Rachel Warriner/Sunrise Movement

The Sunrise Movement’s Trailblazing Quest for a Green New Deal

Sunrise activists said they would hold President Biden’s feet to the fire on climate policy. With their latest round of activism around the Civilian Climate Corps, they’re making good on that promise.

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When Kidus Girma moved from Ethiopia to Dallas as a child, his family settled in Vickery Meadow. The neighborhood is home to a working-class immigrant and refugee enclave. Like many urban areas, Dallas’ population is deeply segregated by race and class. Its green spaces are segregated too: Research shows that they tend to be concentrated in wealthier, whiter parts of town where temperatures can be nearly 4 degrees Celsius thanks to tree coverage.

Girma, now 26, is part of the Sunrise Movement, a national, youth-led climate campaign that centers its activism on people. He doesn’t consider himself a traditional environmentalist—he’s less interested in saving trees or polar bears for the sake of nature—instead, he’s interested in communities like the one he grew up in.

“People usually think of [climate change as] disasters, but it’s a slow-burn. Slightly hotter summers means slightly higher electric bills.” A city’s placement of parks or parking lots isn’t just a zoning issue, it’s an environmental issue that impacts the quality of life for nearby residents.

It may seem mundane, but connecting these problems with climate justice is an important part of Girma’s work. “It touches on everything, from housing to public transportation that actually gets you where you need to go,” Girma says. “We won’t win unless we are actively creating a new world.” 

Aaryaman Singhal from Dallas speaking to the 70 youth who joined Generation on Fire to march to Ted Cruz’s house.

In Vickery Meadow, Girma imagines that one day, workers with the Civilian Climate Corps will tear up some of the heat-trapping concrete and plant rows of trees and community gardens that can feed the neighborhoods. Others will help retrofit homes and apartments with better insulation and more efficient appliances, helping residents keep their energy bills lower in the summer. For years, Girma’s mother supported the family of 4 on an $8-an-hour factory job at Samsung. The Civilian Conservation Corps, with a guaranteed hourly wage of $15, would be life-changing for families in Vickery Meadow, he says. “Climate justice looks like the everyday stuff we don’t pay attention to– it’s building codes and energy efficiency.”This summer has been marked by one climate disaster after another, a glimpse into what the future might hold: A once-in-a-millenia heat dome over Washington and Oregon, fast moving and early hurricanes forming in the Gulf, devastating floods in the Midwest and wildfires in California that let off so much smoke, it drifted all the way to the East Coast. That’s one reason why Girma and other Sunrise activists across the country have doubled down on demands for President Joe Biden to pass and fund legislation that would create the Civilian Climate Corps: a program modeled after the Great-Depression era Civilian Conservation Corps which put millions of Americans to work. Some corps-members fought wildfires; others helped manage soil erosion, built roads or helped maintain public lands and national parks. 

But that’s only if the Civilian Climate Corps becomes a reality.

Kidus Girma from Dallas getting arrested by Houston Police on Ted Cruz’s lawn.

The clearest vision of the program comes from U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and U.S. Senator Ed Markey (D-MA), who have been pushing for a broader climate resolution called the Green New Deal since 2018. Markey and Ocasio-Cortez’s Climate Corps bill would create and fund a $130 billion government jobs program focused on climate change. Unlike the Corps of the past, their iteration includes an explicit justice mandate. In the 1930s, for instance, the program was only open to men and Black men were eligible but often faced discrimination in the program once hired. Projects on public lands typically benefited white communities, and there was no focused effort to improve the quality of life in communities of color. The current proposal faces a tough political fight from Republicans and moderate Democrats who typically oppose such big government spending proposals. 

Enter the Sunrise Movement. Since Biden hit the campaign trail, Sunrise activists have been demanding that Congress pass a fully-funded Civilian Climate Corps bill. With a Democratically controlled House, Senate and White House, they say chances of passing the bill have never been better.

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Chante Davis is a sixth-generation New Orleanian, even though she’s lived in Houston for most of her life. Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans when she was 2 years old, forcing her family to move to Texas.

“It wasn’t an option to come back,” Davis says. “Our house was uninhabitable for months, and FEMA never gave us enough money to get back.” Faced with expensive repairs they couldn’t afford, Davis’ family resettled in Houston, first temporarily and then permanently. It’s a path that nearly 250,000 New Orleans residents were forced to take as they fled the storm; while many have since returned, a significant percentage of the city’s Black middle class never did. 

A group of Sunrise Movement protestors on their 400-mile march from New Orleans to Houston for a Green New Deal.

This summer, Davis returned to New Orleans with a few dozen activists from Texas chapters of the Sunrise Movement to retrace Davis’ path when she fled New Orleans, from the Lower 9th Ward, down Interstate 10 toward Houston. “When my family had to take that route, it was forced,” Davis says. “But now I had the agency to reclaim that route.” She helped plan the stops, actions and volunteer activities along the way in communities that have already impacted this stretch of the Gulf South—and how climate policy could uplift communities that have been hit by disaster after disaster.

