By Roy Lincoln Karp
Special to the Reporter
There are times when our nation has needed the voices of young people to be woken up from a moral slumber, to be shaken from a state of political complacency. One cannot think of the struggle for black freedom without recalling the brave college and high school students sitting in at segregated lunch counters or 6-year-old Ruby Bridges walking to school with her head held high despite the racist taunting surrounding her.
We are at such a moment once again. In January, 16-year old Greta Thunberg spoke at Davos, the annual gathering of some of the world’s most powerful and wealthy people. She did not mince words. “I don’t want your hope. I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then I want you to act. I want you to act as you would in a crisis. I want you to act as if our house is on fire. Because it is.”
Thunberg’s “school strike for climate” sparked a new student protest movement that quickly spread around the globe. Here in the US, we have seen the emergence of the Sunrise Movement, a non-violent, youth led group founded to “make climate change an urgent priority across America, end the corrupting influence of fossil fuel executives on our politics, and elect leaders who stand up for the health and wellbeing of all people.”
The group was established two years ago by college students and recent graduates who had met while doing fossil fuel divestment activism on campus. They came together after the 2016 election around the idea that we needed to act boldly and swiftly to transform a political and economic system long dominated by the fossil fuel industry.
Sunrise has already chalked up some impressive political victories. Working with Justice Democrats, it endorsed 30 Congressional candidates in the 2018 mid-terms, of whom 19 won, including Ayanna Pressley. After the election, about 200 members held a sit-in outside Nancy Pelosi’s office. While they did not achieve their goal of creating a Select Committee on Climate Change, their actions put significant pressure on the Democratic Party to take bolder action on the issue.
The result was the Green New Deal, a “comprehensive plan to transform the US economy off of fossil fuel in the next decade by eliminating warming emissions from all major industries and creating millions of green jobs in the process.” This timeline was inspired by a report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that had concluded we had just 12 years to address the earth’s rising temperature before we reach a point of no return.
While the Sunrise Movement has worked with well-established environmental groups, such as Sierra Club and 350.org, in many ways it represents a major shift in climate activism. The group’s messaging focuses on storytelling that highlights the impact of climate change on people’s lives today. As a spokesperson for the group’s Boston hub, Nakhie Faynshteyn, explained: “Throwing more facts at people who don’t believe in climate science is not going to persuade them. That hasn’t worked so far.”
Sunrise has also reframed the conversation about climate change by connecting it to issues of racial and economic justice. Its founders believe that the burdens of climate change have fallen disproportionately on communities of color and that solutions must address systemic inequality. “A mistake that has been made by many environmental movements during the last 40 years, Faynshteyn noted, “is that they were heavily white and middle class. These folks are important, but they are not the only voices that should be heard.”
On April 18, Sunrise will launch its “Road to the Green New Deal” at the Strand Theatre in Dorchester. It’s the first stop of a national tour that will culminate in Washington, DC on May 13. Like all Sunrise events, it will feature storytelling, movement songs and chants, and the voices of young people who are leading the way with moral clarity and a much-needed sense of urgency.
Editor's Note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated the number of Congressional endorsements made by Sunrise in the mid-term elections. The correct number is 30, not 20 as originally stated.
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