The Making of a Green New Deal—A Discussion with the Sunrise Movement’s Jeremy Ornstein


We spoke with climate activist and organizer Jeremy Ornstein about his work with the Sunrise Movement and its push for a select committee on a Green New Deal, a proposed economic stimulus plan to combat climate change that has gained bipartisan support from registered voters and the endorsement of thirty-eight members of congress after weeks of public demonstrations.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

MFU: Can you describe what the Green New Deal is?

JO: The Green New Deal is a plan to transition to 100% renewable energy by 2030 and put millions of people to work fighting to stop climate change, and it will be put together by the special committee that we’re calling on Democratic membership in the House to create. It has a number of priorities, and you can read the resolution that Alexandria Ocasio Cortez introduced, but some of those priorities are to transition to 100% renewable energy; to decarbonize all sectors of the economy, like agriculture and transportation, while also creating on the side of economic justice a jobs program to give a job and fair wages to anyone that wants to get a job fighting climate change; and centering the needs of the communities most impacted by climate change, so poor people in places like Louisiana where the seas are rising faster than people can leave in some cases, and people who are forced by economic conditions to stay where they are, centering the needs of those communities first. And another component of the Green New Deal—what we’ve got to do to get us there—is investment in infrastructure and public transportation projects, a smarter and more efficient energy grid, and more efficient housing.

MFU: The movement for a Green New Deal has been gaining a lot of momentum recently, in part or perhaps mostly because of the sit-ins staged at representatives’ offices. Can you talk about the successes of this strategy?

JO: One powerful success of direct action is we’re able to share our message directly with the public and the people we’re trying to recruit. One of the videos from the sit-in got 15 million views, which is pretty crazy, not just about the sit-in, but about what we’re fighting for, about the Green New Deal. That allows us to bring in new people. And making our message heard and being able to craft our own message means we can also affect public opinion. People are going to have to vote for everyone in congress and everyone will be voting in 2020 to decide who will be in the White House, so we’re building public support for the Green New Deal. And the third way that this is successful is, partially as a result of recruiting more people and shaping public opinion, and also just the nature of what we’re saying, and the actions, is we’re getting members of congress on our side; something like thirty-five members of congress, from zero—well I guess one because Alexandria Ocasio Cortez supported it—to thirty-five members of congress backed us, including Representative McGovern, who leads the rules committee, which is the committee which is in charge of deciding and structuring the select committees.

MFU: This movement has very little time left to push for the select committee. What happens if the program does not gain enough support from our current congresspeople? What’s the next step?

JO: Good question. We’re going to be building momentum and organizing around a Green New Deal all of 2019 and that’s going to look like big mass trainings and mass speaking events to build excitement for it, and we’re going to be channeling that energy to put pressure on members in the Senate, and on people running for the democratic nomination for president. The Green New Deal was already a litmus test for people who are claiming to be climate champions, so this has already changed the discussion around climate change, and jobs. But if we can’t get the House to come up with this plan and to flesh out some of the details we need, then we’re going to have to do it ourselves and we’re going to have to do it in consultation with the communities most affected, poor communities and communities of color that are on the frontline of this crisis, and we’re going to have to do it with experts, scientists, policy wonks, and with the politicians and leaders who do support it. So we’re going to flesh out the details of this one way or another. And I hope as someone who has been a democrat and working with democrats for a long time, I really hope that the people who I’ve worked to have represent me actually follow through and can join us.

MFU: Are there people within congress that have the power to create this committee themselves or does it take a large consensus?

JO: I’m not sure is the answer, although if Pelosi wants to do it she can make it happen, and after that, it’s just about, you’re right, trying to build as you said a consensus, or a least a block powerful enough to pass it.

MFU: What other organizations is the Sunrise Movement working with and are you working with international organizations as well?

JO: There’s a really wonderful graphic that I think I can send you that shows the faces of every member of congress who is backing the special resolution for a Green New Deal committee, and under that are the names of 140 organizations—they’re the ones we’re working with. At the top are progressive groups around climate justice and economic justice and groups like In terms of international groups I think we’re in communication with a lot of them, and I know the organization is doing a lot of direct action work at the climate discussions in Poland right now, and the groups doing a lot of those direct actions share some of the people that work with Sunrise, so we’re very connected, interlinked.

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MFU: At a sit-in at Nancy Pelosi’s office in DC you made a plea to her and other democrats to join this movement—you said to grow up with us and take care of one another. Can you say more about this?

JO: I think about tradition and about the past a lot, and I’ve been thinking about that a lot these days. The New Deal left out a lot of people—it put a lot of people to work and it regulated banks—but it didn’t do much for black communities and communities of color; and the country mobilized to fight in WW2, but meanwhile we were putting Japanese people in internment camps. So I struggle with those rifts in the past, but I also know that there’s such a tradition of Americans, and of humans, when we’re confronted with challenges, coming together to make sacrifices, and to find courage and to not give up, to meet those challenges and to fight for each and everyone among us. That’s not necessarily something that we’ve got to create out of thin air, but we have to rediscover it—it’s in our DNA and it’s in the DNA of our country. So when I think about coming together, and growing up, and joining the long line of people that have done that, it’s more about becoming ourselves, and getting away from the corrupting influence of fossil fuel money, and getting away from the political, I don’t know, strategies, traps, ideas that politicians on both sides have. It’s just getting to what has to be done, on a very human level, and a very necessary level. I think that’s a scrambled way of saying to reach into a fundamental part of who we are. I think that’s a big part of growing up.

MFU: Is there anything that you’d like to tell people who are working within the movement or interested in joining?

The responsibility for stopping climate change can’t be on the individual, and if our discussions around individual choices crowd out our discussions around collective action, then we won’t do what’s necessary and we won’t do it fast enough. And those individual choices actually won’t stack up to make a difference in what we’re doing as a society and what the coal plants are burning right now. At the same time we have to revisit the notion of individuality, not as people who live or die by ourselves, but as people who have courage within ourselves. The question of the climate crisis is a question of democracy, and economy, and how people relate to one another. I think that’s the sort of answer to those questions which exist on again such a fundamental scale, questions that penetrate what it meant when we founded this country, and what it’s meant throughout, from the founding up until now, about how democracy works, about how our economy works. At the same time if we demand collective action and talk about these big programs and set out big goals we’ve got to think about how we as individuals make the courage to come up with these sacrifices, not the sacrifices to make individual choices, but the sacrifices to, as individuals, reach collective action. A big part of that, and a way to ground all of this in some real specific thing, is people have got to be sharing and thinking about their own personal story, and I think we’ve all got a thousand different stories to tell, but we’ve got to be thinking about moments when we’ve acted with courage and we’ve stepped up and made a decision based on values that we hold, or learned values, and when we’ve been supported by a family member or friend to do that. It’s got to be about us, and then after it’s about us, it’s about everyone, and about everyone is about us, and I think those two ideas are linked and we can’t forget either.

Kelly Wilkins