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‘What More Do We Need To Do To Win?’ A Controversial Climate Group Rethinks Its Strategy

22 minute read

The doctor couldn’t understand why Kidus Girma wouldn’t just eat the sandwich. It was October 2021, and Girma, 26, was starving. He hadn’t eaten anything solid in four days. His vision was blurred, his heart rate was elevated, and his blood-glucose levels were becoming potentially deadly. He could barely sit up, much less stand. As he struggled to explain to the befuddled medical professionals surrounding him that he was on a hunger strike to protest the Biden Administration’s lack of action on climate change, he began to realize his cause was failing.

“I had felt like, maybe if I really push my limits, that’s how we win,” Girma reflected in a recent interview. “I believe that less now.”

Ten days later, the hunger strike was over, but the climate crisis was no closer to being solved. The White House hadn’t responded; billions in proposed climate spending remained stuck in limbo in the Senate. And Girma and his fellow activists, having done everything in their power to force change, were left wondering what went wrong.

Girma is a member of the Sunrise Movement, a six-year-old youth climate organization that has shot to prominence in its short existence. Conceived by environmentalists hoping to inject their cause with people power, and launched into the seething desperation of the early Trump era, Sunrise has been celebrated in the liberal press and feted by top Democrats. It boasts millions in funding from donors and foundations, hundreds of “hubs” across the country, and thousands of volunteers. The group pressured Democratic presidential candidates to embrace their sweeping climate agenda, helping popularize the idea of a Green New Deal for climate and jobs. “They’ve brought new energy and new ambition to the climate community and made a big impact in a short period of time,” says Eric Pooley, senior vice president of the Environmental Defense Fund.

What they haven’t managed to do is win. Since Democrats took control of the White House and Congress last year, Sunrise has focused its efforts on getting major climate legislation enacted at the federal level. The Administration included $550 billion in climate spending in the Build Back Better package that was to be the linchpin of President Biden’s agenda, and Sunrise pushed hard to get the bill passed. But despite its best efforts, that historic investment now appears dead as the midterm elections loom. If the November vote results in Democrats losing the House or Senate as most observers predict, major climate legislation is unlikely until at least 2025.

Some critics charge that Sunrise’s recent activism has been more hindrance than help. The group came out against last fall’s bipartisan infrastructure bill, calling it the “Exxon Plan,” even though it contained hundreds of millions of dollars in funding for things like renewable energy and environmental cleanup. Its actions usually target Democrats: chants of “Biden, you coward, fight for us!”; pursuing Senator Kyrsten Sinema to the Boston Marathon; hounding Sinema’s Democratic colleague Joe Manchin at the yacht where he lives in D.C. At the same time, Sunrise has demanded allies take up unpopular positions unrelated to climate, including Palestinian liberation and defunding the police.

Fellow travelers on the left have balked at the group’s radical politics and confrontational tactics. Center-left writer Matt Yglesias called its attacks on Democrats a “total failure to read the political situation,” while the socialist magazine Jacobin chided the group for being out of touch with the working-class people it claims to be advocating for. Though few are eager to risk the group’s ire for saying so, many professional Democrats believe Sunrise has splintered the environmental movement, alienating potential allies and hurting the image of the broader cause. “There is a usefulness generally to having a left flank,” says a veteran environmental advocate who has worked both inside and outside government. “But by imposing these strict litmus tests, they create a lot of unhelpful division within the environmental community when we need to be all working in the same direction. And the extremism of the way they come at it is the reason that even a lot of moderate, thoughtful people are annoyed with environmentalists.”

For Sunrise, the failure to enact federal climate legislation has prompted a kind of identity crisis—a painful process of sifting through the wreckage and trying to chart a way forward, recognizing that the strategy of the past six years hasn’t delivered results. “It was deeply devastating, honestly, to see the way [Build Back Better] stalled out,” Sunrise’s 28-year-old executive director Varshini Prakash tells TIME. “It’s like, we voted, we marched, we striked, you know? There were, like, 16-year-olds doing phone banks. What more do we need to do to win?”

The group has spent the past year engaged in a process of collective soul-searching, surveying its members, and holding high-level strategy discussions, trying to generate a new blueprint for a world in which the Green New Deal, its original animating ideal, is a remote possibility at best. The idea, Prakash says, is to “dig in and figure out what we can do differently and better moving forward,” and to “shift our strategy in response to a new political moment.”

