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Climate Activists Put Aside Their Differences With Biden To Help Get Him Elected. Now They Want Results.

The Sunrise Movement has high expectations for the Biden administration. And it’s planning to hold the president-elect to them.

Posted on November 11, 2020, at 9:46 a.m. ET

Joe Raedle / Getty Images

President-elect Joe Biden addresses the media on Nov. 10 at the Queen Theater in Wilmington, Delaware.

It didn’t take long for the election night meeting of 150 young climate change activists to turn to anger about what happened to Bernie Sanders.

“Super Tuesday was one of the roughest days for Sunrise,” one of the hosts of the Zoom call recalled to the Sunrise Movement members of the March night that closed Sanders’ hopes of securing the Democratic presidential nomination. “I remember thinking, where do we go in this movement from here? It felt like Bernie held the hopes and dreams of our movement in his campaign. After Election Day, I realized he never intended for the revolution to be his, and I think that he’d be very proud of where we are today.”

Later in the night, as results from states started to stall out, another host began talking about the movement’s organizing through the Trump administration, during the primaries to get the Democratic Party to address climate change, and about how it would need to keep up the same amount of energy even if Joe Biden won. “We are going to keep fighting back no matter what happens through this election, because we’re a movement,” one of the hosts said. “Drink water. Take breaks. Breathe. Eat food. Sleep. Do all of those things — because this fight is not over tomorrow. The fight is not over the day after — we’ve got a decade of this. We are starting year one of the Green New Deal in 2021 and we can make it happen, but we’re going to need every single one of you.”

The chat lit up with affirmations from the organizers, who’d spent weeks mobilizing young voters for a candidate whom they were prepared to pressure if he was elected.

Days after the Zoom call, once Biden had defeated President Donald Trump, the enthusiasm had shifted toward action. The activists said they’re preparing to pressure the incoming Biden administration to keep its word on pushing legislation to slow and reverse climate change and pursue other progressive goals.

Biden wasn’t the first choice for many of the young progressive activists who organized young voters across the country in the run-up to Election Day. He trailed behind more progressive candidates, like Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, among young people over the course of the primaries. After Biden won the Democratic nomination, youth-led progressive organizations like the Sunrise Movement and Justice Democrats warned him about his support among young voters, writing his campaign that the party needs the “energy and enthusiasm of our generation.”

Leaders with the Sunrise Movement told BuzzFeed News this week that after they sent the letter to the Biden campaign, they met with leaders from the organization and added Varshini Prakash, a cofounder of the Sunrise Movement, to the Biden-Sanders Unity Task Force for recommendations on climate change, and made climate change one of the key issues in advertisements in the final weeks of the campaign. In the lead-up to Election Day, the Sunrise Movement’s independent organizing campaign reached out to 2.5 million young voters in swing states like Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Arizona, Colorado, and Florida.

“We delivered for Biden, now it’s his time to deliver for us. He ran as the climate candidate, and he must govern as the climate president,” Prakash said in a statement released after the election. “There’s no time to waste, and we can’t afford to spend another four years twiddling our thumbs in the face of Republican obstruction.”

Biden, in the end, had the most progressive climate policy of any party nominee for president, and he has consistently talked about the dangers of climate change. But he faces a giant obstacle in a Senate that will, at best, be evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans, and likely will remain in Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s control.

Evan Weber, a cofounder and political director of Sunrise Movement, told BuzzFeed News the organization is looking forward to working with the Biden administration but that it won’t rule out the organizing tactics that pushed the organization onto the Democratic Party’s radar — aggressive and adversarial organizing, like when it occupied House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office following the 2018 midterm elections.

“I want to be crystal clear: We’ve always thought that getting Trump out of office was critical during this time period on the pathway to federal climate action and a more just world, but our mission is much bigger than that,” Weber said. “Getting Trump out of office was just step one, and our movement has never been about electing Joe Biden. So now the real work begins.”

Leaders with the movement said that while they’re going to be doing what they can to help Democrats win the runoff races for the Senate in Georgia to possibly shift the balance of power in the Senate, they’re also going to push Biden to use his executive powers to begin mobilizing on climate action with executive orders.

Activists have already begun pushing for the Biden administration to appoint a “climate czar” and create an Office of Climate Mobilization, which they hope could wield power to allocate federal resources toward solving the climate crisis, among other executive actions they want Biden to implement. Weber pointed to former president Franklin Roosevelt’s use of an executive order to create the Office of War Mobilization, which coordinated federal agencies that were involved in the war effort, as an example of how Biden could jolt the government on climate action. Bloomberg News reported that Biden has been considering opening a White House office like the one Sunrise Movement activists are readying to push him toward.

On Wednesday, leaders from the Sunrise Movement and Justice Democrats released a statement urging Biden to act on a climate mandate.

"The Senate can’t be an excuse; whether or not Mitch McConnell remains the Majority Leader, we need an Office of Climate Mobilization and visionary personnel in the Biden administration who are ready to use every tool in their disposal to create millions of good-paying green jobs," Prakash said.

The groups also released a slate of progressives leaders they want Biden to name to his cabinet and recommended Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, who ran on a climate-focused platform during the Democratic primary, as their top pick to run an Office of Climate Mobilization if the Biden administration creates one. They also recommended Sanders as their top pick for secretary of labor and Warren as their top pick for treasury secretary.

Sunrise leaders told BuzzFeed News they plan on collaborating with other groups, like the Working Families Party, Dream Defenders, and Movement for Black Lives, on progressive policies that they want to see the Biden administration enact. They said they may begin organizing around issues like immigration, expanded stimulus and relief funds for COVID-19 recovery, and systemic injustice.

“You’re going to hopefully see a lot of us teaming up on these issues,” Weber said. He added that groups are looking at pushing the Biden administration and Congress to look at issues like court expansion and congressional term limits if races in Georgia are successful.

“We stood together and worked shoulder to shoulder in the streets while organizing, and we’re going to stand shoulder to shoulder in governance. We’re not going to let our issues be played off each other or be told that one issue needs to sit back while the other takes its turn,” Weber said. “Our fights are intertwined, and we’re going to be bringing on other fights, like immigration and labor fights.”

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