‘Adults are asleep at the wheel’ in climate crisis, says Varshini Prakash, co-founder of the Sunrise Movement

It’s a good question. We work with a lot of organizations not solely focused on young people, who are really concerned about the climate crisis. But I think for young people, it’s in our bones. We always kind of had this fear of this looming crisis. One of the experiences that defined my childhood was hearing about Hurricane Katrina. I was 12. You know, seeing these images of people on their roof, hearing about bodies just floating downstream. And the government doing nothing to support those communities.

I was probably at the tail end of the generation that hoped that people more powerful and older than us would do what was necessary to stop it. [Laughs.] And when we got to be teenagers and 20-somethings, it became abundantly clear: The adults are asleep at the wheel. Our politicians weren’t doing what was necessary. And if young people didn’t force the conversation, it was never going to happen.

The Sunrise Movement, and you personally, grabbed national attention with a sit-in in Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office just days after the 2018 midterms — joined by [then representative-elect] Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. What drove the action, and did you expect it to blow up the way it did?

I think we knew the minute that Democrats took back the House that there was no way that they would prioritize the climate crisis. They were still clinging to these ideas that climate change is a political loser. So we realized we couldn’t wait. Rather than be reactive to what Democrats did in Congress in that next cycle, we had to be proactive in setting the agenda and defining the terms of the debate so that it was no longer a conversation about whether the crisis was happening, but about how big the solutions have to be to comprehensively address the crisis at the scale and speed required. And to use that moment to create a coalition that was cross-sectional, intersectional — that included economic justice, a job-creation agenda and that was racially just.

We had no idea that it was going to be as successful as it was. Like, we asked AOC for a tweet or something the night before [the action] in support of us. And she said, “I’m showing up.”

We lost it. [Laughs.] I had never met her before. We had 200 Sunrisers packed into a church a few miles outside of D.C. And AOC and Rashida Tlaib came by that church and gave some of the most rousing speeches I’ve ever heard to support us and bolster us for the action that we would be taking the next day. Then, of course, she showed up in person [to the sit-in]. It was just tremendous — the most intense, exhausting, exhilarating experience I have ever had in my life. And in the 24 to 48 hours after that action, there were, like, 5,000 more articles written about the Green New Deal. It was a moment that just really catalyzed a conversation and a debate about climate politics into the national agenda.

Bernie Sanders was the candidate of the Sunrise Movement — and in the primaries, Sunrise gave Joe Biden’s climate platform an “F.” You’ve since served on a Biden-Sanders unity task force, along with AOC and John Kerry from the Biden side, to try to craft the kind of [climate] policy you want. What did you make of that experience?

It was a bit of a surreal experience for me, I’ll be honest. There’s a certain level of comfort of being on the outside, and an uneasy tension between external movement organizing and internal political organizing. At the same time, it is essential that we walk that really messy line — maintain our integrity, but walk it nonetheless, participating in the process in ways that we can push the fold.

If Sunrise hadn’t been a disruptive, local movement, there’s no way that we would have actually ended up on that task force. And if we hadn’t [brought] the movement’s agenda into the task force, I don’t think that Joe Biden would have embraced a plan to get 100 percent clean electricity by 2035. I don’t think he would have embraced the demand that came up through movement organizers in New York of embracing investment into communities of color and low-income communities who have been affected by the climate crisis or environmental degradation.

The Democratic National Committee dropped a pledge to eliminate tax breaks and subsidies for the fossil fuel industry from the party platform. What was your reaction?

I’m a little confused by it. And I think they were very quickly made aware of the level of backlash that climate [activists] and environmentalists felt about the omission of that from the party platform. I’m hopeful because Joe Biden reiterated his support for it to be a part of at least the administration’s priorities moving forward. But, to be totally honest, I don’t think any of this is a guarantee. I think it’s going to take movement energy, pressure, commitment to force the administration to do any of it.

We can’t afford to make the mistake that a lot of people made when Obama was first elected, of saying, Great, we got this progressive candidate elected to office, and now we kind of sit back and watch him do his thing. It is a full-blown emergency. Entire cultures and communities might be lost. Billions of people are going to be affected by this crisis. Nothing short of a massive socioeconomic transformation in the next five to 10 years is going to come close to tackling the problem at scale.

There’s a lot to be scared about, but what scares you most?

We’re headed toward one of the greatest calamities to affect human civilization as we know it. Ever. And the thing that scares me the most is that maybe our movement and our close allies won’t have the level of power that we actually need to combat the level of money and power and influence and connectivity to pass the policy we need on the timeline that we need. Our opponents on this issue are extremely well funded. And extremely well organized. And understand their shared stake in staving off action for as long as possible.

You see 80 to 90 percent of donations from the fossil fuel industry going to the Republican Party, and the Republican Party talking about faux science and misinforming the public and making speeches about how the science is not real, and so on. I don’t believe that these people actually don’t understand the science. I think they understand, but there is more value in sowing confusion about the science than in taking drastic action to stop burning fossil fuels. Because that would hurt their greatest political donors’ bottom lines.

You’ve talked about how your hope comes through action. In this pandemic, how do you continue to work on that hope and approach action in this strange and socially distant time?

So many of the things that make Sunrise Sunrise — our songs, our community, our storytelling, just the humanity of the movement — it’s really painful to not have that in our lives anymore. But the truth is, we’re still taking action. It takes different forms, but it’s still happening all around us. And, to me, how could you feel demoralized when you are getting on a Zoom call with 200 kids on it — and the call is being led by a 14-year-old kid leading a phone-banking training for these hundreds of young people? Like, how could you feel uninspired in that moment? I’m seeing junior-high kids, high-schoolers — thousands of young people — finding ways to take action, no matter what. And watching young people who are recognizing and realizing their power for the first time, especially young girls and teenage girls and young women and women of color, it is the most beautiful thing you will ever see.

KK Ottesen is a regular contributor to the magazine. Follow her on Twitter: @kkOttesen. This interview has been edited and condensed.

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