Sunrise Movement Calls for Mass Climate Demonstration Outside Democratic Debate in Detroit

Originally published in The Intercept on May 13,  2019.
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On Monday night, at the final stop on the Sunrise Movement’s “Road to a Green New Deal” tour across the United States, the group called for a mass youth-led mobilization to pressure Democratic candidates to make the 2020 election a referendum on climate change. On July 30, the scheduled date for the the second Democratic presidential debate, Sunrise hopes to bring tens of thousands of young people to Detroit to present all the Democratic contenders with three demands:

  • Sign the no fossil fuel money pledge.
  • Commit to making the Green New Deal a day one priority if elected president.
  • Pledge support for a presidential debate on climate change so voters can hear where candidates stand on the issues.

Sunrise co-founder Varshini Prakash called it the “largest action our movement has organized to date for the Green New Deal.” Monday night’s event came exactly six months since Sunrise activists staged a protest in the office of soon-to-be-Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office, joined by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who had yet to be sworn in to Congress.

Some 1,500 people turned up for the sold-out event in the Cramton Auditorium at Howard University to hear Ocasio-Cortez, Sens. Bernie Sanders and Ed Markey, policy writer Rhiana Gunn-Wright, and Intercept columnist Naomi Klein, among others. The event came just one week after a landmark UN report concluded that at least a million species are at risk of extinction due to human activity, and just days after carbon dioxide levels were recorded at the highest levels ever in human history.

“I wish as a public servant I could tell you everything is going to be alright,” said Ocasio-Cortez, who served as the final speaker of the evening. “But I can’t tell you that today, because I’m not interested in lying to you…frankly there is no reason for us to be comfortable right now.”

Activists at Monday night’s event were nonetheless hopeful and spoke unapologetically about the need to center frontline and vulnerable communities in the policymaking process. While none said his name outright, multiple speakers blasted taking a “middle ground” approach to climate change, a reference to Joe Biden, who reportedly told Reuters last week that he sought a “middle ground” approach on global warming.

Ocasio-Cortez ripped “conservatives on both sides of the aisle,” drawing laughs and applause from the crowd skeptical of Democratic intransigence on the Green New Deal. “No middle ground!” a man shouted, drawing agreement from Ocasio-Cortez.

“I will be damned if the same politicians who refused to act then are going to try and come back today and say we need a middle-of-the-road approach to save our lives,” Ocasio-Cortez said. “That is too much for me.”

At a campaign stop in New Hampshire on Monday Biden defended his record on climate and said he’d be releasing a detailed climate plan by the end of the month.

Activists say they’re ready to mobilize voters to show politicians there’s strong demand for taking bold action on climate. Recent surveys have shown that climate change is a top voter priority for Democrats, and other recent surveys have revealed increased climate change alarm among voters. The Yale Program on Climate Change Communication and George Mason University reported that nearly three quarters of Americans said they grasped that global warming was happening, a jump of more than 10 percentage points from 2015.

While activists are now calling for a full presidential debate dedicated to climate change, in 2016, there were no questions dedicated to climate during the general election presidential debates at all, and in the primary the discussion was limited to fracking policy.

“I think we have talked about climate change more in the first two months of 2019 than in the last two presidential races combined,” said Prakash at the end.

Another speaker Monday night was Jeremiah Lowery, a D.C. native, the chair of DC for Democracy, and a board member for the DC chapter of the Sierra Club. He told The Intercept that the energy from the national Green New Deal “did trickle down and inspire [local] DC organizations and advocates” to push for a 100 percent clean energy bill, landmark legislation which the DC City Council passed in December.

Some D.C. advocates are also now in discussions about pushing for the establishment of “an expansive green jobs program for unemployed residents,” Lowery said, adding that the Green New Deal has also “done wonders”  to mobilize local youth into the climate fight. “I’ve seen so many youth,” he said, “who are organizing, locally and nationally for the first time.”

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