To solve everything, solve climate
A conversation with Varshini Prakash, leader of the Sunrise Movement
Varshini Prakash is a phenom. Still in her mid-twenties, she is a co-founder and executive director of the Sunrise Movement, the pioneering youth-led force advocating for comprehensive solutions to climate change, most notably a Green New Deal.
In an era full of argument about how real change is made, Sunrise is a wonderfully complicating example. It doesn’t play by Marquess of Queensberry Rules, as when Varshini and her peers occupied House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office back in 2018. But it also believes in working inside the system, which is why Varshini agreed to join former Vice President Joe Biden’s climate task force earlier this year. The result of her joining, in the eyes of many, was a Prakashian rewriting of the Biden climate plan.
She is the co-editor of the very inspiring, just-published book “Winning the Green New Deal: Why We Must, How We Can.”
The other day, we spoke for more than an hour and a half about her discovery of the natural world, her theories of change and power, how climate is altering childhood, and why it’s time to realize that environmental rescue isn’t a burden but a panacea.
ANAND: Tell me, as far back as you can remember, the origin of your caring about the climate.
VARSHINI: The farthest back that it goes is not degradation or destruction or anything bad. It actually just starts with deep love and admiration and a sense of awe about the lived world that I was in. It goes back to every day that I would spend after school, putzing around in my backyard, digging things up, moving large boulders with my best friend to another side of the yard for hours, going on missions in the woods.
It was just a New England suburb, but it was magical, you know? I got so much joy and peace and a sense of agency out of being in nature.
When I saw what people were doing to it, and learning about things like deforestation, and trash piles in the ocean twice the size of Texas, and seeing these horrible images of kids who looked like me in India, who didn't have food, who didn't have water, farmers who were committing suicide by the tens of thousands because they were unable to grow their crops and in so much debt — that was when I realized something that was so precious to me and so important to me was being absolutely destroyed, in large part because of the greed of corporations, because of very wealthy people who were coming to these communities and destroying them.
I actually hated politics for most of my life. I didn't understand it. I was like, "Ew." Then, as I got into college, I fell into some of these movements, like the fossil-fuel divestment movement. I realized politics isn't just guys in suits in Congress on the Hill legislating, people who didn't look anything like me or come from my community.
It was recognizing: Wow, everything that I have been so angry about, frustrated about, and fearful of and wanting to change can be shifted through collective action. It didn't have to be just these individual consumer shifts or changes. This was about building and wielding power through ordinary people, people just like me.
ANAND: What you said is so interesting, because a lot of what I've tried to write about is an ideology that has been thrown at us, particularly at young people, which is that the way you change the world is bottom-up private initiatives or consumer nudges.
I think that "Ew, politics" feeling is very widespread, and there is this push of: Just start a social enterprise. Do something small that you can do. Government sucks. What was your “aha” moment of realizing that No, no, no, government is exactly where people need to go?
VARSHINI: It was an evolution. I absolutely went through that exact transformation. For a long time, I was in a recycling club in my high school. I was yelling at my mom to turn off the light bulbs all the time. I was in this sustainable food initiative on campus at the University of Massachusetts, where we did wonderful things. We grew these awesome urban food gardens on campus.
At a certain point, I was getting fed up that change wasn't happening fast enough. OK, great, we've transformed this acre plot of land, and perhaps shifted paradigms for a few people about how food can be grown, who it's for, how to do it in a way that's economically and ecologically sustainable.
But at the same time this is happening, the fossil-fuel industry is still cooking the planet. Communities right outside of this campus don't have food to eat. They have lead in their land and their water. This is not actually ambitious enough to address the problem at the scale of the problem.
The pace of consumer choices or individual actions couldn't keep pace with my desire to actually improve people's lives tangibly — not in the tens, but in the millions. If you think about the entity that can affect the most number of people in the United States, it is the federal government.
For so long, we’ve had a common sense in this country, which was largely perpetrated by an elite set of conservatives and very wealthy people, that government is bad. That we should hack away at it. We should deregulate industry. We should disinvest in the public sector as much as possible and create this bootstrapping economy that has been really, really bad for everyday people, and that has led to the ballooning of the climate crisis.
Also, seeing the rise of people like Bernie Sanders, and seeing, Wow, there can be candidates who are movement candidates who are talking about the fossil-fuel industry in the way that activists are talking about the fossil-fuel industry, who are talking about the climate crisis as the greatest existential threat to humankind. Holy shit, there are politicians that can have the kind of vision and ambition that we are discussing and who are talking about utilizing the federal government to wield that power to shift the lives of millions of people.
