Activists Push Democrats On Climate Change, A New Priority For Party's Base

Aug 22, 2019
Originally published on August 22, 2019 2:43 pm

Updated at 2:42 p.m. ET

Democratic National Committee officials rejected a proposal Thursday to hold a presidential primary debate focused only on climate change.

After the party's resolutions committee voted down the proposal, members of the activist group Sunrise Movement interrupted the meeting by standing on their chairs and singing a version of the song "Which Side Are You On?" They then walked out.

Amid a rise in extreme weather events and increasingly dire scientific reports, climate change has already received more attention than in all debates combined in the last presidential election. But Sunrise activists are among those who think it deserves even more.

"The climate crisis is an emergency and we need the DNC to start acting like it," says Nicole Karsch, action lead for the Sunrise Movement in Philadelphia.

At a recent protest the group staged there, a few dozen young people held yellow and black signs calling for a climate debate. Their focus was a building where they thought Pennsylvania's Democratic Party had an office.

Protesters staged a sit-in in the building lobby. Police arrested 11 people and led them out to a van in plastic handcuffs. The group says the activists were released a short time later.

There was a hitch though — there is no Democratic Party office in that building. Sunrise organizers say they got bad information.

Philadelphia police arrest Sunrise Movement activists in July after they staged a sit-in. The protesters intended to target a Pennsylvania Democratic Party office but had an incorrect address.
Jeff Brady / NPR

"If you can't figure out where the local Democratic Party offices are before you show up for the protest, I'm not sure that I trust your analysis of the climate science much less what to actually do about the problem," says Ted Nordhaus, founder and executive director of The Breakthrough Institute.

Nordhaus has been critical of environmental groups that focus much of their work on opposing fossil fuels. His group instead looks to technological solutions, including nuclear energy, to address climate change.

Still the Sunrise Movement has been effective at getting media coverage.

It made a splash last November, when the group's activists occupied House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's office and drew high-profile support from newly-elected Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

"The Sunrise Movement comes at just a perfect moment for them to get a lot of attention," says Anthony Leiserowitz, Director of the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication.

Leiserowitz says more Americans see climate change as something that is happening now and harming people. At the same, time he says the most liberal Democratic voters, the party's base, rank the environment and climate change as their top issues behind only healthcare.

"That's never been the case for either political party in American history, where climate change was truly one of the top priority voting issues," he says.

That's never been the case for either political party in American history, where climate change was truly one of the top priority voting issues - Anthony Leiserowitz, Director of the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication

Now nearly every Democratic presidential candidate has a detailed climate change plan and most say they support the Green New Deal, which has been a specific focus for the Sunrise Movement.

On Thursday, Bernie Sanders released his climate plan, calling for a whopping $16 trillion to pay for it, multiple times what other candidates have proposed.

In general, the Green New Deal would speed the country's transition away from fossil fuels. It also aims to remake the economy by guaranteeing people good paying jobs and healthcare.

"A main goal will be electing candidates to office who are Green New Deal champions in the House and the Senate, and supporting Democrats to win elections," says Sunrise co-founder and Executive Director Varshini Prakash.

The group plans to register thousands of voters, especially young voters who are more likely to vote Democratic, and to make sure they cast ballots next November. Prakash says organizers will focus on key swing states, including Michigan and Pennsylvania.

"And we will also be supporting whoever the presidential candidate is to defeat Trump," she says.

First, Sunrise leaders have to maintain momentum, and they plan to do that by building an activist infrastructure that includes so-called "movement houses," where activists live, eat and work together.

Sunrise Movement has so-called "movement houses" in key swing states like Pennsylvania and Michigan. Activists live, work and eat together in places like this West Philadelphia row home.
Jeff Brady / NPR

Currently there are three such houses in Pennsylvania, two in Washington, D.C. and one in Michigan. Prakash says there are plans for more in Kentucky, California, Iowa and New Hampshire.

For now though, the group is focused on its campaign for a climate debate.