Sunrise isn’t the only progressive organization at a crossroads. The Trump years were a golden age of liberal activism, as political events drove unprecedented numbers of Americans into the streets. Once an act of rebellion, protest has become so mainstream that CBS last year announced a reality TV competition called The Activist, hosted by Usher, Priyanka Chopra Jonas, and Julianne Hough—a beyond-parody rendering of activism as little more than chic posturing. (The show was canceled amid an outcry, and its creators apologized for seeking to pit causes against one another.) From the Women’s March to Black Lives Matter to March for Our Lives, many of the movements that flourished during the Trump presidency have faded in the years since. As the Resistance sputters and reality sets in, the activist left now faces a collective reckoning: Why didn’t all that people power result in policy change? Was all the marching and shouting little more than a self-reinforcing liberal echo chamber? And if that’s not the way to make change happen, what is?

Kidus Girma for Time Magazine by Anjali Pinto. Photographed in Humboldt Park, Chicago on March 10, 2022.
Kidus Girma went on a hunger strike to protest a lack of action on climate change.Anjali Pinto for TIME

On a Friday in February, the Sunrise Movement’s brain trust gathered to chart the organization’s future. Seven flickering rectangles on a Zoom screen offered seven little windows into the lives of the young and apartment–bound: cluttered floating shelves topped with Bernie posters, barred windows topped with crooked plastic blinds. “The vibe today is, like, let’s get down to business,” says the meeting’s leader, Stevie O’Hanlon, a bespectacled white Pennsylvanian who uses they/them pronouns. “We’re very close, and my orientation is that we should just try and drive to a decision.”

Working from a shared Google Doc, the seven activists considered the arguments for and against the potential paths forward for Sunrise, speaking a rapid-fire shared patois of youth slang and nonprofit jargon. Should they focus on another federal push, this time trying to get the Biden Administration to use Executive action? (Pro: would unite the movement across the country. Con: could fail and further demoralize the troops.) Should they designate certain chapter “hubs” as priority locations to push local governments to take action? (Pro: would give members focus. Con: might lead nonpriority chapters to feel overlooked.) Once refined, the arguments and options will be put out to the group’s members, who will weigh in with an online vote this summer.

Sunrise grew out of a process like this one. From the start, it was a carefully planned, strategic effort. In 2016, Prakash had just graduated from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, where she’d helped lead a successful three-year campaign to pressure the school’s administration to divest from fossil-fuel companies, the first major public university to do so. She’d cared about the environment since watching An Inconvenient Truth as a teenager, but it was the thrill of the campaign—including a weeklong sit-in at which 34 people were arrested—that got her hooked. “I learned everything about how to feel powerful and have agency in your life,” Prakash says. “Life feels big and meaningless sometimes; you see all this pain all around you. Organizing gave me a sense of power—a sense that ordinary people could come together and do extraordinary things.”

Read More: Varshini Prakash’s 2019 TIME 100 Next Profile.

Hoping to turn her passion into a career and her cause into a movement, Prakash and a dozen like-minded friends applied that year to a D.C. “movement incubator,” founded by veterans of Occupy Wall Street. The incubator, called Momentum, trains activists to map out their organization’s structure, strategy, and principles long before they hit the streets. By doing what they call “front loading,” the theory goes, activists can avoid the infighting and aimlessness that often afflicts social movements. The current planning effort is a second front-loading process—a sort of Sunrise 2.0 reboot. “We did a lot to change the politics of the issue, but ultimately it wasn’t enough to win the real legislative and policy changes we wanted to see, and that’s why we need a new plan for the next few years,” says Sunrise’s campaign director, Deirdre Shelly.

The planning process reflects the professionalization of today’s activists, who can draw on a burgeoning academic literature of the theory and practice of movement building. It also has led some critics to charge that Sunrise isn’t authentically “grassroots,” but rather just another grant-funded project stood up by professional environmentalists. The group’s early funding came largely from two liberal foundations, the Rockefeller Family Fund and Wallace Global Fund, and it now boasts an annual budget of $15 million. “Sunrise hopes the media falls for its image of itself as a youth-led grassroots activism for the Green New Deal, springing up naturally,” Scott Walter, president of the conservative Capital Research Center, told the Daily Signal. “In fact, the group is a creature of the professional left.”

