The Sunrise Movement (SM) is a 501(c)(4) environmental advocacy organization that, while publicly denying partisanship with either “the right or left” side of the political spectrum, in fact places its full support behind left-wing Democratic Party candidates and agendas. Most notably, SM endorses the enactment of a “Green New Deal,” environmental legislation whose multifaceted mission is to rapidly eliminate all fossil-fuel use from the U.S. economy (in favor of renewables like wind and solar energy); create a basic income program and a federal jobs guarantee that would provide a “living wage” to every person who wants one; implement a government-run, single-payer health care system; and replace free-market capitalism with a socialist framework.
Rooted in the premise that the greenhouse gas emissions associated with human industrial activity are a major cause of potentially catastrophic “climate change,” SM is composed chiefly of what it terms “an army of young people” who aim to take “immediate and decisive action to transform our energy system” and address the “climate crisis” that threatens to consign humanity to “a future ravaged by wildfires, heatwaves, and hurricanes.” In pursuit of this objective, SM vows to “end the corrupting influence of fossil fuel executives on our politics.” That “handful of wealthy oil and gas executives,” says the organization, “will stop at nothing to squeeze the last bit of money out of the earth” – no matter how many “children must breathe toxic air,” or how many “parents must choose between a dangerous and polluting job, and no job at all.”
SM was launched in April 2017 by six principal co-founders. Two of those were former Wesleyan University students Matthew Lichtash and Evan Weber, both in their twenties, and the latter of whom had participated in the anti-capitalist Occupy Wall Street movement of 2011. During their student days at Wesleyan, Lichtash and Weber developed a friendship with then-visiting professor Michael Dorsey, a Club Of Rome member and former Sierra Club board member whom President Barack Obama had appointed to the EPA’s National Advisory Board in 2010 and 2012. In 2013, Dorsey, who likewise would become one of SM’s co-founders four years later, used his influence to secure a $30,000 grant to help himself and the two Wesleyan students write a plan outlining how climate change could most effectively be addressed; the Sierra Club’s Washington, D.C. branch allowed the trio to use its office as a home base. Within a few months, Dorsey, Lichtash, and Weber had produced a 35-page treatise emphasizing the need for carbon taxes that would discourage reliance on fossil-fuel-combustion technologies, and in January 2014 they helped incorporate a new group called the U.S. Climate Plan.
Two additional SM co-founders were Sara Blazevic and Varshini Prakash, both members of the Fossil Fuel Divestment Student Network, an alliance that pressures universities and other institutions to divest their assets from the oil and gas industries. Prakash, for her part, seeks to galvanize “a rising tide of people” to combat “the greed and selfishness of wealthy men, of fossil-fuel billionaires who plunder our earth for profit.” By “build[ing] the largest youth political force this country has ever seen,” she hopes to “make a Green New Deal a political inevitability in America.”
The sixth major co-founder of SM was William Lawrence, a young man who argues that “a massive overhaul of [the] nation’s infrastructure and economy” is “exactly what we need to do.”
SM’s first public appearance in 2017 was a climate protest in Washington, D.C., where its members promoted a “Sunrise Semesters” initiative that would permit college-age supporters to join the organization for one school semester to help promote Democratic political candidates committed to the Green New Deal. The first “Sunrise Semester” drew approximately 85 young volunteers who worked across five states during the 2018 election cycle.
During that same cycle, SM encouraged congressional Democrats to sign a pledge not to accept any campaign contributions from fossil-fuel industries. One noteworthy backer of that pledge was Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who subsequently proceeded to unseat a longtime incumbent Democrat from the U.S. House of Representatives in the November 2018 elections. According to SM co-founder Evan Weber, Ocasio-Cortez’s support gave the organization “added star power and firepower that took it through the roof.” As The New Yorker noted in December 2018, “Sunrise has established itself as the dominant influence on the environmental policy of the Democratic Party’s young, progressive wing.”
On November 13, 2018, More than 200 Sunrise Movement demonstrators staged a protest outside the office of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, to demand that Democrats make the battle against climate change a top priority beginning in January 2019. The protest, which was praised by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, resulted in 51 arrests.
During a single weekend in December 2018, a number of SM members joined likeminded staffers of Ocasio-Cortez as well as members of Justice Democrats and New Consensus, in drafting the text of the aforementioned Green New Deal.
On June 28, 2021, SM activists launched an insurrection at the White House, blocking every entrance to the building and demanding that the Biden administration put climate change-related initiatives — particularly those included in the massive infrastructure bill that was being negotiated in Congress — at the forefront of its agenda.
In additional to mostly non-financial support from organizations like the Sierra Club and 350.org, SM has received monetary grants from the Wallace Global Fund, the Rockefeller Family Fund, and the Winslow Foundation. In 2018, approximately 55% of SM’s donations derived from institutional funders, while 35% came from individual donors and 10% came from nonprofit partners.
Further Reading: “Our Road to Victory on a Green New Deal” (SunriseMovement.org); “Who We Are” (SunriseMovement.org); “Inside the Sunshine Movement” (EENews.net, 12-3-2018, re: SM’s co-founders, the $30,000 grant, “Sunrise Semesters,” the anti-fossil fuel campaign pledge, the Weber quote, & the protest outside Pelosi’s office); “Sunrise Movement Won’t Let the Sun Go Down on the ‘Green New Deal’” (Capital Research Center, 1-3-2019); “The Optimistic Activists for a Green New Deal: Inside the Youth-Led Singing Sunrise Movement” (New Yorker, 12-23-2018, re: Prakash quotes & New Yorker quote); “Sunrise Movement is Shaking Up the Climate Debate” (Inside Philanthropy, 1-7-2019, re: SM funding); “Ocasio-Cortez’s ‘Green New Deal’ to Transform the U.S. Economy Was Drafted over a Single Weekend by a Bunch of Millennial Staffers, Activists” (Daily Caller, 1-18-2019).