That was the final step in that process. Realizing we can engage both. We have to engage both electorally as well as grassroots. We have to bring these two things into conversation with one another.
ANAND: How did you and the other Sunrise founders find each other, and how did you come to the initial shared vision?
VARSHINI: A number of us were actually part of another organization called the Fossil Fuel Divestment Student Network, and also people from 350.org. Then we had other folks who were part of building out state networks to pass legislation to get to a clean economy. And you just know each other. You meet each other at conferences; you meet each other at rallies. You get to know people. You get a sense of people's strategic bents. So when we started the process of creating Sunrise, which was a whole year-long process to begin with, we actually held tryouts. Like a mini audition for who was strategically aligned.
ANAND: What was most different in the theory of change that you all were committing to from everything that you had seen before? What was the biggest departure from the mainstream climate movement?
VARSHINI: The emphasis on the connection between racial and environmental justice was one of the biggest things. I don't think we're perfect at it yet, but it’s the sense of We understand that tackling racial justice is not just nice to have or something that we do because we feel guilty about it or because the moment calls for it; it's the right thing to do. It's also deeply essential to the success of our movement. Like the GOP strategy forever, especially in the last 40 years, 50 years — the reason why Nixon and Reagan and Trump have been able to win is because they have used race as a divide-and-conquer tool.
Our opponents are always looking for fault lines to divide us, whether that's race or class. So if we can't have an analysis, a culture, and a vision that actually integrates those issues collectively and understands that we have to tackle white supremacy in order to address climate change, we won't win.
I also think we were an organization that was planning for the populist moment that we are currently in and we were in in 2016. A lot of other climate organizations didn't quite realize that it was far less of a battle between right and left, and far more of a battle between top and bottom. For us, we were recognizing this isn't an issue of the fossil-fuel industry. This is an issue of fossil-fuel elites and of specific government actors and politicians that have been bought off by the fossil-fuel industry. We weren't afraid to go after not just Republicans but Democrats as well, which I think a lot of our mainstream allies have been totally terrified of doing.
ANAND: You were invited to join Joe Biden’s climate task force, which brought together his people with supporters of Bernie Sanders like yourself.
When Biden’s revised climate policy was unveiled, it was celebrated by many progressives as a real shift. Noam Chomsky declared Biden on climate as “farther to the left than any Democratic candidate in memory,” because, he said, the agenda was “largely written by the Sunrise Movement and strongly endorsed by the leading activists on climate change.”
Take me into the Zoom where it happened. What was being on the task force like? When did you realize these people might actually be listening?
VARSHINI: I was cautiously optimistic about the people who were a part of it. I think Gina McCarthy is a fantastic human. I think AOC and Catherine Flowers are brilliant leaders and giants in their own right. Or John Kerry — he and I don't necessarily agree on every single issue — but I do believe that he thinks that Joe Biden's plan should be more ambitious and was very open to ideas. That allowed for an actual dialogue. I didn't feel shut down almost ever, even if there were moments where people disagreed about policy and the Biden camp was not willing to necessarily support a position that I had wanted them to.
We spent about two hours on Zoom every week, with a couple of meetings in between, and a lot of meetings with Bernie Sanders and the Bernie team to get aligned on policy. And it was pretty intensive, considering that it all happened in six weeks and we were supposed to put out some kind of major climate platform in that time. It was a big lift. It was a little terrifying to get up there and feel this pressure of both being the youngest person in the room and being the youngest person on any of the task forces.
It was the first experience that I've had of being a sort of power player while also being deeply accountable to the movement and all of the people who were not in that room.
ANAND: To someone who was politically aligned with you in the primaries, in supporting Sanders, what would you say about Biden's climate plan now?
VARSHINI: I would say Joe Biden's climate plan has significantly improved from where it was three, four months ago. I would say the cruel reality of the climate crisis is that, no matter what ambition that we have right now, or no matter how much Joe Biden's plan has improved, we have still ignored the science on this issue for 40 years.
Now we are in a full-blown emergency, and we don't have the luxury of time or of watering down any kind of plans that we have. We will constantly have to push Joe Biden at every step of the way to ensure that he doesn’t just meet these goals, but goes beyond them.
You better believe the fossil-fuel industry, the GOP, the Koch brothers, Fox News — all of these entities that are extremely aligned about the fact that they want to stave off action on climate change for as long as possible — they’re going to be pushing against it on day one of the new administration, and he's going to need the pressure behind him to make it happen. Joe Biden is not the candidate whom I would have wanted, but Joe Biden gives us some leverage and the political terrain within which we can fight and pass a Green New Deal. It’s far, far more likely than with Donald Trump.
