On Saturday, May 4, over 100 people gathered in the amphitheater of Rainbow Community School in West Asheville to hear a panel of high school students and community leaders speak about the climate crisis and what they are doing to fight it. The event was staged by the Sunrise Movement as part of its nationwide town hall series aimed at inciting community organizing efforts around the centerpiece of its political movement, The Green New Deal. The Sunrise Movement, a youth-led, climate activism organization founded in April 2017, has experienced an explosion of notoriety after staging several high-profile protests over the last seven months in attempts to make The Green New Deal into a household concept.
In their aim to change national political discourse, Sunrise has been quite successful. Two protests that took place in November and December 2018 led to the introduction of Rep. Alexandria-Ocasio Cortez’s, D-N.Y., and Sen. Ed Markey’s, D-Mass., Green New Deal resolution in February. As of late March, because of significant pressure generated by Sunrise, the resolution had already garnered 91 co-sponsors in Congress and 12 in the Senate, and most Democratic 2020 hopefuls have taken a public stance on the issue.
The resolution, a series of general policy goals, details the catastrophic environmental problems that would result from political and economic business as usual and calls for net zero global emissions by 2050. To achieve these goals, the resolution aims to create what environmental activists widely refer to as a “just transition,” a shift to renewable energy that creates prosperity for working-class Americans.
The just transition, as outlined in the resolution, centers around federal wartime-scale investment in revolutionizing U.S. energy grids and a federal jobs guarantee. The resolution explicitly speaks to the importance of uplifting historically disenfranchised communities and those who are suffering from the effects of deindustrialization. Among other social and environmental justice related goals, the resolution also calls for implementing sustainable and regenerative agricultural practices on a national scale and a complete overhaul of U.S. transportation systems.
The town hall began with high school students who rallied the crowd with passionate calls about the urgency of the climate crisis. Clay Swan-Davis, a panelist and student at Asheville High School, acknowledged that youths are the voice of reason and conscience when it comes to confronting ecological destruction. Davis said that the young people taking the lead in the climate movement have ironically tasked themselves with urging adults to “grow up” and stop living in climate denial.
The adult panelists spoke broadly about a range of issues, from participatory budgeting to creating more community gardens, the importance of labor unions and making Asheville’s public transportation system more efficient. The purpose of the discussion was a general call for greater political participation and community organizing efforts in Asheville, rather than about the Green New Deal specifically.
Deanville Celestine, an Asheville High School student, echoed the event’s focus on democracy and civic engagement when he told me that he was “interested in the Green New Deal because it is a democratic means of establishing justice for the people and changing the economy for the better.”
Similarly, Brian Haynes, the only Asheville City Council member in attendance, said he came to the event because “the Green New Deal is exactly what is needed to move the country in the right direction” and that he wanted to “see what part I can play in the movement.” Comments from others in the crowd also signaled that, besides wanting to learn about the Green New Deal, people were interested in coming together and finding substantive ways to start mobilizing for clean energy and against the climate crisis.
The event ended with a speech by Sam Taylor, the director of Sunrise’s North Carolina program. Taylor used one of Sunrise’s go-to messaging strategies, which is to clearly define a common enemy: fossil fuel billionaires. Taylor, with the help of a video produced by The Intercept narrated by Ocasio-Cortez, emphasized that various corporations and politicians have known about the potentially catastrophic impact of climate change since the late 1970s and have been attempting to obscure the severity of the threat since then. Taylor also mentioned that the Koch network, a political machine of think tanks and political action committees whose funding eclipses that of the entire Republican Party, has played a large role staving off climate action. Taylor emphasized that in order to take on “the billionaires,” people must begin organizing in their communities to gain power and fill all levels of government with leaders who have a strong commitment to social and environmental justice.
The Sunrise Movement plans to organize in the Asheville area through the 2020 election. Taylor said that the organization’s goal is to have 12-24 “fellows” and several staffers on the ground across North Carolina registering voters and speaking to people about the Green New Deal starting this fall. Although Taylor did state Sunrise plans to execute more direct actions to build a stronger base of activists, he said that the organization will mostly be focusing on voter registration leading up to 2020.
— Clay Hurand