The Sunrise Movement is good, actually
Solving the climate crisis requires bringing political reality in line with scientific reality—which is what Sunrise has done, and is still trying to do.
Matthew Yglesias, the high-profile former Vox journalist who recently decamped to start a Substack newsletter, made a very controversial argument about climate change on Twitter last week.
He said the fight to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is being harmed by The Sunrise Movement: the group that popularized the Green New Deal alongside Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, mainstreamed intersectionality in the environmental movement, and galvanized youth climate activists across the country.
Yglesias’s argument was sparked by a protest organized by one of Sunrise Movement’s local chapters against Brian Deese, President-elect Joe Biden’s choice to lead the National Economic Council. Deese is currently the global head of sustainable investing at BlackRock, the world’s largest asset manager, and the former senior advisor to Obama on climate policy.
Deese “endorsed the significant rise in fossil fuel production under Obama, and defended continuing oil drilling in Alaska and fracking on public land, something even Biden has ruled out,” according to David Dayen at the American Prospect. And even though BlackRock vowed to divest from coal and put sustainability at the forefront of its investment strategies this year, it remains “the world’s largest financial backer for fossil fuel projects, including new coal development as well as existing coal reserves.” (Dayen’s entire piece on Deese is worth a closer read).
A safe climate scientifically requires phasing out fossil fuel production as soon as possible. So it’s no surprise that a group devoted to preserving a safe climate is opposed to Deese becoming Biden’s top economic adviser.
Yglesias’s argument, however, was quite surprising. He said climate activists who oppose Biden’s climate choices are being “counterproductive,” because they’re distracting from the real problem: Republicans who oppose climate action. If climate activists aren’t making “ideas that will generate progress from Republicans” or “[helping] candidates with normal Dems climate views win GOP-held Senate seats,” they’re harming the cause, Yglesias said. Putting money toward anything else, he said, is “detached from actual policy analysis AND political reality.”
But Yglesias appears to have forgotten about scientific reality, which is that “normal Dems climate views” are pretty far out of line with what scientists say is necessary to prevent 1.5 degrees of warming, or even 2 degrees of warming. And the only reason they have shifted to become more in line with the scientific reality is because of groups like the Sunrise Movement, which have shifted political reality.
Yglesias is correct that it will be necessary to elect Democrats to have any chance of passing meaningful climate policy. But if those Democrats are not pressured to shift their views to be in line with the science, the policy they wind up passing will likely be weak. Weak climate policy is certainly better than nothing, but the consequences will still wreak unimaginable horror. This is not my political opinion. It is scientific reality.
When it comes to climate policy, political reporters commonly suffer from the disease of oversimplification—that is, believing there is one simple solution to the climate crisis, and if we just did that, everything would be fine. But climate change has never been a single-solution problem. We will not solve it simply by electing Democrats. Or simply by convincing Republicans. We will not solve it by simply installing nuclear, or banning fracking, or inventing a great battery. We have to do every single thing humanly possible. And those things will not happen if don’t bring political reality further in line with scientific reality—which is what Sunrise Movement has done, and what it’s still trying to do. This isn’t simply a “intra-party” political fight. It’s a fight for our lives.
Imagine there was a vaccine available that could stop the coronavirus, but it could only be produced with renewable energy. Now imagine the Republican Party, in order to appease the fossil fuel industry, opposed the vaccine—and many denied the virus existed at all. Now imagine Democrats, to appease Republicans, adopted a policy that only some of the vaccine should be distributed. Now imagine they still fought about it for 40 years, while the virus ravaged populations and economies before everyone’s eyes, and still did nothing.
If we were in that situation, would you really think the problem is “activists would want the full vaccine?” The people trying to make politicians less scientifically illiterate, economically short-sighted, and morally bankrupt—would you really think those people are the problem?
Scrutinizing Kerry isn’t an act of malice. It’s an act of duty and care.
