Waking Up to the Sunrise Movement

Global warming is so existentially terrifying, even seasoned activists may avoid the issue. (Photo: Christian Kortum)

Waking Up to the Sunrise Movement

I battled climate change via a bank shot, never directly, in part because of existential despair. After attending a meeting, I realized my mistake.

You can love two children at once," a colleague once told me. He meant that advocates for a single issue can integrate other reform efforts into their agenda without being subsumed--and are often more powerful for it.

In my work promoting democracy reform I've repeated this message hundreds of times across the country, advocating for automatic and same-day voter registration, public financing of elections, and independent redistricting commissions--all measures that bulwark the power of the people against that of big money and unlock the possibility of progressive change.

Recently, though, the Sunrise Movement forced me to confront the uncomfortable truth that, as an activist, I was failing to live up to the "love two children at once" bargain. I had been so committed to improving democratic process that I neglected the growing climate justice movement. I battled climate change via a bank shot, never directly, in part because the oncoming catastrophes--droughts, floods, wildfires, unlivable habitats, not-so-natural disasters, mass species extinctions, and millions of climate refugees--engulfed me in existential despair.

But at the Sunrise Movement's Road to a Green New Deal Tour in Boston on April 16, I realized my mistake.

Along with 1,400 other people I learned not only of the horrors to expect should the United States fail to immediately decarbonize its economy, but also how collective action could make a real difference, now.

After all, it wasn't that long ago that humanity, tackling the threat posed by a depleted ozone layer, banned many chlorofluorocarbons. And it worked.

Confronting climate change is a truly different, much larger and more complex problem than the depletion of the ozone layer. Nevertheless, much like banning CFCs, there are clear steps we can take. Doing a better job managing forests, grasslands and soils, for example, could "offset as much as 21 percent of the country's annual greenhouse gas emissions," according to a Science Advances study. And even without any legislation, governors have broad power over emissions, and can act via executive order if pressured.

Collective action is already affecting the country. Climate change is now the top issue for Democratic voters and candidates are competing to release the most innovative plans to tackle the crisis--a stark contrast from 2016.

And this momentum is leading to new legislation. Just recently, New York City and Los Angeles adopted municipal Green New Deal plans. Washington state passed a law to make its electricity supply carbon-free by 2045 and another to ban fracking. New Mexico and Nevada required utilities to reach carbon-free electricity by 2045 and 2050, respectively. And though efforts in Minnesota to codify carbon-free electricity by 2050 will likely fall short due to Republicans in the state senate, the state's largest electric utility, Xcel Energy, recently announced a plan to speed up its exit from the coal market and transition to 100% carbon-free electricity.

Collective action is already affecting the country. Climate change is now the top issue for Democratic voters and candidates are competing to release the most innovative plans.

Other states may soon adopt even bolder plans. New York, for instance, is currently debating "the most progressive climate-equity policy we've seen," according to Heather McGhee and Robert Reich. The bill--the Climate and Community Protection Act--would transition New York's economy to carbon-free by 2050 with climate justice oriented redistributive measures.

The Sunrise Movement is planning a mass demonstration in Detroit during a Democratic presidential candidates debate scheduled for July 30, aiming to force presidential candidates to grapple with the climate issue and galvanize further reform efforts.

Of course, isolated, regional victories will not be enough. We need bold, transformative policies on a national and global scale--the Green New Deal is a model. By joining together the climate crisis and profound redress of racial and economic inequalities, the Sunrise Movement has created a platform for such change. But these smaller victories are critical, each one a step in building an intersectional movement attending to our climate crisis and to our desperate need for democracy reform as well.

Though the world is far from on track to meet climate goals, as my colleague and Diet for a Small Planet author Frances Moore Lappe often says, "I'm neither an optimist nor pessimist. I'm a possibilist. As long as the possibility for change exists, there is more than enough reason to keep fighting for what we want."

Fired up by the Green New Deal Tour event, I attended a Sunrise monthly Boston area meeting in April. On the fourth floor of the historic Old South Church in downtown Boston, I joined seventy-some people, overwhelmingly young--including middle and high schoolers--and brimming with optimism. Beginning with a song, organizers urged everyone to spend ten minutes getting to know others, after which we got into the nitty-gritty of organizing.

"These meetings--getting together with all these amazing people--is the highlight of my month. It keeps me going," one young organizer told me.

On May 3, I joined middle and high school students, who, with assistance and training from Sunrise Boston, engaged in a second climate strike in front of the Massachusetts State House.

I stood with the some sixty young strikers gathered in a crowd, while speakers--ranging from state representatives to a group of fourth graders--spoke passionately about why it was time for young people to do what adults had neglected: Act. Signs demanding climate legislation were raised to the sky, cheers erupted after each speaker finished, and adults passing by in their cars watched, if for only an instant.

Soon, everyone sat down for an eleven minute moment of silence--symbolizing the number of years within which a drastic reduction in greenhouse gas emissions must take place if warming is to be kept under 1.5 degrees Celsius. Organizers implored attendees to use this time to reflect upon the reasons we fight and to envision the brighter future for which we are striving.

At the end of the silence, those in the crowd rang bells to "sound the alarm" on the climate crisis, and a band started to play. The mood lightened. Participants started to relax, laugh, and, at least for a moment, cast off existential angst.

Oncoming climate catastrophe is, needless to say, sobering, but moments like these, full of love and hope, are a reminder that, no matter the odds, there is always reason to keep fighting, together. And in a couple days, I'll once again make my way to the statehouse to stand with youth strikers--and will continue to do so, until transformative change is won.

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