Manufactured or not, a youth movement for climate action was exactly what environmentalists believed they needed in the wake of the climate fight’s last big legislative failure. In 2009, a bill to create a cap-and-trade system to limit carbon emissions squeaked through the House of Representatives—the first major legislation to address climate change ever to pass a chamber of Congress. But when the bill died in the Democrat-led Senate, intense recriminations ensued. Environmentalists had poured hundreds of millions of dollars into the push for cap-and-trade, drawing on carefully calibrated arguments and ad campaigns positioning it as a broadly palatable, pro-business initiative. With the world on fire, they couldn’t afford to fail again.

In 2013, the Harvard political scientist Theda Skocpol published a 145-page academic paper analyzing the cap-and-trade bill’s failure. Environmentalists, she concluded, had focused too much on the inside game and neglected to build robust support among the public. Her description of the effort was scathing: “Powerful and very economically secure people look down on the American multitudes with a kind of bemused amazement,” she wrote, “and try to find poll results about public attitudes to wave in front of policymakers.” It was no wonder they’d wilted in the face of corporate antagonism and a GOP energized by the Tea Party. “The political tide can be turned over the next decade only by the creation of a climate-change politics that includes broad popular mobilization on the center left,” Skocpol concluded.

Sunrise’s formation was shaped by the idea that climate policy needed ground troops to succeed: “There were certain roles in the movement ecosystem that weren’t being filled,” Prakash says, so the group was “specifically tailored” to supply what its leaders saw as the “missing piece.” Meanwhile, armed with Skocpol’s insights, which had landed like a grenade in the world of environmental advocacy, progressives were eager to encourage mobilizations like the nascent Sunrise effort.

Sunrise Movement activists demonstrate outside the White House in June 2021.
Sunrise Movement activists demonstrate outside the White House in June 2021.Kevin Dietsch—Getty Images

The timing was fortuitous in other ways. Donald Trump’s election in 2016 sent liberals to the barricades. Then, in 2018, a 15-year-old Swedish girl named Greta Thunberg began leading a “climate strike” that swelled into massive protests around the world. That June, a 28-year-old activist named Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez stunned the political world with an upset primary victory over a veteran Democratic lawmaker in New York City, after campaigning on a little-known environment-and-jobs plan called the Green New Deal.

Sunrise’s early attempts to draw attention were a smashing success. In November 2018, the group staged a sit-in in House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office to demand that Democrats prioritize climate with their newly won majority. Ocasio-Cortez, who had yet to be sworn in, joined the effort, which drew reams of press coverage. Pelosi agreed on the spot to create a special climate committee in the next Congress.

Read More: Greta Thunberg is TIME’s 2019 Person of the Year.

In 2019, a group of young activists confronted California Senator Dianne Feinstein, who chided them for presuming to tell an experienced pol what to do. The videotaped encounter was a perfect tableau of sympathetic young idealists up against an imperious, condescending Democratic establishment. In the resulting Saturday Night Live parody, Feinstein, played by Cecily Strong, lectures a group of adorable kids: “I don’t come into your first-grade classroom and knock the Elmer’s glue out of your mouth, do I? So why don’t you stay in your lane and step the f-ck off?”

Major publications published glowing profiles of Sunrise, Prakash was featured on lists of rising leaders, and the Democratic candidates jockeying for the 2020 presidential nomination groveled for the group’s endorsement. It went to Bernie Sanders—one of 20 candidates to come out in support of the Green New Deal. Biden was not among them, but he still campaigned on a platform that made climate a top priority and promised policies of unprecedented scope to address it. Sunrise claimed victory for elevating the issue and moving it to the top of the Democratic agenda.

Yet since Trump left office, the group has struggled to find its footing. Many of its recent actions, such as a September protest at the Capitol at which 13 people were arrested, have been sparsely attended and received scant coverage. Even the hunger strike failed to go viral. Last fall, Sunrise’s D.C. hub boycotted a voting-rights rally because it included pro-Israel Jewish groups, leading to accusations of antisemitism that caused even Ocasio-Cortez to distance herself.