Davis made a private stop in the Lower 9th Ward to see her old neighborhood “I didn’t know how I was going to react in front of everyone, if I’d burst into tears,” Davis says. “It’s still hard to see the neighborhood. It’s pretty much deserted. The people there have been left behind by the city.” 

 Davis says a program like the Civilian Climate Corps could have changed the trajectory of her own life. Had her family had help to repair their home, and make it more resilient to future storms, they might have stayed in New Orleans. But instead, in the wake of Katrina, politicians and business interests saw an opening to gentrify the city, pushing out lower income families and rebuilding the city for a new crop of transplants. Davis’ family held onto their home for more than a decade before finally deciding to cut their losses and sell it.

 On Sunrise’s march between New Orleans and Houston, activists stopped in Lake Charles, Louisiana, where they helped local nonprofits and mutual aid organizations gut and repair homes that have been damaged by one storm after the next: Two hurricanes in 2020, an ice storm this past winter, and historic floods in the spring. A volunteer Climate Corps in a city that could see substantial gain from investments in levees and drainage, restored wetlands and marshes, or environmental cleanups at the hundreds of polluting industrial facilities like refineries and chemical companies. Already, communities impacted by climate change can’t access financial aid in the wake of a disaster, instead relying on volunteers already stretched too thin to do additional physical labor.

Across the border in Texas, long time residents are starting to abandon coastal cities such as Port Arthur, too. Without financial aid, many families are unable to repair or rebuild the homes they’ve lived in for generations—especially when climate change has made those homes incredibly vulnerable to future disasters. Stronger storms, more severe floods, and accelerated coastal erosion have already created the nation’s first climate refugees: families fleeing environmental devastation that just keeps coming. Yet government policy hasn’t caught up to the reality on the ground. 

The Climate Corps could revolutionize disaster relief. After a flood, tornado or fire, employees of the program could be sent in along with agencies like FEMA to help families begin the long process of rebuilding, whether that’s providing immediate relief with food, water and evacuation assistance, applying for financial aid, or providing physical labor to put up new walls. “The federal government is going to show up and empower people to do the work, at the scale of the crisis that we are in,” Kidus Girma, the activist from Dallas who also joined the march, says. 

Conventional wisdom would say that in Texas, a program like the Climate Corps should struggle to find support. But on their march this summer, Sunrise activists forged an unlikely alliance with ExxonMobil refinery workers in Beaumont who have been locked out of their jobs for months after negotiations between their union and the company stalled. The climate activists joined the refinery workers’ picket. 

The two groups didn’t always agree, Girma says, but there was a fundamental understanding that transcended the labor movement and climate justice. The workers wanted better pay and safer conditions; Sunrise’s support of the Civilian Climate Corps is aimed at the same goals for all workers although they might be employed in a different industry. “We’re talking about everybody. You protect the worker, not the job,” Girma says. A key component of the Climate Corps is that fossil fuel workers would have access to job training that would allow for a “just transition.” In other words, they wouldn’t be left behind by corporate executives cashing out and declaring bankruptcy, as happened with coal workers across the country. 

“Climate change is not just environmental,” Girma says. “The core issue is also economic justice, a system which values profits and numbers over human beings.” (Exxon refinery workers could not be reached for comment through their union.)

Oil and gas companies—including ExxonMobil—have been fighting against aggressive climate action, lobbying Congresspeople from both parties to support watered-down policies. In June, Greenpeace activists secretly recorded an ExxonMobil lobbyist discussing the company’s meddling in climate and environmental legislation; the company also joined “shadow groups” that have misled the public about climate science. 

 Sunrise’s Dallas chapter staged a protest in front of Exxon’s headquarters in Irving, blocking the building’s front gate for a few hours. They held signs reading, “Exxon chose profits over lives. Biden, what will you choose?”

For Sunrise activists, the climate disasters of the past year are proof that climate policy isn’t about protecting the future for their kids or grandkids: It’s the only way to make sure entire cities don’t become unlivable in their own lifetime. At the rally in front of Exxon’s headquarters, activists talked about their experiences this year, when a polar vortex descended on Texas and the state’s electric grid nearly collapsed, leaving millions freezing in their own homes. Exxon was one of a handful of Texas companies that reported hundreds of millions in losses, but other companies like Energy Transfer Partners, owned by Dallas oil magnate Kelcey Warren, were able to reap billions in profit.

The activists’ speeches were full of righteous anger and passion. But as they clapped and chanted in unison, wearing matching black-and-yellow shirts bearing Sunrise’s logo, the group of activists in their teens and early twenties carried the energy of a summer camp. One of the group’s leaders shouts into a bullhorn, “We believe that we will win!” and the group calls it back to him, while blocking the entrance to the 10th largest company in America.

“Climate change was here yesterday–we have so little time to get there, but there is so much opportunity,” Girma said in an interview after the rally. When he joined the crowd in the chants, it reaffirmed that around the country, thousands of young people were willing to protect each other from whatever climate change brings next. “When we say, ‘We believe that we will win,’ it’s not that there won’t be anymore floods,” he says. “But when that flood occurs, communities will come together to solve those problems. ‘We will win’ means that this world is ours to make what we want of it.”