Sunrise Movement’s leader warns kids ‘share really intense stories of contemplating suicide…because of the climate crisis. It’s not uncommon’
This isn't really about climate, is it? https://t.co/j7CJsZ3Ku6
— Tom Nelson (@tan123) September 1, 2020
This is how I think journalists should view the climate beat. It is purpose-giving. We're working to inform the public so they have the tools to make smart decisions about how to solve a massive injustice. If we are successful, they will be successful. That, to me, is thrilling. https://t.co/ITHYNfOaOF
— Emily Atkin (@emorwee) September 1, 2020
To solve everything, solve climate
A conversation with Varshini Prakash, leader of the Sunrise Movement
By Anand Giridharadas
I’m eager to launch you into this conversation with Varshini Prakash, the executive director of the Sunrise Movement…
Varshini Prakash is a phenom. Still in her mid-twenties, she is a co-founder and executive director of the Sunrise Movement, the pioneering youth-led force advocating for comprehensive solutions to climate change, most notably a Green New Deal.
In an era full of argument about how real change is made, Sunrise is a wonderfully complicating example. It doesn’t play by Marquess of Queensberry Rules, as when Varshini and her peers occupied House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office back in 2018. But it also believes in working inside the system, which is why Varshini agreed to join former Vice President Joe Biden’s climate task force earlier this year. The result of her joining, in the eyes of many, was a Prakashian rewriting of the Biden climate plan.
She is the co-editor of the very inspiring, just-published book “Winning the Green New Deal: Why We Must, How We Can.”
VARSHINI: It was an evolution. I absolutely went through that exact transformation. For a long time, I was in a recycling club in my high school. I was yelling at my mom to turn off the light bulbs all the time. I was in this sustainable food initiative on campus at the University of Massachusetts, where we did wonderful things. We grew these awesome urban food gardens on campus.
At a certain point, I was getting fed up that change wasn’t happening fast enough. OK, great, we’ve transformed this acre plot of land, and perhaps shifted paradigms for a few people about how food can be grown, who it’s for, how to do it in a way that’s economically and ecologically sustainable.
ANAND: You were invited to join Joe Biden’s climate task force, which brought together his people with supporters of Bernie Sanders like yourself.
When Biden’s revised climate policy was unveiled, it was celebrated by many progressives as a real shift. Noam Chomsky declared Biden on climate as “farther to the left than any Democratic candidate in memory,” because, he said, the agenda was “largely written by the Sunrise Movement and strongly endorsed by the leading activists on climate change.”
Take me into the Zoom where it happened. What was being on the task force like? When did you realize these people might actually be listening?
VARSHINI: I was cautiously optimistic about the people who were a part of it. I think Gina McCarthy is a fantastic human. I think AOC and Catherine Flowers are brilliant leaders and giants in their own right. Or John Kerry — he and I don’t necessarily agree on every single issue — but I do believe that he thinks that Joe Biden’s plan should be more ambitious and was very open to ideas. That allowed for an actual dialogue. I didn’t feel shut down almost ever, even if there were moments where people disagreed about policy and the Biden camp was not willing to necessarily support a position that I had wanted them to.
We spent about two hours on Zoom every week, with a couple of meetings in between, and a lot of meetings with Bernie Sanders and the Bernie team to get aligned on policy. And it was pretty intensive, considering that it all happened in six weeks and we were supposed to put out some kind of major climate platform in that time. It was a big lift. It was a little terrifying to get up there and feel this pressure of both being the youngest person in the room and being the youngest person on any of the task forces.
It was the first experience that I’ve had of being a sort of power player while also being deeply accountable to the movement and all of the people who were not in that room.
ANAND: To someone who was politically aligned with you in the primaries, in supporting Sanders, what would you say about Biden’s climate plan now?
VARSHINI: I would say Joe Biden’s climate plan has significantly improved from where it was three, four months ago. I would say the cruel reality of the climate crisis is that, no matter what ambition that we have right now, or no matter how much Joe Biden’s plan has improved, we have still ignored the science on this issue for 40 years.
Now we are in a full-blown emergency, and we don’t have the luxury of time or of watering down any kind of plans that we have. We will constantly have to push Joe Biden at every step of the way to ensure that he doesn’t just meet these goals, but goes beyond them.
You better believe the fossil-fuel industry, the GOP, the Koch brothers, Fox News — all of these entities that are extremely aligned about the fact that they want to stave off action on climate change for as long as possible — they’re going to be pushing against it on day one of the new administration, and he’s going to need the pressure behind him to make it happen. Joe Biden is not the candidate whom I would have wanted, but Joe Biden gives us some leverage and the political terrain within which we can fight and pass a Green New Deal. It’s far, far more likely than with Donald Trump.
ANAND: There is this critical perception that’s grown up around the Green New Deal: that it’s trying to parlay one issue, climate change, into addressing a bunch of other things that, in the eyes of these critics, are not directly related — whether it’s a jobs guarantee, whether it’s dealing with racial-justice issues.
