Prove your humanity

Abigail Leedy is a senior at Central High School in Philadelphia. For the last few weeks, she and other climate justice activists have been visiting congressional offices in the city, asking for support for the Green New Deal.

“We have about 15 people here today because we want Dwight Evans to co-sponsor this resolution now,” said Leedy, standing outside Democratic Rep. Evans’ office in North Philadelphia.

LISTEN: “Young people are pushing the Green New Deal — and they’re willing to do more than just talk”

Nationwide, only 89 house representatives and 11 senators have signed on as co-sponsors of the ambitious proposal to tackle climate change introduced to Congress by U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., and U.S. Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass. The only member of Pennsylvania’s delegation to support the resolution to date is Democratic Rep. Brendan Boyle from Northeast Philadelphia.

But Leedy and other local members of a nationwide youth-led group called The Sunrise Movement are determined to change that. The group spearheaded the Green New Deal and won Ocasio-Cortez’s support. Now they are giving senators and representatives in the state until Tuesday to get on board or risk Occupy-style sit-ins.

Leedy said supporting the Green New Deal is urgent because she’s already feeling the effects of climate change. Last summer, excessive heat caused five early dismissals for Philadelphia public schools.

“I think that every year that is going to get worse,” Leedy said. “Every year, kids are going to be missing more and more school because it’s going to get hotter and hotter, and air quality is going to get worse and worse.”

Philadelphia School District spokesman Lee Whack said early dismissals caused by heat this year were more common than in the last three years.

Carbon Neutral and 100% Renewable in 10 Years

The goal of the Green New Deal proposal is to achieve carbon neutral emissions and transition to 100 percent clean energy in only 10 years. Its boldness has won praise from advocates and condescension from critics.

Boyle said he supports the proposal because action is needed.

“Right now the Federal Government of the United States of America has zero plans on the books to address climate change that is already happening,” Boyle said. “That is the frightening prospect.”

But even progressive cities around the country have more humble goals. They have given themselves until 2050 to move to 100 percent renewables, and to lower their carbon emissions. And even though some experts have said reaching the ambitious goals of the Green New Deal is technologically doable, they don’t think it’s possible to actually achieve it in 10 years.

A “Socialist Fantasy”

Republicans have called the Green New Deal a “socialist fantasy.” At a recent rally in El Paso, Texas, President Donald Trump said it was not going to happen.

“It would shut down a little thing called air travel,” Trump said. “How do you take a train to Europe?”

Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyoming, said people would also have to give up ice cream.

“Say goodbye to dairy, to beef, to family farms, to ranches. American favorites like cheeseburgers and milkshakes will become a thing of the past,” Barrasso said.

Cows emit the powerful greenhouse gas methane every time they fart and burp. Agriculture overall contributes 9 percent of the nation’s carbon emissions, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

And because of an early mention of farting cows in the Green New Deal FAQs, the beef and cattle industry have started actively lobbying against the program. The mention was later deleted.

Two weeks ago, when Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said he would bring the deal to a vote, supporters of the proposal said he was trying to rush a vote. On Monday, dozens of Sunrise members were arrested after about 100 of them occupied McConnell’s office in Washington, D.C.

Redefining What’s Possible

Activists are aware that to achieve the Green New Deal’s goals, radical change is needed. Leedy said that’s what the times are calling for.

“It sounds crazy, I know. I understand. It sounds like a progressive wish list,” Leedy said. “But I genuinely think it’s what we need if we are going to avert complete catastrophe.”

A 2018 United Nations report said that if we don’t cut emissions drastically within 12 years, the results would be catastrophic, including floods, drought, and extreme heat.

Critics of the Green New Deal say the plan contains no specifics, and it’s too ambitious. But Franklin & Marshall College professor Biko Koenig says that’s how political action often happens.

“Three weeks ago we weren’t having a conversation about the Green New Deal and now we are.”

“Part of the work of social movement actors is to redefine what is possible. So three weeks ago we weren’t having a conversation about the Green New Deal and now we are,” Koenig said.

Koenig points to actions by other movements led by young people like the opposition to the Vietnam War, or, more currently, Black Lives Matter.

Ultimately, the Sunrise Movement wants to make climate change a major issue in the upcoming 2020 presidential race. And they’re planning a massive rally this summer for the Democratic presidential debate, to make sure candidates include the Green New Deal as part of the conversation. In 2016, there were no questions on climate in the general election debates, they said.

“Politicians are just going to find out that they either are going to have to stand with us, and protect our futures, and support the Green New Deal or they are going to be voted out,” said Sophia Zaia, the group’s Pennsylvania State director.

Zaia sees the attention from major lobbying firms as part of the movement’s success so far. And says the movement is gaining power every week. On Sunday, the New York Times editorial board applauded the plan for changing the national conversation around climate change.

Boyle agrees.

“Probably the best thing that talk of the Green New Deal has done is actually put climate change part of the conversation, which was not happening before,” Boyle said.

A national tour of Sunrise leaders is planning to stop in Philadelphia by early May.

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This story is produced in partnership with StateImpact Pennsylvania, a collaboration among The Allegheny Front, WPSU, WITF and WHYY to cover the commonwealth's energy economy.