I’m Massachusetts born and raised, the child of two immigrants from southern India. Growing up, I loved the stories my father would tell about his hometown of Chennai, a bustling city on the shores of the Bay of Bengal. It’s always been a magical place in my mind, a place where I felt I belonged, even though I spend most of my days half a world away.
In December 2015, Chennai was devastated by floods. Roads I had walked on as a child when I visited my grandparents were submerged in up to 8 feet of water. From my home in Boston, I watched in horror as images of people wading chest-deep in flood waters filled my computer screen. Thousands were displaced and hundreds killed.
Walking in my neighborhood park along the shore in East Boston, it’s all too easy to imagine this place submerged in water too, just as the climate maps predict for 2050. As our planet warms, floods like the ones in Chennai are getting worse. Fire seasons are running longer, storms are getting stronger, and drought leading to famine is forcing people from their homes to seek sanctuary across borders.
All our lives my peers and I watched as older generations failed to stop the unfolding climate crisis, as political leaders filled their campaign coffers with Big Oil dollars and blocked progress, as presidential debate cycles concluded without a single question on climate. We came to the uneasy realization: There were no adults in the room. If we were going to solve this problem, we’d have to take it on ourselves.
Realizing my generation would be the first to experience the climate crisis and the last with the power to stop it, I became a climate advocate in college. I rallied thousands of students at the University of Massachusetts Amherst to push our university system to stop investing in the coal, oil, and gas companies that profit off pollution. In 2017, I was part of a youth delegation to the United Nations Climate Conference in Bonn, Germany.
Throughout the Obama years, we saw our first glimpses of federal climate policy. But one UN climate report after another warned us time was running out. We could see the crisis worsening before our eyes. We’d need a movement with the power to fight back against rising seas and to compel an increasingly gridlocked government to take swift action.
So, in spring 2017, seven of my friends and I, all younger than 26, began building an army of young people capable of engaging millions in grass-roots action and electoral politics to make climate action a priority for the first time in US history. Youth have always been the vanguard of social change, and the Sunrise Movement is a political vehicle by and for them.
Since then, we’ve seen our small group transform into a political force. Tens of thousands of young people around the country, some as young as middle-school age, have formed more than 300 Sunrise hubs in their communities, pressuring political leaders to stand up to the oil and gas lobby and back big ideas like the Green New Deal.
In the 10 months since Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Democrat of New York, joined our sit-in at House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office, we’ve catapulted the Green New Deal into the national spotlight. We see it as a plan that could get America to 100 percent renewable energy and build economic prosperity for all within the decade. We’ve held hundreds of town halls with citizens and leaders to discuss how the plan could be implemented in communities. Now every major Democratic presidential candidate has endorsed it, and we’ve pushed them to release their own climate policies.
Months ago, pundits and politicians told us we’d never be able to elevate climate change to a top issue in the presidential campaigns. But now it is. And more than three-fourths of young people of all political parties support a version of the Green New Deal, as do 64 percent of independent voters, according to a Marist/NPR/PBS NewsHour poll. Because thousands of youth called, tweeted, sat in, and stood up to make this issue matter in our politics, CNN produced a seven-hour climate town hall earlier this month featuring 10 Democratic presidential candidates.
UN scientists say we have just 11 years to avoid catastrophic climate change. My generation’s survival depends on the next president and Congress using their political capital to make the Green New Deal a reality. Our mission over the coming months is to do everything in our power to make climate action a political inevitability. We’ll join with millions for global climate strikes and ensure that our generation turns out in force throughout 2020 to elect leaders who prioritize a comprehensive climate plan.
When I attended the State of the Union address this year as Massachusetts Senator Ed Markey’s guest, I asked him what had changed in the 10 years since he cosponsored the Waxman-Markey bill that would’ve stemmed greenhouse gas emissions through a cap-and-trade system. He told me the biggest difference was the army of everyday people outside the halls of Congress getting organized to lead the way toward a better world for all.
Stopping climate change will require a scale of action unlike anything many of us have seen in our lifetimes. We can stop this crisis and protect everything we know and love from destruction. But it will take all of us getting involved to make it happen. It’s long past time we go to battle.
Varshini Prakash is a cofounder of the Sunrise Movement. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.