In your new book, “Winning the Green New Deal: Why We Must, How We Can,” you argue, quite rightly, in my view, that this broader approach is necessary because we actually need to rewire our entire way of life and to make people who suffer from this transition whole. But can you make this case to folks who feel like they’re with you on climate, but wonder why you are now trying to do additional stuff, given how hard the core problem is?
VARSHINI: There are a few different things.
One: particularly around inequality and particularly around racism, I would say that the climate crisis and racial inequality are linked in causation as well as in effect. I do not believe that we would have the existing environmental inequality that we have today if some people’s lives didn’t matter more than others’.
There is no reason why the Dakota Access Pipeline would have been rerouted from a wealthy white community to an indigenous community if indigenous communities hadn’t, first of all, undergone the worst genocide in the founding of the United States and then been systematically disenfranchised and lost their sovereignty over the last 400 years.
We would have had a Green New Deal a decade ago if Black lives mattered, because of Hurricane Katrina. We would have seen the carnage that resulted from it as the greatest call to action. And the same thing is true with Hurricane Maria.
And so, to me, the very reason why we have the climate crisis is because we have inequality. And the effect is that communities of color and poor people are disproportionately affected by the impact of the climate crisis as well. There’s no way to actually disentangle these things.
And another thing: There was a poll that came out when we were launching Sunrise, which showed there’s essentially an urgency gap in people’s understanding of the climate crisis. We ask people: What’s your No. 1 issue right now? Obviously, it’s the things that you would think about: jobs, economy, health. If you ask people, What’s the number one issue that you think you’ll have 30 years from now, the No. 1 thing above everything else is climate and environment.
Firstly, by talking about how the climate crisis is not in the distant future but an issue appearing now, and connecting current environmental events to the larger crisis. But, secondly, by helping the climate crisis ride the coattails of the most important crises of today — jobs, economy, etc., — which is why the Green New Deal is presented as a socioeconomic plan, essentially a massive green jobs and infrastructure plan. It’s why it was huge when Joe Biden said, “When I think about climate change, the word I think of is ‘jobs.’”
We have got to demolish this jobs-versus-environment thing that has been created in large part due to the fossil-fuel industry, but also due to shitty renewable-energy companies that don’t want to have good labor practices and the existing mainstream environmental movement totally forgetting labor or just not including job security and related considerations in their calls for the end of the fossil-fuel industry and the move to renewable energy. So, look, it’s what we need to do to win. And it’s also that there’s no way to actually disentangle these issues.
ANAND: Among the most stirring moments in this climate discussion in recent years was Greta Thunberg at the UN saying “You have stolen my dreams, and my childhood, with your empty words.”
She’s a singular person, but I imagine she speaks for many. Have you witnessed a shift in the inner experience of youth with this death knell of climate hanging over people’s heads? Do you think a lot of young people feel that their childhoods have been stolen?
VARSHINI: It’s rampant. We’ll go to trainings and kids will share really intense stories of contemplating suicide. I don’t want to call it nihilism because it’s not something theoretical. People are really, really, really feeling this deep sense of foreboding — a lack of agency, basically.
ANAND: You’re saying you hear young people contemplating suicide because of climate specifically?
VARSHINI: Yes. Because of the climate crisis. It’s not uncommon.
I think about this week alone. It’s been hard to get up and think that our book launch is so exciting. I’m like, Jesus Christ. You’re looking at the RNC saying all kinds of terrifying, crazy stuff as though they’re a real political party. You’re seeing these storms, you’re seeing the fires, you’re seeing the impending hurricane. You have the murder of Jacob Blake. And now we’re hearing about every issue of gun violence, climate change, white supremacy, fascism, the pandemic.
On top of that, you have social isolation. It is just brutal for young people. I think we’re really at a crossroads. We could lose an entire generation to a sense of anxiety and depression and a sense of I can’t cope.
ANAND: I remember joking in the early days of coronavirus that the climate crisis must be so jealous. Because for years the whole world has been told to get together and act fast and do something on climate, and we more or less fail. Then this virus comes around, and it’s this synchronous worldwide mobilization. Has this pandemic taught you anything about how to fight for a worldwide mobilization on climate?
VARSHINI: That’s interesting. It has pointed out how the U.S. can go dramatically wrong in that whole process and not participate in anything internationally and completely botch the entire effort at home. So it feels more like a cautionary tale than anything else.
But I also think it has taught me how quickly people can shift their lives if they truly perceive an existential threat. And in many ways, what we need to do to solve the climate crisis is way, way, way, better than, and will improve people’s lives more than, what we have to do in social-distancing time.
ALERT: Cult Leader Jim Jones revisited! 400ppm of CO2 prompts warmists to ‘plan’ on killing their kids and committing suicide! Warmist Franny Armstrong, on the alleged threat of trace amounts of CO2: ‘Should we stockpile cyanide? You think I’m exaggerating, but a close friend of mine, who has four children, said she plans to kill herself and them when it comes to it’