For someone who is just 27, Varshini Prakash, leader of the Sunrise Movement, has had an outsize influence on national environmental policy.
A CNN headline early this year said, “The Sunrise Movement’ is an early winner in the Biden transition,” referring to measures the administration would announce a month later to combat climate change.
Prakash and seven others launched the youth driven advocacy group, a grassroots effort to hold elected leaders accountable for climate change in 2017. They had been appalled by the signs of climate change around the world, and came up with a plan to address it.
“I grew up watching floods worsen in places that matter so much to me,” she says, ruefully. “I especially remember watching floods in Chennai in southern India, where my family is from.” She knew the power of nature if the right measures were not taken. The tsunami that hit Tamil Nadu, Hurricane Katrina that hit Louisiana, all left a deep impression on her as a child in Boston, where she was born and raised.
”I realized that our movements, our politicians and our media were not taking action commensurate to the scale of the crisis,” she says. “Our generation is the first to face the negative impact, but will be the last to do something significant on it.”
Prakash really dove into the environmental movement while studying at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, where student action led to fossil fuel divestment. That was also when she delivered her first speech to a group of 100. Now, she is commended for her oratory skills, her booming voice firing up crowds of thousands.
The movement had swift success getting members of the Democratic Party to come behind a program called the Green New Deal. The name harks back to the New Deal that President Franklin Delano Roosevelt put in place between 1933 and 1939 – a series of programs to help America recover from the hardships of the Great Depression. The Green New Deal combines Roosevelt’s economic approach with pressing issues of today, such as, renewable energy and resource efficiency. Much more than merely an environmental package, the new program calls for achieving social aims, such as job creation, racial justice and reducing income inequality. That is why the group campaigns for a $15 minimum wage, canceling student debt, and Medicare for all, among others. The members believe that without taking on inequalities and injustices, an elite form of environmentalism is futile.
The group first shot to fame when its members staged a sit-in at House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office on Capitol Hill shortly before she reclaimed the speakership after the 2018 midterm elections.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, then newly minted as a representative, joined the group, while senior senator Bernie Sanders lent his support.
They demanded that all members of the Democratic leadership refuse donations from the fossil fuel industry, and that Pelosi should work to build consensus in the House over Green New Deal legislation to be passed once the Democrats regained control of the government.
Pelosi welcomed the protests on Twitter. Since then, the group has emerged as an activist powerhouse with growing political clout. It is closely allied with groups like the Justice Democrats in backing progressive primary challengers.
Members of the Sunrise Movement are typically 20-somethings all the way down to teenagers. With more than 400 hubs and membership is in the tens of thousands, it trains organizers for protests and rallies. Young people who join the group attend Sunrise 101, a three-part online orientation, training at one of these hubs and practice communal living at “movement houses.” The spirit of community, stirring passion with songs and storytelling, is meant to keep the group cohesive and engaged.
Prakash explains to SEEMA the strategy that went into this:
“[We] studied historic and contemporary social movements by talking with experts, and looked at how people had achieved the scale of transformation that we needed to solve the climate crisis… We … came out of it with a four-year strategy to build what is now the Sunrise Movement.”
In early 2019, the group’s main goals were to pressure the Democratic National Congress to hold a single issue presidential debate on climate crisis. Given the growing influence of the movement on youth, then presidential candidate Joe Biden had begun making overtures to them, but the group was loyal to his rival, Bernie Sanders. Only after Sanders dropped out of the race, did Prakash and another member, Evan Weber, respond to Biden.
By late 2020, they were pushing the Climate Mandate campaign by putting pressure on Biden to pick a “climate cabinet” that would work towards a Green New Deal, which had moved from being a fringe policy proposal that could not be ignored by a viable 2020 Democratic candidate.
Prakash also co-edited the book, “Winning the Green New Deal, Why We Must, How We Can,” which was published last August.
In 2019, she made it to the Time 100 list of most influential people. Jay Inslee, governor of Washington state, said in his endorsement, “I’ve been fighting climate change for 25 years, and I’ve never seen a movement for climate action like the one we are witnessing today. A new generation is speaking with moral clarity about the need for bold action to defeat the climate crisis, with a new focus and intensity.”
He described Prakash as “one of those visionary leaders who are fighting for their futures [who] have permanently fixed climate change into the nation’s conscience as a moral imperative, an issue of economic justice and a way to create millions of jobs across America… I find the leadership of Varshini and the Sunrise Movement to be some of the greatest sources for hope in our fight against the climate crisis.”
By 2020, she and Weber were on the Forbes 30 under 30 list.
Thanks in part to pressures from the Sunrise Movement, Biden has announced the boldest-ever moves on climate change. Among those he has picked for the effort are Gina McCarthy as White House national climate advisor, with Ali Zaidi to assist her; Michael Regan to head the Environment Protection Agency, and John Kerry to be presidential envoy for climate. He rejoined the Paris Climate Agreement Pact, and is making historic investments in clean energy and pushing for the rapid deployment of clean energy innovations. The appointment of Deb Haarland as secretary of the interior, and Jennifer Granholm as secretary of energy are also big victories for the Sunrise Movement.
Asked if the Sunrise Movement was satisfied with these measures, she tells SEEMA, “President Biden’s actions mark a historic step forward.” But she included a note of caution.
“But this must be just the beginning,” she says. “We have no time to waste. The climate crisis, compounded by the pandemic, racial injustice and decades of Republican obstruction and destructive policies, demands that we make up for lost time to match the scale and urgency of this movement.”