By Eva Kappas
St. Louis, Missouri
Atop the stage at his victory speech, then President-elect Joe Biden thanked “all who gave so much of themselves” to his campaign, saying, “I owe you. I owe you everything—” to which the Sunrise Movement responded, “Yes. Yes, you do.”
Biden may be in office, but the Sunrise Movement’s fight for climate justice is far from over. The national youth-led organization is centered around the Green New Deal, a package of legislation proposed by Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), and their fight to “to stop climate change and create millions of good jobs in the process.” The Sunrise Movement pulled out all the stops during the 2020 General Election, mobilizing 3.5 million unique young voters and contacting 6.5 million total voters in the primaries and general election—and now they expect something in return.
After Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT), whom the Sunrise Movement had endorsed over Biden during the Democratic primaries, dropped out of the race, the organization shifted their support to the more moderate former vice president. The change in strategy hinged not on a compromise to temper their Green New Deal ambitions, but rather a firm demand: if Biden wanted the youth vote, he must make climate change an urgent priority. Policy directors from the Sunrise Movement met with Biden’s senior aides and pioneered a new climate plan as part of Biden’s Build Back Better campaign, including the goal of 100% clean energy by 2035. After the announcement of the Biden-Sanders Unity Task Force, a climate policy development task force uniting the moderate and progressive wings of the Democratic Party, the Sunrise Movement posted a picture of Biden on their Instagram, in Ray-Bans and a mask, with the words: “The People Pull the Strings.”
Throughout the general election, the Sunrise Movement invested nearly $1 million in their Independent Expenditures organizing arm to supplement the Biden campaign’s outreach to young voters, especially in swing states. Independent expenditure programs, as a part of political action committees (PACs), are required by law to operate independently of their chosen candidate's campaign, but that did not impede the Sunrise Movement’s use of digital ads, phonebanking, postcard-sending and peer-to-peer texting programs which allowed the program to reach 2.6 million unique voters by Election Day.
16-year-old Yara Changyit-Levin (John Burroughs High School ‘22) is a coordinator with the Sunrise Movement’s “Force To Be Reckoned With,” or FTBRW, the phone bank team behind the national efforts to elect progressive policy makers leading up to the general election. Changyit-Levin said that now that Biden is in office, “The first 100 days are crucial...What we want to see from Biden is clear leadership on climate justice. That means passing bold, progressive solutions to climate change with a heavy emphasis on supporting communities that are hit the hardest, not the wealthy elite.”
The phone bank team is pivoting to “[pressure] policymakers to pass legislation that finally puts the specifics of the Green New Deal's general outline into law,” Changyit-Levin says, by hosting volunteer trainings similar to their January 21 nationwide Day of Action, when participants made “hundreds of phone calls to Representatives.”
The Sunrise Movement has given the Biden administration a “Climate Mandate” that urges Biden to establish an Office of Climate Mobilization and provides a list of cabinet picks, some of which, such as Representative Deb Haaland (D-AZ), Biden has already nominated. Changyit-Levin said that “the recent announcements from the White House... including the creation of the Civilian Climate Corps and a commitment to delivering at least 40% of investments to frontline communities, are a good sign, for sure.”
“We have to consider that Congress is responsible for passing major federal legislation that fills in the gaps. Even with Democrats in control of the House and Senate, it will be a challenge to get Green New Deal legislation through,” Changyit-Levin said. “Biden's climate plan puts us in a good position to fight for the Green New Deal. There's still a lot we want to see from him, and he's already made a lot of campaign promises to live up to. I look forward to holding the Biden administration accountable.”