One of the reasons I think groups like Sunrise provoke such negative reaction from some people is that they’ve come to view criticism and protest as wholly malicious, and generally useless. I want to share with you all how I think about criticism; particularly of those in power who share your goals and values. So below I’m republishing an article I wrote for MSNBC about Joe Biden’s new climate enjoy, former Secretary of State John Kerry. I hope you enjoy it.
This piece originally appeared on MSNBC, and is republished in HEATED with permission
Of all the messes President-elect Joe Biden is tasked with cleaning up, the climate crisis is the most high stakes. If aggressive decarbonization doesn’t begin soon, climate scientists see little chance of preventing permanent ecological catastrophe.
Biden will need the most qualified team on Earth to prevent the health and economic consequences that would follow. And on Nov. 17, he announced one of the most important members of that team: Former Secretary of State John Kerry.
Kerry is filling a new cabinet-level role to lead international climate efforts; one which the New York Times says “elevates the issue of climate change to the highest echelons of government.” And while Kerry is undoubtedly qualified for the role, the reaction to his appointment to this “climate envoy” role has so far been mixed — due primarily to the fact that Kerry has been in a similar position before, and yet we still have seen no climate action.
More interesting, though, has been the reaction to the reaction. As climate activists and journalists have pointed out the potential flaws in Kerry’s appointment, others have said they’re being too critical. That Kerry is a good man. That he’s passionate. That he’s qualified. That people should be happy with Biden’s choice.
But there is nothing about the present climate situation that suggests this is a time to be happy. And Kerry’s ability to get us out if this dire situation will not rest solely on his goodness or passion or previous experience. It will rest on his ability to do the best job he’s ever done in his life, every single day.
To do that, he and the entire Biden administration need to feel the pressure of this moment more than they believe they can bear. They're the ones who accepted the responsibility of solving the climate crisis in the 11th hour. This is literally the greatest responsibility a group of people could ever have.
And it is our responsibility, as citizens and people who want livable futures for our children, to constantly criticize and question those who are tasked with providing them. Criticizing Kerry and his colleagues is not an act of malice against Kerry. It is an act of duty and care.
If it seems unfair to hold anyone to such a high standard — especially someone like Kerry, who has already tried so hard to push for progress on climate issues — that’s because it is. But this is the place Trump and the fossil fuel industry have put us in. It is extremely unjust. It is extremely unfair.
It is also the reality of the climate situation we’re in. We have to care about our future more than we care about defending Kerry's honor. We have a duty to future generations and ourselves to scrutinize his every move.
Kerry, too, has a duty to accept and learn from that criticism. At present he’s known for being a little brittle; he got testy with me once when I asked a legitimate question about diversity in the climate movement. But the science of climate change doesn't have time for him taking things personally.
We're emerging from a political administration where no matter how loud you yelled, you were never heard. There's reason to believe this is going to change; we have evidence that Biden and Kerry are movable and able to be pushed effectively by the climate movement on this issue.
But Kerry and Biden also have a history of being pushed by the fossil fuel industry. So we can't just sit back and trust them to do a good job, because they are good, solid people.
Biden said during a recent speech that he wants his team to tell him what he needs to know, not what he wants to know. He was talking about his own cabinet, but this principle applies to the public, too. With this new administration, we have an opportunity to reframe criticism as a form of care. We do it not just because we want this administration to succeed, but because we need them to.
OK, that’s all for today—thanks for reading HEATED! To support independent climate journalism that holds the powerful accountable—and to receive HEATED’s reporting and analysis in your inbox four days a week—become a subscriber today.
If you’d like to share this piece as a web page, click the button below.
If you’re a paid subscriber and would like to post a comment—or if you would like to view comments from paid subscribers—click the comment button:
Looking for climate content that’s a little weirder than this? Follow HEATED on Instagram for climate memes, tweets, and pictures of food.
Stay hydrated, eat plants (I like bananas), do push-ups, and have a great day!
Keep up the great work, Emily!
Congrats, Emily--looks like you're going to keep your focus on point just fine even with the larger audience--we're rooting for you!