What Is the Sunrise Movement For?

This week, Axios reported that the Sunrise Movement, a hub of youth-targeted left-wing activism, is currently withholding its presidential endorsement and may not back President Biden at all.

While Sunrise is primarily devoted to fighting climate change, the holdup seems to be Biden’s Middle East policy. “President Joe Biden’s attempt to lock down many of the young, climate-minded voters who supported him in the last election is running aground over the war between Israel and Hamas,” reported Politico earlier this year. The group is currently demanding the president “end the United States’ support for Israel’s continued genocidal assault on Gaza.”

So despite having passed the largest public investment in green energy in history and signed numerous regulatory measures, Biden may well have to run without the support of, or possibly in the face of active opposition by, the youth wing of the climate movement. This raises the delicate question of what, exactly, this group is supposed to do.

The Sunrise Movement’s signature concept is the belief that, since Republicans are unreachable, the way to advance the climate-change issue is to pressure Democrats with shame and unrelenting moralism. The crisis is immediate and totalistic, the solutions obvious, and compromise unthinkable. As Sara Blazevic, one of its co-founders, told Vogue in a laudatory profile, “Almost everybody in Sunrise has lived our entire lives in a world on the cusp of climate apocalypse.” Another founder, Varshini Prakash, located her motivation in depressive fantasies about social collapse. “I spent my college years imagining what kind of bunker we would all need to create to shield ourselves from a militarized band of bandits that were out because the government just collapsed and all of society was in ruin,” she said.

This apocalypticism is designed both to motivate volunteers and to give them leverage to press their demands upon Democratic lawmakers. Anybody who opposes these demands, or fails to carry them out because they lack the power to do so, is a liar, a sellout, and a murderer.

A key premise of their beliefs is that there is no legitimate disagreement about either the scope of the climate problem or the necessary solutions. They define the problem as “the greed and selfishness of wealthy men, of fossil-fuel billionaires who plunder our earth for profit,” from which it follows that only spinelessness or actual evil, rather than genuine disagreement, causes any Democrat to withhold support for any element of their program.

The rationale for their activism is to confront Democratic politicians with the effects of their cowardice, forcing them either to give in or at least to confess their own evil. “We can’t allow him to get away with all of this obstruction and just get off scot-free,” one organizer explained of a confrontation at Senator Joe Manchin’s houseboat. “He needs to look us in the eyes and tell us that his actions will be responsible for millions more deaths around the world and like millions of people who will have asthma who wouldn’t have otherwise or millions of people drinking polluted water.” During the 2020 primaries, Sunrise gave Biden’s climate plan an F- grade.

After Biden won, Sunrise targeted the White House with protests and hunger strikes. Members have carried signs with slogans like “BIDEN YOU COWARD FIGHT FOR US” and “BIDEN NO COMPROMISES NO EXCUSES.” Insisting that a given demand is ineffectual, or that Congress refuses to support a given policy, are the kinds of explanations Sunrise does not take well. It has the same impatience toward “excuses” as an old-time football coach.

In one key respect, Sunrise is an undeniable success: It has generated an enormous amount of press coverage of its stunts, including many articles praising the organization’s strategy and discipline. “Sunrise has established itself as the dominant influence on the environmental policy of the Democratic Party’s young, progressive wing,” cooed The New Yorker in 2018. Progressive organs like Vox (“The new face of climate activism is young, angry — and effective”) and Mother Jones (“Climate Change Is Finally Having a Political Moment. That’s No Accident”), along with Vogue (“Inside the Sunrise Movement: Six Weeks With the Young Activists Defining the Climate Debate”), have unsurprisingly touted it. The mainstream media have likewise praised it with headlines like “The Sunrise Movement Actually Changed the Democratic Conversation. So What Do You Do for a Sequel?” and “The Sunrise Movement is an early winner in the Biden transition. Now comes the hard part”).

But the degree to which these stories have translated into policy change is at best debatable. The Biden administration succeeded in passing climate legislation where the Obama administration had a mixed record (successfully passing what was then the largest green-energy investment in history but failing to enact a cap-and-trade program).

The Sunrise Movement’s theory of the case presumes that public opinion is already behind dramatic policy change to fight global warming and that activists are needed to counteract the corrupting influence of fossil-fuel greed. “Majorities of Americans believe climate change is a problem and support clean energy solutions,” wrote Dave Roberts in a defense of Sunrise.

In reality, public support for the green-energy transition is paper-thin. Americans may like green energy and oppose climate change in the abstract. But they don’t want to phase out fossil fuels, and they care far more about keeping energy cheap than they do about reducing emissions. Even young people place little importance on the issue. The Harvard Youth Poll found environmental concerns ranked 12th out of 16 issues.

This lack of concern has even affected the Sunrise Movement itself. Its activists have repeatedly wandered away from climate and on to other issues. In 2020, the group attached itself to racial-justice protests. Now, its activists seem to care more about Gaza than climate change.

In 2021, Sunrise political director Evan Weber claimed the movement represented a large “constituency of young people for whom the Green New Deal is something that they are dedicating their lives to realizing and making possible.” Alas, the cause to which they are dedicating their lives seems to change every couple of years.

Today, the quasi-religious fervor that inspires the Sunrise movement’s members is focused on the war between Gaza and Israel. They have employed the same kind of apocalyptic rhetoric and disdain for moral nuance to the issue.

The founders of the Sunrise Movement might have believed their innovation was in using apocalyptic rhetoric to raise the urgency of climate change. But this style of thought turned out to be more durable than the specific application. Sunrise has become a lobby for promoting a generalized conviction that the world’s problems are caused by pure evil, that only revolutionary change can avert imminent mass extinction, and that anything short of total salvation is a cause for despair and rage.

That belief system has certainly gained support among the young. But it is difficult to find any evidence that it is connected to progress.

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