Sunrise’s focus on “moral action” to heighten the stakes of conflict, and its militancy toward fellow Democrats, strike many in the party as unhelpful; what’s really stopping climate legislation, they argue, is Republican opposition. Far from being chagrined by the young climate activists at his houseboat, Manchin seemed to relish the opportunity to appeal to his conservative constituents by stiff-arming the activist left.

Members of the Sunrise Movement create a mural at a protest outside Nancy Pelosi’s San Francisco home in June 2021.
Members of the Sunrise Movement create a mural at a protest outside Nancy Pelosi’s San Francisco home in June 2021.Zachary Zollman

Other Trump-era movements have experienced similar struggles. The eponymous organization behind the Women’s March devolved into feuding over leadership disputes and accusations of antisemitism, and is now all but defunct. Time’s Up, founded in the wake of the #MeToo movement against sexual harassment, faces similar turmoil amid charges it prioritized powerful allies, like former New York governor Andrew Cuomo, over abuse victims. The national Black Lives Matter organization received nearly $90 million in donations in the wake of 2020’s massive racial-justice protests, but its founders are now at odds over accusations of profiteering. Meanwhile, the major cause the movement championed has stalled: federal police-reform legislation is officially dead, and many elected Democrats, leery of being associated with calls for defunding the police, have shied away from the issue. Public opposition to Black Lives Matter is higher now than it was in 2019.

Fights over tactics and tensions between radicals and incrementalists are perennial features of social movements, says Omar Wasow, a political scientist at Pomona College who studies protests. Public protest—the right of the people to petition the government directly—is a hallowed tradition built into the Constitution. Smartphone footage and social media have made it easier than ever for activists to document injustices and stage attention-getting confrontations with the powerful, driving public attention to issues and shaping the national agenda. And while it’s easy for critics to deride so-called hashtag activism as mere virtue signaling, Wasow points out that protest is performance. “All politics is in some ways a form of theater,” he says, “and every activist is engaged in a strategic effort to get attention for their cause.”

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If nothing else, Sunrise contends it has succeeded at this. Stevie O’Hanlon, the Sunrise staffer, recalls going through an early training session around the time of the group’s founding that included a slide showing climate change was voters’ 21st most important issue. “We needed to close the urgency gap, because people thought of climate change as an issue in the future, not today,” they say. Today, polling shows climate as a top issue for Democrats, and a prominent though lesser priority for the public as a whole.

“The climate movement has won on the problem,” O’Hanlon says. “The next task is, How do we win on the solution? How do we actually build support in the public around the solution of the Green New Deal? We have to build the political muscle to be able to show up in a more powerful way around the next big climate policy fight.”

Varshini Prakash, Sunrise’s executive director, photographed in Boston on March 14.
Varshini Prakash, Sunrise’s executive director, photographed in Boston on March 14.Philip Keith for TIME

For Sunrise, the way forward may be to focus on tangible local action and small-scale victories—like getting more left-wing Democrats elected to Congress. On Feb. 23, Sunrise volunteers from around the country gathered for a “virtual phone bank” for Jessica Cisneros, a Texas congressional candidate in the March 1 Democratic primary. “If you’re here because you want to get hype about electing Green New Deal champions like Jessica Cisneros,” says the session’s leader, a San Antonio–based organizer named Paris Moran whose center-parted long black hair evokes Ocasio-Cortez’s, “you’re in the right place!”

Cisneros, a 28-year-old immigration lawyer, is seeking to oust Representative Henry Cuellar, a long-serving moderate Democrat. She first ran for the Laredo-based congressional seat in 2020, promising to champion Medicare for All and link up with the so-called Squad of far-left Democrats, which has grown to include six members of the 222-member caucus. But Cuellar contends that his conservative stances on social issues are more in step with his overwhelmingly Latino district. In the 2020 primary, Cuellar defeated Cisneros by 1.5 percentage points.

This year, Cisneros hopes her enhanced name recognition, as well as a mysterious recent FBI raid of Cuellar’s home and office, will push her over the edge. “I’m taking on Big Oil’s favorite Democrat, all these big corporate special interests’ favorite Democrat, someone who’s been in office longer than I’ve been alive!” Cisneros exhorts the group. The Zoom tally on the bottom of the screen shows 85 participants, many of whom have put their pronouns in their screen names and posted acknowledgments of Indigenous land in the chat. “Last time, we debunked so many myths that said change wasn’t possible,” she says. “This time around, we’re finishing what we started!”

