arrested. The sit-in got widespread attention from the media and the full backing from U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez who became a strong supporter and advocate for their Green New Deal among Democrats.
  • On December 10, 2018, Sunrise activists visited Congress a second time urging lawmakers to back the select committee for a Green New Deal. Their efforts led lawmakers such as Rep. Jim McGovern to sign on that day.  Thanks to mainstream media coverage of their action, the idea of a Green New Deal was shared with millions.
  • For a week in February 2019, young Kentuckians walked out of school and showed up outside Mitch McConnell’s office every day demanding explanations about the $1.9 million he received from oil and gas CEOs. When he refused to meet with them, they came to DC and joined hundreds of Sunrisers to challenge him and warn other Senators that standing with #OilMoneyMitch would not bode well for them at the next elections.
  • In April 2019, the Movement launched their “Road to a Green New Deal Tour. The launch from a theatre in Boston brought 1,400 people together in what was their largest event organised. The tour visited eight cities and over 200 town halls in 46 states. It ended in Washington D.C where Senator Bernie Sanders, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, author and journalist Naomi Klein, and executive director of Justice Democrats Alex Rojaswere among the speakers.
  • In June 2019, Sunrise brought the demand for a Climate Debate to the front steps of the Democratic National Headquarters in Washington, D.C.. They blocked the locked entrance to the building with a sit-in for three days. The protesters refused to leave the steps of the DNC until they scheduled a vote for a Climate Debate at their August meeting.
  • On September 20th 2019, Sunrise took part in the Global Climate Strike, the largest day of action for climate justice in world history. The event gathered more than 3 million people at over 4,000 events in 150 countries.