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Young Activists Are Planning National Protests To Push Democrats On The Climate Crisis

"Now we’re taking the fight out of DC and into communities across America,” the Sunrise Movement's cofounder told BuzzFeed News.

Posted on July 9, 2019, at 12:06 p.m. ET

Frederic J. Brown / AFP / Getty Images

Students participate in a global walkout for climate change action in Los Angeles on March 15.

Young climate activists are preparing to launch a sprawling, nationwide campaign to push the Democratic National Committee to allow a presidential primary debate devoted to the climate crisis.

“We started this fight centrally at the DNC headquarters. Now we’re taking the fight out of DC and into communities across America,” Varshini Prakash, cofounder of the Sunrise Movement, told BuzzFeed News. At least 1,200 people, including more than 100 high schoolers, have already signed up to rally for a climate debate at local DNC offices in states including Arizona, California, Florida, Ohio, and Pennsylvania.

The clock is ticking. There’s a chance DNC members could vote on whether to allow a climate debate at their Aug. 22–24 meeting in San Francisco.

In early June, DNC Chair Tom Perez said the Democratic Party would not host a climate debate and barred candidates from participating in outside ones. So the fact that a DNC committee is now mulling over a resolution to allow one is viewed as a win by debate supporters, notably those with the Sunrise Movement who protested the climate debate ban by camping out for days in front of DNC headquarters in Washington, DC. Now those activists are turning up the pressure to make sure there’s actually a memberwide vote on the resolution and it goes their way.

The DNC declined to comment on the Sunrise Movement protests.

The Sunrise Movement is also preparing to send around 1,000 people to Detroit, coinciding with the second Democratic primary debate in the city at the end of July, to rally with other activists. They will be highlighting the Green New Deal — a sweeping 10-year proposal to jointly tackle climate change, the economy, and poverty — and how it can help energize cities like Detroit.

The grassroots group, formed in 2017, got viral attention in November when young activists assembled to protest at now-speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s office. Joined by newly elected Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a Democrat from New York, the group demanded that Democratic leadership respond forcefully to climate change and proposed the Green New Deal as a broad solution.

In a matter of months, the group has taken charge of the nation’s climate movement. It has helped propel climate to the top of the Democrats’ agenda in Congress, resulting in dozens of climate hearings so far this year, a Green New Deal resolution proposed in both the House and the Senate, and a new resolution announced this week calling for the declaration of a climate emergency.

“Even the most dedicated climate-policy people and politicians and activists who have devoted their careers to climate action needed a kick in the ass,” Sen. Brian Schatz, a Democrat from Hawaii and chair of the newly formed Senate Special Committee on the Climate Crisis, told BuzzFeed News. In part because of the Sunrise Movement, he said, “that’s what happened.”

And in the Democratic presidential election, activists with the Sunrise Movement and the US Youth Climate Strike have helped push most of the candidates in the ever-widening field to sign the No Fossil Fuel Money pledge, agreeing not to accept over $200 from fossil fuel executives, industry lobbyists, or political action committees, and to endorse the climate debate first proposed by presidential candidate Washington Gov. Jay Inslee.

All of this has still not been enough, though, Prakash said, if the goal is getting a Green New Deal passed. That lofty ambition will require getting climate advocates to sweep the White House and Congress in the 2020 elections.

“We will need tens of millions of people in the street,” Prakash told BuzzFeed News. “Like, no lies, tens of millions of people demonstrating, sitting in, talking to their neighbors, voting on this issue, lobbying their politicians, advocating every sector of society they are a part of. We need this transformation and we need it now.”

So the Sunrise Movement is scaling up and spreading out. The plan is to decentralize the movement, Prakash said, “so it’s less a national organization calling the shots” and instead empowering activists to take action locally.

To do this, the group is pouring resources into leadership and activist training sessions across the country this summer, according to Prakash, to build a “youth army.”

The teen climate group Zero Hour is hosting a youth climate summit in Miami in mid-July, attracting 16-year-old Greta Thunberg, the climate phenom from Sweden who launched a movement of kids striking by skipping school on Fridays to protest climate change.

Prakash is hoping that by the fall, the growing field of teen, college, and other young-adult activists will be pushing all candidates running for office, not just those running for the presidency, to connect the dots between extreme weather — such as hurricanes, heat waves, and wildfires — and the climate crisis, as well as to deliver increasingly aggressive climate plans.

In the presidential race, a handful of candidates, including former vice president Joe Biden, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, and Inslee have released detailed climate platforms, and even more have spoken about the climate issue on the campaign trial. But only some of the candidates who qualified for the first debate in June even talked about climate change onstage, and of the ones who did, few concrete details were offered, disappointing Prakash and other Sunrise Movement members.

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