Read More: The Pandemic Remade Every Corner of Society. Now It’s Climate’s Turn.

Sunrise says its members made more than 700,000 calls for Cisneros in the days leading up to the primary. Yet she fell short again, coming in second to Cuellar by 767 votes and earning fewer votes than in 2020. Since neither candidate received a majority, the two will face off again in a May runoff.

Sunrise officials warn that Democrats risk losing the youth vote to disillusionment and despair if they don’t act fast on climate. “It’s really hard for us in the midterms to go back to our base and say, ‘Vote for Democrats! I know you worked really hard last time and thought maybe they would do something; they didn’t, sorry, but can you please just vote for them again?’” says Shelly, the campaign director.

More and more of Sunrise’s local chapters are looking for alternatives to federal action, pushing climate policy in their city councils, county commissions, and state legislatures, where a small group of passionate and determined people stand a better chance of turning the tide. The hub in Portland has thrown its weight behind a municipal public-transit initiative. High school and college students are looking for new ways to push their educational institutions to act. “People feel really excited about taking this fight beyond Congress to our communities,” Prakash says.

Yet for all its soul-searching, one thing Sunrise does not appear to be reconsidering is the philosophy that has drawn so much criticism—its core tactic of moral confrontation, primarily targeting Democrats. Veekas Ashoka, who co-leads the group’s New York City hub, calls Senator Chuck Schumer, the Democratic majority leader, “the most responsive politician in leadership in D.C.,” and credits him with making a Civilian Climate Corps a major element of Build Back Better. Sunrise is on weekly strategy calls with Schumer’s office. Still, on March 14, Sunrise NYC protested outside Schumer’s Brooklyn home.

Perhaps the remnants of the Resistance will quietly peter out, overcome by public backlash. Perhaps groups like Sunrise will pay the price for these tactics, and their activists will grow into a generation of the disillusioned, their idealism blasted to pieces by an implacably broken system. Or perhaps they will be moved to do the work that matters in their own communities, leading to a flourishing of local involvement and a newly engaged citizenry. “We’re all really screwed if we don’t solve the climate crisis, but it’s also really scary for the future of democracy,” Prakash says. “What creates the breeding ground for authoritarianism is people believing that our institutions cannot create material changes in their lives.”

For now, activists take comfort in small victories. “After BBB was put on ice, there was a lot of despair and a feeling like it’s all over,” says Girma, the hunger striker, who’s gone from volunteer to full-time staffer at Sunrise. After his hunger strike ended, Girma and others began “bird-dogging” Manchin, the West Virginia Senator whose objections tanked the BBB legislation. They followed him from his D.C. houseboat to a parking garage, where they discovered that he drove a Maserati—a revelation that generated a fresh viral wave of anger. They didn’t get Manchin’s vote, but, Girma notes with satisfaction, “After our action, he stopped driving his Maserati.”

In the wake of the bill’s failure, Girma thought hard about what he was doing and why. He thought back to the doctor with the sandwich. After he’d gotten a bag of IV fluids and revived somewhat, he remembered, he had a long conversation with her, and she ended up wishing him luck. Maybe, he decided, organizing was about moments like that—-intimate, human interactions, not pompous politicians or bills in Congress.

“It’s really fun and ageist for people in the media and corporate establishment to disregard young people’s ideals and conviction,” he says. “In this moment it feels like we may not win this bill, but I still draw incredible comfort and conviction from knowing who I am and what I’m building.”

My conversations with Sunrise staffers and volunteers tended to come back to this sense of fellow feeling: the gratification of being part of something bigger than themselves. Activism, they suggested, had become its own reward, offering a sense of belonging and commitment. “As a person I’m really small, and before that might have made me feel ineffective,” Girma says. “But now I see that a lot of small people add up to something big, and I feel big in my smallness.” They hadn’t gotten the Green New Deal, but at least they’d gotten that. —With reporting by Leslie Dickstein and Mariah Espada

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Write to Molly Ball at molly.ball@time.com