ANAND: There is this critical perception that's grown up around the Green New Deal: that it's trying to parlay one issue, climate change, into addressing a bunch of other things that, in the eyes of these critics, are not directly related — whether it's a jobs guarantee, whether it's dealing with racial-justice issues.
In your new book, “Winning the Green New Deal: Why We Must, How We Can,” you argue, quite rightly, in my view, that this broader approach is necessary because we actually need to rewire our entire way of life and to make people who suffer from this transition whole. But can you make this case to folks who feel like they're with you on climate, but wonder why you are now trying to do additional stuff, given how hard the core problem is?
VARSHINI: There are a few different things.
One: particularly around inequality and particularly around racism, I would say that the climate crisis and racial inequality are linked in causation as well as in effect. I do not believe that we would have the existing environmental inequality that we have today if some people's lives didn't matter more than others’.
There is no reason why the Dakota Access Pipeline would have been rerouted from a wealthy white community to an indigenous community if indigenous communities hadn’t, first of all, undergone the worst genocide in the founding of the United States and then been systematically disenfranchised and lost their sovereignty over the last 400 years.
We would have had a Green New Deal a decade ago if Black lives mattered, because of Hurricane Katrina. We would have seen the carnage that resulted from it as the greatest call to action. And the same thing is true with Hurricane Maria.
And so, to me, the very reason why we have the climate crisis is because we have inequality. And the effect is that communities of color and poor people are disproportionately affected by the impact of the climate crisis as well. There's no way to actually disentangle these things.
And another thing: There was a poll that came out when we were launching Sunrise, which showed there's essentially an urgency gap in people's understanding of the climate crisis. We ask people: What's your No. 1 issue right now? Obviously, it's the things that you would think about: jobs, economy, health. If you ask people, What's the number one issue that you think you'll have 30 years from now, the No. 1 thing above everything else is climate and environment.
But we have to solve this issue in the next five to ten years. And so what Sunrise set out to do was to close this urgency gap. Firstly, by talking about how the climate crisis is not in the distant future but an issue appearing now, and connecting current environmental events to the larger crisis. But, secondly, by helping the climate crisis ride the coattails of the most important crises of today — jobs, economy, etc., — which is why the Green New Deal is presented as a socioeconomic plan, essentially a massive green jobs and infrastructure plan. It's why it was huge when Joe Biden said, “When I think about climate change, the word I think of is ‘jobs.’”
We have got to demolish this jobs-versus-environment thing that has been created in large part due to the fossil-fuel industry, but also due to shitty renewable-energy companies that don't want to have good labor practices and the existing mainstream environmental movement totally forgetting labor or just not including job security and related considerations in their calls for the end of the fossil-fuel industry and the move to renewable energy. So, look, it's what we need to do to win. And it's also that there's no way to actually disentangle these issues.
ANAND: Among the most stirring moments in this climate discussion in recent years was Greta Thunberg at the UN saying “You have stolen my dreams, and my childhood, with your empty words.”
She's a singular person, but I imagine she speaks for many. Have you witnessed a shift in the inner experience of youth with this death knell of climate hanging over people’s heads? Do you think a lot of young people feel that their childhoods have been stolen?
VARSHINI: It’s rampant. We'll go to trainings and kids will share really intense stories of contemplating suicide. I don't want to call it nihilism because it's not something theoretical. People are really, really, really feeling this deep sense of foreboding — a lack of agency, basically.
ANAND: You’re saying you hear young people contemplating suicide because of climate specifically?
VARSHINI: Yes. Because of the climate crisis. It’s not uncommon.
I think about this week alone. It's been hard to get up and think that our book launch is so exciting. I'm like, Jesus Christ. You're looking at the RNC saying all kinds of terrifying, crazy stuff as though they're a real political party. You're seeing these storms, you're seeing the fires, you're seeing the impending hurricane. You have the shooting of Jacob Blake. And now we're hearing about every issue of gun violence, climate change, white supremacy, fascism, the pandemic.
On top of that, you have social isolation. It is just brutal for young people. I think we're really at a crossroads. We could lose an entire generation to a sense of anxiety and depression and a sense of I can't cope.
And I think this is actually one of the most important roles that movements have to play. A big part of our role is bringing kids back from the sense of: Nothing can be done. Movements at their finest help people realize their potential and their power to do something that they never thought was possible before.
