The Sunrise Movement (SM) is a 501(c)(4) environmental advocacy organization that, while denying that it is loyal to either “the right or left” side of the political spectrum, in fact throws 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 eliminate all fossil-fuel use from the U.S. economy (in favor of renewables like wind and solar energy) by the year 2030; 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 “transform our economy and society” in a manner that will restore its ecological and moral integrity.
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 thereby 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 eventually become one of SM’s co-founders, used his influence to secure a $30,000 grant to help him 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, 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” program 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 presence 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 was praised by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and resulted in 51 arrests.
In additional to mostly non-financial support from 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.