Few things feel more powerful than being surrounded by young people who are taking a risk to speak out and fight for justice. Disrupting the DNC Summer Meeting at the Hyatt Regency Chicago this past August, an effort to demand the DNC reject fossil fuel PAC money, invoked an immense feeling of power and connectedness in all of the action’s participants — including me. In front of me was a conference room table of over a dozen older DNC Resolutions Committee members conducting official party processes and attempting to call a meeting to order. Beside me, in all directions, were over 20 young people from the Sunrise Movement, a national, youth-led organization committed to ending climate change and creating millions of good jobs in the process. Members of this group had traveled to Chicago from Minnesota, Michigan, and Indiana to hold Tom Perez accountable and to share their visions for a Green New Deal led by a Democratic Party unfettered by fossil fuel money. As our singing voices resonated throughout the conference room and overpowered the official Resolutions Committee meeting, I felt part of a movement much larger than myself. No matter how much those in power try to silence us, we will not sit back and watch our politicians continue to claim to represent us while making decisions that directly put our futures at risk.
Especially in the present national political climate of division, those fighting for bold action on climate change cannot afford to be slowed by the antiquated framework that labor and environmental movements are at odds. Climate change is not merely an issue of environmental protection, but an existential threat to every person’s way of life. It is not a worry of the future, but a reality of the present.
I grew up in Palm City, Florida a town that sits between Lake Okeechobee, the Saint Lucie River, the Intracoastal Waterway, and the Atlantic Ocean. In Palm City, water is central not only to our community, but also our culture. In recent years, as climate change has made summers longer, hotter, and wetter, our precious resource has become increasingly contaminated by toxic blue-green algae. The scale at which the algae bloom is occurring is not natural. Rather, it is directly linked to large agricultural corporations that dump chemicals and excess nutrients from pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers into our soil and water at enormous rates.
Toxic algae poses extreme public health risks and is devastating Florida’s tourism industry and natural ecosystems. But, despite the obvious need for prevention and remediation, our politics have failed to regulate the corporations at fault due to the fact that the same corporations double as many politicians’ largest donors.
This problem is neither unique to the agricultural industry nor to Florida. The same corporate interests strangling politics and poisoning people in Florida are doing the exact same thing to individuals in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Rhode Island, and North Carolina.
Young people bear the most serious consequences of climate inaction but live in a time when government does not represent their interests. Fossil fuel executives dominate politics by donating large sums of money to politicians and expecting fossil fuel-friendly policies in return. In the 2016 election cycle alone, oil and gas companies gave an unprecedented $7.6 million to Democratic races and $53.7 million to Republican races. Now, the Trump administration and Congress are jeopardizing our health by rolling back industry standards every day. Our generation faces crippling student debt, a lack of accessible health care, unemployment, and underemployment. Each of these challenges disproportionately impacts young people of systemically marginalized identities including people of color and those who are genderqueer and non-able bodied.
In this political reality, young people are looking to the Democratic Party to take leadership and stand up to protect our air, water, and communities. However, instead of embracing bold climate action, Democratic leadership has instead chosen a path of inaction, remaining beholden to the false divide between labor and environment for fear of betraying either of their core constituencies. This cowardice is evidenced by the DNC’s reversal of a resolution to reject PAC money from the fossil fuel industry. In June, the DNC passed a resolution to stop accepting donations from fossil fuel industry PACs. Although this did not preclude individual donations from employees of the industry, it was nonetheless a huge win.
Just two months later, however, Tom Perez reversed the course of progress within the DNC by advancing a resolution to accept PAC money from fossil fuel industry employers – directly contradicting the original resolution. Instead of supporting fossil fuel workers by ensuring a just transition to a renewable energy economy, Perez reopened the door to dirty money from an industry that threatens our people, politics, and planet.
This reversal was both enraging and disillusioning. Especially for those of us who have had the chance to interact personally with DNC leadership, the announcement provoked feelings of dishonesty and betrayal by those at the top. A few months prior to this announcement, I sat as a student in alumnus Tom Perez’s class at Brown University entitled “Leadership and Governance in Turbulent Times,” where I heard his insights regarding how to address challenges of ethical leadership in the United States. He emphasized the importance of remaining committed to our values and encouraged us to enter public service to help the most people in the most efficient and effective way possible.
Accepting PAC money from fossil fuel executives knowing that these executives have corrupted our politics and threatened our futures does not align with Chairman Perez’s message to center values and use balanced leadership to improve conditions for everyone. Instead, it signals the opposite: condemning our generation to a future of climate chaos. His actions have spoken far louder than his lecturing words. Luckily, young people have noticed.
As the largest voting bloc in the country, young people are demanding our politicians represent us, not corporate elites. Sunrise and other progressive partner organizations have been working to encourage candidates to sign a No Fossil Fuel Money Pledge that affirms their commitment to rejecting all campaign donations from the coal, oil, and gas industry. Over 1,000 candidates running at all levels of government have signed thus far and over 100,000 people have signed a petition urging Perez to reverse course and refuse fossil fuel PAC money.
In addition to demanding politicians reject money from the fossil fuel industry, Sunrise has been advocating for a federal jobs guarantee as a solution to addressing the climate crisis while dignifying all people with well paying jobs.
Enacting a just transition to an economy free from fossil fuels will require significant government action as well as social and cultural change. But most of all, it will require labor. Adapting our food, transportation, and energy systems will necessitate trillions of dollars of investments over many decades, and will also spur the creation of hundreds of thousands of jobs. This program of job creation can strengthen vulnerable communities’ resilience to the impacts of climate change and has the potential to empower individuals and communities to stand up to those in power who have traditionally excluded them from achieving economic prosperity.
A federal climate jobs guarantee can ensure workers from extractive industries such as coal, oil, and gas receive training and equivalent paying jobs in other sectors. According to the polling firm Civis Analytics, this idea has already generated overwhelming support from the majority of Americans, especially among low-income individuals and people of color who are most impacted by unemployment, underemployment, lack of healthcare, exposure to environmental toxins, and effects of climate change.
It is beyond time for the Democratic Party to recognize what is at stake due to climate change, as well as what can be gained from embracing a bold transition to a renewable energy economy. Young Americans must continue holding Tom Perez and the DNC accountable to putting people before profit and demonstrating a true commitment to social and environmental justice. We cannot allow corporate CEOs to control our politicians, pollute our water, divide our movements, and silence our voices any longer. We will continue to call out Tom Perez’s blatant hypocrisy and spinelessness, whether that be through youth-led action in DC, Chicago, or on Brown’s campus, and we will show up to the polls on November 6 as the largest voting bloc in the country to raise our voices and reclaim our government to represent us rather than corporate elites.
Photo: Sunrise Movement Action in Chicago, Courtesy of Matt Maiorana (2018)