I see that all around us. For every one of those really sad stories, you hear a million amazing stories like we had in our campaign to elect Jamaal Bowman to office. Sunrise made 800,000 of his 1.3 million calls to voters. These are literal teenagers on Zoom. The young girls of color who led a lot of our phone banks were 14 and 16, respectively. These kids can't even vote, and they are organizing thousands of other young people to make calls for candidates to elect insurgent progressives and kick out 30-year incumbents who haven't done anything on climate.
ANAND: Come January, whatever the election outcome, do you think Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer should be the caucus leaders in the House and Senate?
VARSHINI: I want Elizabeth Warren to be the Senate majority leader. I think she'd be a banging Senate majority leader. I think we should totally have new leadership.
ANAND: What do you say to people who say, "I am with you in the goal. I'm with you on the Green New Deal. However, I look at a government that has been unable to do things for years without messing them up. I'm a progressive, but I just don't see evidence that this government at this moment would be able to pull off the things you're talking about"? How do you answer that?
VARSHINI: I would say, Yeah, I share that concern. There's no reason why you should believe that they can get things done. They haven't for a very long time. The most significant policy that I have seen in my lifetime is probably Obamacare.
ANAND: I mean, I'm on Obamacare, which is frankly a little bit of a mess.
VARSHINI: Totally. Exactly. It's a piecemeal solution to the problem of millions of people not having adequate health insurance in this country.
But I would say the magnitude of what is at stake right now means that we have no choice but to fight. Even the slimmest shot in the world, even if it were just a small percentage chance, even if it were just like a decimal point of a percentage chance that we could potentially avert catastrophic warming that leads to the demise of hundreds of millions of people, it would be worth it. But it is a surety that we are careening towards that catastrophe if every single one of us does not engage in that fight.
ANAND: I remember joking in the early days of coronavirus that the climate crisis must be so jealous. Because for years the whole world has been told to get together and act fast and do something on climate, and we more or less fail. Then this virus comes around, and it's this synchronous worldwide mobilization. Has this pandemic taught you anything about how to fight for a worldwide mobilization on climate?
VARSHINI: That’s interesting. It has pointed out how the U.S. can go dramatically wrong in that whole process and not participate in anything internationally and completely botch the entire effort at home. So it feels more like a cautionary tale than anything else.
But I also think it has taught me how quickly people can shift their lives if they truly perceive an existential threat. And in many ways, what we need to do to solve the climate crisis is way, way, way, better than, and will improve people's lives more than, what we have to do in social-distancing time.
ANAND: About that. When we talk about solving this issue, I think it undoubtedly feels important to a lot of people. It feels like the right thing to do.
One thing that often feels missing, though, is that this could be the endeavor of our lives. Going back historically, people who live through even the most awful wars often have these strangely exhilarating memories: We were doing this big thing, and we were holding it down, and we were all in it together.
What's the pitch you'd make to people about how a transformation this large could also be this life-giving, purpose-giving, collective endeavor that is more thrilling than anything they've ever been a part of before?
VARSHINI: Well, I feel like you just said it. I thought that was a good pitch.
ANAND: But I don't know if I'm right!
VARSHINI: No, I think that's absolutely right. For so long, the solutions to the climate crisis have been about taking things away from people. Let's charge them more at the gas station. Let's put a tax on them for whatever. I think if we actually talked about the climate crisis in terms of what the collective opportunity is, we would be so much more successful.
We are talking about guaranteeing good-paying, family-sustaining jobs to every person in this country. We are talking about, What if every community had access to good food and didn't live in a food desert? What if there were regionally sourced foods that you could get at your local farmer's market in every community, not just wealthy white suburbs? What if you could ride on extremely fast trains that pick you up within two minutes of arriving at your train station and get you to virtually anywhere in the city that you want to go to? What if farming and working with the land and restoring wetlands were actually prized jobs in your community?
I visited a beautiful mountain and hiked up it and found a little placard at the top of it that said, "Built by the Civilian Conservation Corps," which was this massive program during FDR’s New Deal to employ millions of young people — albeit mostly white men. But what an incredible landmark that was created decades ago that has remained a jewel of Western Mass, where I was at that time.
What if we could create projects like that that are about guaranteeing every person tons of green space in their community? That are about building affordable housing so that poor folks and working people don't have to live in these decrepit, falling-down, environmentally hazardous communities, but actually have affordable, renewable-energy-powered public housing? What if we could repair relationships with indigenous communities and guarantee sovereignty? What if we could repair the harm that was done to the descendants of slaves for decades by guaranteeing all Americans, especially Black Americans, the right to clean air and clean water and a livable home and a job and healthcare?
A lot of people perceive the climate fight as: The timeline is terrifying. But I think we should see it as, This timeline is hastening our move towards justice.
