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Activists Push Democrats On Climate Change, A New Priority For Party’s Base

Photo caption: The Sunrise Movement has organized protests like this one in July in Philadel...

Photo by Jeff Brady NPR

The Sunrise Movement has organized protests like this one in July in Philadelphia to pressure the Democratic National Committee to hold a primary debate focused on climate change.

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Democratic National Committee officials will vote today on whether to hold a presidential primary debate focused only on climate change.

Amid a rise in extreme weather events and increasingly dire scientific reports, the issue has already received more attention than in all debates combined in the last presidential election. But activists with a group called the Sunrise Movement think it deserves more and have campaigned for a climate debate.

"The climate crisis is an emergency and we need the DNC to start acting like it," says Nicole Karsch, action lead for the Sunrise Movement in Philadelphia.

At a recent protest the group staged there, a few dozen young people held yellow and black signs calling for a climate debate. Their focus was a building where they thought Pennsylvania's Democratic Party had an office.

Protesters staged a sit-in in the building lobby. Police arrested 11 people and led them out to a van in plastic handcuffs. The group says the activists were released a short time later.

There was a hitch though — there is no Democratic Party office in that building. Sunrise organizers say they got bad information.

"If you can't figure out where the local Democratic Party offices are before you show up for the protest, I'm not sure that I trust your analysis of the climate science much less what to actually do about the problem," says Ted Nordhaus, founder and executive director of The Breakthrough Institute.

Nordhaus has been critical of environmental groups that focus much of their work on opposing fossil fuels. His group instead looks to technological solutions, including nuclear energy, to address climate change.

Still the Sunrise Movement has been effective at getting media coverage.

It made a splash last November, when the group's activists occupied House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's office and drew high-profile support from newly-elected Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

"The Sunrise Movement comes at just a perfect moment for them to get a lot of attention," says Anthony Leiserowitz, Director of the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication.

Leiserowitz says more Americans see climate change as something that is happening now and harming people. At the same, time he says the most liberal Democratic voters, the party's base, rank the environment and climate change as their top issues behind only healthcare.

"That's never been the case for either political party in American history, where climate change was truly one of the top priority voting issues," he says.

Now nearly every Democratic presidential candidate has a detailed climate change plan and most say they support the Green New Deal, which has been a specific focus for the Sunrise Movement.

The Green New Deal would speed the country's transition away from fossil fuels. It also aims to remake the economy by guaranteeing people good paying jobs and healthcare.

"A main goal will be electing candidates to office who are Green New Deal champions in the House and the Senate, and supporting Democrats to win elections," says Sunrise co-founder and Executive Director Varshini Prakash.

The group plans to register thousands of voters, especially young voters who are more likely to vote Democratic, and to make sure they cast ballots next November. Prakash says organizers will focus on key swing states, including Michigan and Pennsylvania.

"And we will also be supporting whoever the presidential candidate is to defeat Trump," she says.

First, Sunrise leaders have to maintain momentum, and they plan to do that by building an activist infrastructure that includes so-called "movement houses," where activists live, eat and work together.

Currently there are three such houses in Pennsylvania, two in Washington, D.C. and one in Michigan. Prakash says there are plans for more in Kentucky, California, Iowa and New Hampshire.

For now though, the group is focused on its campaign for a climate debate.

Democratic Party Chair Tom Perez has resisted the idea. In an opinion piece in June he said guidelines for the debates were established early, and changing them now wouldn't be fair to people who have requested single-subject debates on other topics.

Still, Perez wrote, "I made clear to our media partners that the issue of climate change must be featured prominently in our debates. That didn't happen in 2016 — and it was wrong."

Even if the Democratic Party rejects the Sunrise Movement's request for a climate debate, CNN plans to hold a climate change town hall with candidates next month. The Georgetown Institute of Politics and Public Service also plans to hold a climate forum with candidates that will air on MSNBC a few weeks later.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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