Democratic Party Chair Tom Perez has resisted the idea. In an opinion piece in June he said guidelines for the debates were established early, and changing them now wouldn't be fair to people who have requested single-subject debates on other topics.

Still, Perez wrote, "I made clear to our media partners that the issue of climate change must be featured prominently in our debates. That didn't happen in 2016 — and it was wrong."

Even though the Democratic Party has rejected the Sunrise Movement's request for a climate debate, CNN plans to hold a climate change town hall with candidates next month. The Georgetown Institute of Politics and Public Service also plans to hold a climate forum with candidates that will air on MSNBC a few weeks later.

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The presidential field is getting smaller. Washington state's Governor Jay Inslee ended his campaign yesterday. His focus had been climate change. And in San Francisco today, Democratic Party officials are considering whether to dedicate an entire debate to that issue. NPR's Jeff Brady reports on the activists who are pushing for that.

JEFF BRADY, BYLINE: The Sunrise Movement is raising the profile of climate change through protests like one recently in Philadelphia.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Singing) Which side are you on now? Which side are you on?

BRADY: A few dozen young people held yellow and black signs calling for a climate debate.

NICOLE KARSCH: The climate crisis is an emergency, and we need the DNC to start acting like it.

BRADY: Nicole Karsch is one of the organizers. Another is Isa Flores-Jones, who says a state Democratic Party office is their focus.

ISA FLORES-JONES: So we're out here today demanding that the Pennsylvania Democrats publicly endorse our call for a climate debate.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: What do we want?

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: Climate debate.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: When do we want it?

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: Now.

BRADY: About a dozen activists staged a sit-in. Police came to the building lobby and led them out in plastic handcuffs as fellow activists sang encouragement.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Singing) We will, we will walk with you, walk with you.

BRADY: One problem, though - there is no Democratic Party office in that building. Sunrise Movement communications director Stephen O'Hanlon says they got bad information, but he says it's the message that's important. O'Hanlon says Sunrise hopes to motivate young people so they'll elect climate-focused candidates next year.

STEPHEN O'HANLON: We are planning to register thousands of voters in Pennsylvania and around the country in 2020 and to make sure they turn out. And a big part of that is having candidates and the Democratic Party show that they're willing to fight for the issues that young people care about.

BRADY: The Green New Deal is a focus for the Sunrise Movement. The proposal would speed the country's transition away from fossil fuels, and it aims to remake the economy by guaranteeing people good-paying jobs and health care. Last November was the first time many people heard of Sunrise. That's when the group's activists occupied House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's office and drew high-profile support from newly elected Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

ANTHONY LEISEROWITZ: The Sunrise Movement comes at just a perfect moment for them to get a lot of attention.

BRADY: Anthony Leiserowitz is director of the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication. He says more Americans see climate change as something that is happening now and harming people. At the same time, Leiserowitz says, the most liberal Democratic voters, the party's base, rank the environment and climate change as their top issues, behind only health care.

LEISEROWITZ: And that's never been the case for either political party in American history, where climate change was truly one of the top-priority voting issues.

BRADY: And now nearly every Democratic presidential candidate has a detailed climate change plan, and most say they support the Green New Deal. Sunrise leaders plan to maintain momentum by building an activist infrastructure that includes so-called movement houses in key swing states like Pennsylvania and Michigan.

(SOUNDBITE OF GRATER)

BRADY: At a rowhouse in West Philadelphia, Isa Flores-Jones is grating zucchini for a vegan dinner she'll share with six housemates.

FLORES-JONES: I think that doing chores and figuring out a schedule and all of the work that goes into just everyday living is a really - you know, it's the same thing that goes into sustaining a movement, sustaining longer-term campaign work. You know, we really just have to find ways to support one another.

BRADY: Even if the Democratic Party rejects Sunrise's request for a climate-focused debate today, CNN plans to hold a climate change town hall with candidates next month, and MSNBC plans a climate forum with candidates a few weeks later.

Jeff Brady, NPR News, Philadelphia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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