ANAND: Because we haven't been living right on a whole bunch of dimensions. Maybe this is the dimension that forces us to live right on other dimensions.
VARSHINI: Exactly. And, you know, there is a lot of collective pain right now, but I think the Green New Deal actually affords us a shot at a collective opportunity.
For so long, I think the economic policies of individualism and isolation and people pulling themselves up by their bootstraps were not working, and people felt that at a deep level. What would it mean for people's psychological health to have a shared project that we are collectively endeavoring and that is delivering a message about collective survival and not just about the message that the GOP has been putting out about fear-mongering?
Maybe the climate crisis and many of the issues that it addresses could be our opportunity to come together.
ANAND: If people reading this want to get more involved, what's the first step they should take?
VARSHINI: Well, the best thing to do would be to go to sunrisemovement.org, and you can join us there. You could also go to @sunrisemvmt on Twitter, on Instagram, on TikTok, on Facebook, and you can follow along with everything that we're doing.
You could also buy the book and read more about us if you're like, "Well, I'm not sure if I want to be a part of a movement quite yet, but I want to learn more about it." We really believe there's a role for anyone, anywhere to play in our movement. You don't have to be a young person to join Sunrise. We need you, because the real truth is we need millions and millions and millions more people to be joining our movement than we have today. And you are probably the one you are waiting for.
Varshini Prakash is the co-founder and executive director of the Sunrise Movement. She is the co-editor of “Winning the Green New Deal: Why We Must, How We Can.”
This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.
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See you soon!
Photo: Getty Images / Alex Wong
Thanks for this very engaging interview. I admire the work Varshini and her colleagues are trying to advance and you are a very good interviewer, Anand.
There is a lot to unpack here. A few observations as I put on a few different hats.
First, I spent the better part of my professional career researching how individuals develop an ethic of service. I really appreciated how Varshini described her development as a climate activist. Her story matches the stories I've heard from undergraduate students I worked with as they found their activist voice. It starts with a commitment to purpose that grows as you find like-minded individuals to accompany for the cause. It was uplifting to read about Varshini's path, lessons learned along the way, and how she sees a maturing in herself regarding what's important, how to get the work done, and why it's important for individuals to find common ground and common purpose to activate the common good.
I have come to the same point regarding the climate crisis and its place among the challenges we face moving forward. If we begin to address climate I do believe we will make progress on the other challenges we face. Penny, I really empathize with your message. Many of my students over the years worked on housing and homelessness and I do agree that building public housing in areas of cities that further segregate people based on income and ethnicity is not the solution. This is precisely the solution Trump wants. Warehouse BIPOC persons away from the white suburbs. The solution that we need is to find ways to build communities that reflect the future of the nation: women and men committed to the common purpose of a thriving democracy that is at once multicultural, multigenerational, and interreligious that includes people of faith and of no faith. On this point I point to the work of Eboo Patel and his Interfaith Youth Corps. Think about how disparities in education, health, community, jobs, economic development, immigration, and more may be improved if we use a common commitment to improving the quality of the environment around us. The potential is there to lead lasting and cultural change that is forward-looking and will save the planet and help us all build the infrastructure for a sustainable future.
I am so glad Varshini had the opportunity to influence the Biden environmental plan. She may not have achieved all she wanted but it was a start. What you described for me is another hat I wear, how collaborative governance is necessary to achieve the aspirational goals any institution, organization, or government wishes to achieve. This is one of my expectations for a Biden-Harris administration. We need to hold them accountable to create a collaborative approach to governance that will be inclusive, that will serve all Americans, and lead to accomplishing the things we need: climate policy, a holistic health care plan that covers both physical and mental health, prosperity for our urban cores. addressing the challenges our citizens face in rural communities, a forward-looking educational model that prepares people for the future and stands ready to help people as they start their first job, second job, third job...an education for the demands of the worker life-cycle, and finally an education that prepares people for engaged citizenship. Job training is not enough. We must rekindle the purpose of citizenship in a democracy. It's messy but it's a hell of a lot better than a dictatorship.
Sorry for the rant. But I spent a lot of time working with college students as they find their way only to see the public good of higher education trashed. Some of this is the fault of higher education leadership. These leaders stopped advocating for why higher education, especially an education in the liberal arts and sciences, is good for innovation, creativity, and democracy.
Okay, I'm done. Peace out!
Climate and the environment is all that matters. Yet first, give people single-payer health care. When they feel a safety net their ability and bandwidth to care about the climate will expand exponentially. If stressed that a simple broken ankle will bankrupt you, your ability to worry about the Marshall Islands goes down to almost zero.