WASHINGTON — Senator Ed Markey stood in front of the US Capitol on Tuesday surrounded by about 20 climate change activists young enough to be on a school field trip but who are energizing a movement that potentially holds the key to his reelection.
Kallan Benson, 15, from Maryland, said she was terrified of what could happen if legislators don’t take action to reverse global warming. Nadia Nazar, 17, of Baltimore, compared the destruction caused by mass flooding in her family’s home in India to that of hurricanes increasingly devastating the East Coast.
“We refuse to be the last generation,” said Nazar, cofounder of the climate change organization Zero Hour. “We will no longer be known as the kids fighting the apocalypse. We will be known as the solution to the climate crisis.”
They and others who came to Washington ahead of demonstrations planned around the world on Friday to draw attention to climate change praised Markey for the Green New Deal resolution he is cosponsoring with Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York. They are part of what Markey, 73, has called a green generation army that he has worked to build through more than four decades in Congress.
Now, those youthful and aggressive troops — one group staged a high-profile sit-in at House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office last year — could help him hold onto his Senate seat if he faces an expected primary challenge from Joseph P. Kennedy III. Their support might temper the generational change argument Kennedy, 38, is likely to make.
“It will be instrumental in the framing,” said former Massachusetts representative Barney Frank. “It will help blunt the blow of a [generational] attack.”
Kennedy has said he is considering a Democratic primary challenge to Markey, who has served in the Senate since 2013 after first being elected to the House in 1976. A Suffolk University/Boston Globe poll released this month found Kennedy would lead Markey by 14 percentage points in a head-to-head matchup and hold a 9 point lead over the incumbent in a five-person field with the other declared Democratic challengers.
“Every little bit helps, but he is going to have to do an awful lot more if he wants to try to beat Joe Kennedy,” Mary Anne Marsh, a Democratic strategist in Boston, said of Markey’s support from climate change activists. “It’s a tall order.”
Markey is leaning heavily on his deep environmental record and work on climate change in his campaign.
“The Green New Deal is the promise we make today to all of the young people here that the future is not yet lost, that there are leaders who understand the bold, transformational action necessary to combat this crisis,” he said at Tuesday’s news conference.
Markey has been endorsed by groups such as the Sunrise Movement, which occupied Pelosi’s office along with Ocasio-Cortez in December to push for Democratic support for the Green New Deal.
Ocasio-Cortez, 29, who won an upset victory in a Democratic primary last year on the strength of her push for an aggressive response to climate change, chose Markey as her lead Senate cosponsor of the Green New Deal. And last week, she recorded a video endorsing Markey, calling him a “a proud and strong progressive champion for working families.”
Markey first rose to prominence on climate change in 2007, when Pelosi tapped him over several other key lawmakers to head a select committee dedicated to energy and global warming issues. His signature proposal came in 2009, when he coauthored a bill that would have capped emissions through 2050 for several greenhouse gases, and established a system for trading emissions allowances. It passed the House but died in the Senate.
The Green New Deal has since become the most comprehensive effort to tackle climate change — and it goes much further in its attempt to restructure the economy.
In an op-ed article for the Globe Magazine, Varshini Prakash, who lives in East Boston and cofounded the Sunrise Movement, said Markey told her the difference between his efforts to address climate change a decade ago and now was the growth of a movement.
Her organization is working on a plan to hold rallies, register voters, and knock on doors for Markey in his reelection bid. And she said their past efforts have worked: Of the 30 Democrats her group supported in the 2018 midterm election, 19 won in local, state, and congressional races across the country — including Ocasio-Cortez.
“Let’s be clear — the person who has stuck his neck out to fight for the future of our generation has been Ed Markey,” Prakash, 26, who was Markey’s guest for this year’s State of the Union address, said in an interview. “Having Markey in office is actually more in line with our generation’s needs.”
The latest show of youth support for Markey came at the Capitol ahead of demonstrations scheduled in Boston and around the world on Friday, with young people vowing to walk out of school and shut down traffic.
Youth activists, some dressed in traditional indigenous clothing and headgear, gathered before heading inside to meet with legislators and testify at a hearing.
Greta Thunberg, 16, of Sweden, a Nobel Peace Prize nominee known for sparking a climate change school-strike movement, was among the attendees but declined to speak to reporters so that other activists could gain attention.
“We indigenous people depend on nature that is our mother and our territory because that is what keeps us alive, but we are being persecuted, threatened, and murdered,” said Artemisa Barbosa Ribeiro, 19, pointing to the dozens of activists in her native Brazil who have lost their lives defending the environment.
Listening in the audience were Zero Hour members Madeline Tew, 16, Anaiah Thomas, 17, and Kaylah Brathwaite, 18. Like many young climate change activists, they have dubbed themselves members of the “Green New Deal Generation” — and they see Markey as crucial to their movement.
“Markey is the only senator who you can see has made leaps and bounds to try to solve these problems,” Tew said.