But its preferred candidate, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), is not on the ballot. Instead climate activists have grudgingly embraced Biden, the Democratic Party’s nominee, who initially received an “F” grade from Sunrise for his plan to combat climate change.
Now many of the group’s 19,800 members are doing what was once unthinkable for them: making phone calls and sending text messages on behalf of a candidate that doesn’t align with many of their goals.
While other left-leaning environmental groups have formally backed Biden, Sunrise has stopped short of an official endorsement. But it is still marshaling its network of supporters to get out the vote for the Democrat.
“It’s no secret that Joe Biden wasn’t necessarily our first choice,” said Evan Weber, co-founder and political director for Sunrise.
But that doesn’t mean Sunrise members and other young people will easily fall in line if Biden is elected. Should the Democrat win, Sunrise expects to mount a “multi-month campaign” to ensure that climate change is a top legislative issue, according spokesman Stevie O’Hanlon.
Christina Sedall, 22, has reached out to about 300 people by phone or text, urging them to support Biden even though she says he doesn’t share her values.
“Speaking very personally, I am finding it — oh — very difficult to vote for him,” said Sedall, a recent graduate from Lawrence University in Appleton, Wis., who now works part time at an arboretum near her home outside Chicago. Like many Sunrisers, she backed Sanders in the primary.
Many of the friends and acquaintances she has contacted are just as apprehensive about Biden as she is. “They know they will vote for him,” she said. “It’s the uncomfortability with resigning to the fact that they’re going to do that. I’m being like, ‘I need you to say the words with me.' "
Like Sedall, young climate change activists are biting their tongues and uniting behind a shared crusade to defeat President Trump.
It’s a dynamic at play across many issues for liberals — Medicare-for-all, racial justice protesters seeking to defund the police, and more — who are so bent on ousting the president they are supporting someone they would normally would not.
“They are not here with the intent of voting for their favorite person or voting for someone that they think is perfect as president,” Ocasio-Cortez said on CNN earlier this week of young voters. “I think young people are actually quite disciplined.”
“It will be a privilege to lobby [Biden], should we win the White House,” she added. “But we need to focus on winning the White House first.”
There are signs young people are more motivated to vote than ever. Early data suggests eligible voters younger than 30 could break turnout records set in 2008 during Barack Obama’s first White House win.
A nationwide survey released this week from the Harvard Institute of Politics found nearly two-thirds of likely voters age 18 to 29 said they will “definitely be voting" — a higher rate than seen anytime over the past two decades.
If Biden prevails, however, young voters and climate activists are not likely to sit still for long. And the tension between the younger, more vocal wing of the party and the former vice president’s moderate inclinations is likely to be a defining issue as the new administration tries to govern.
Biden shouldn’t expect much of a honeymoon. Less than a week after Election Day in 2018, when Democrats won back the House, Sunrise staged an attention-getting sit-in at incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) office to demand her new majority focus on climate change.
Sunrise is ready to play the part of an antagonist again. “We’ll be using some of the same kind of tactics,” O’Hanlon said.
Until then, its members are hitting the phones for Biden.
Kyla Hartsfield, a 26-year-old Sunrise member in Durham, N.C., organizing outreach to people of color, has called or texted about 500 people. “It’s a lot of texting and calling going on right now,” she said, despite both Biden and Trump being “not the best options.”
She’s not alone. During a mid-October Zoom call, Rebecca Dalum was training about a dozen novice Sunrisers on how to do what the group calls “relational organizing” — reaching out to old neighbors, former teachers and other acquaintances to get them to commit to voting.
“Who here is really excited to vote for Joe Biden?” she said. No one raised their hand. “Yeah, same. I’m not super pumped.”
Dalum, a 23-year-old rising senior at Brown, took a year off school to campaign. Studying geophysics, she had been considering doing policy work on climate change after graduating, but thought the 2020 race took precedence over school.
“I was taking classes learning a lot about how screwed we are,” she said in an interview. “Why prepare for a career that really hinges on the results of this election anyway?”
After Sanders lost, she decided to work for Sunrise rather than directly for the Democratic Party in her home state of Wisconsin. She said that “Biden was pretty close to the bottom” of her list of candidates during the intraparty contest.
But she and other progressives learned a lesson from 2016, when a small but significant fraction of people who supported Sanders in the Democratic primary wound up not voting for Hillary Clinton in the general election.
“What we see now is there’s a Trump effect, where people recognize the fact that getting Trump out of office is more important than making a statement," said Dana Fisher, a sociologist at the University of Maryland who studies activism.
Another Trump victory would be devastating, climate activists say, since U.N. scientists warn the world has only a decade to rein in greenhouse gas emissions and prevent irreversible harm to the planet.
The Green New Deal, as laid out in a nonbinding congressional resolution from Ocasio-Cortez and Sen. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), is a sweeping outline for addressing issues including health care and wages with one overarching goal: to eliminate U.S. contributions to climate change within those 10 years.
Biden’s climate plan, while more ambitious than anything other Democratic nominees have put forward, doesn’t go that far. He is hoping to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. Hitting either target, experts say, will be exceedingly difficult.
Biden has been blunt in differentiating his plan. “I don’t support the Green New Deal,” he said during the first presidential debate. “I support the Biden plan I put forward.” And on fracking, the former vice president takes pains to emphasize that he does not support a ban on the controversial oil and gas extraction technique, as many left-leaning climate activists do.
“That kind of rhetoric is really disappointing,” Sedall said. "It’s frustrating. It’s infuriating. All those feelings.”
Yet Biden has moved to the left. In July, he bolstered his plan to fight climate change by setting a new goal of completely cutting emissions from power plants by 2035. The timeline matched one proposed by a climate task force that was convened by the campaign and included Sunrise’s executive director, Varshini Prakash.
“I’ve been really happy to see the ways that he and his campaign have, at least on paper, listened to activists," said Robby Phillips, a 19-year-old sophomore at Duke University who is working for Sunrise, before adding: "It’s still not fully enough.”
Biden, at times, has also adopted Green New Deal backers’ rhetoric about solving climate change being a buoy, not an anchor, on the economy. “When I think about climate change,” he said when unveiling this climate plan, “the word I think of is ‘jobs.’ ”
In an acknowledgement that it needs to do more to reach young people, the Biden campaign put together a committee specifically to motivate voting-age teens and 20-somethings to go to the polls for a candidate three or four times their age.
“This is a turnout election,” said billionaire activist Tom Steyer during an Oct. 8 meeting of the campaign’s Climate Engagement Advisory Council. “When young people vote, when you vote, you change everything for the better.”
In the week leading up to Election Day, the campaign is airing a 30-second spot on Comedy Central and Adult Swim, both of which cater to 18-to-34-year-olds. The animated ad mocks some of Trump’s more ridiculous claims about the climate. (“It’ll start getting cooler, you just watch.”)
Biden’s favorability has crept up by 22 percentage points among likely young voters since March, when he locked down the nomination, according to the Harvard survey.
Sunrise says its goal is bigger than Biden. It is to reorient the entire project of government around climate change — and make solving it an electoral winner, as the New Deal was for Franklin D. Roosevelt. To that end, Sunrise’s ranks have swelled, nearly doubling since July as it recruits new supporters while campaigning for Biden.
But working for Sunrise is just not the same as it was at the beginning of the year, when Sanders still had a shot and the world wasn’t gripped by the coronavirus pandemic.
Alex Lines, a 25-year-old Sunrise staffer in Asheville, N.C., remembers “getting hundreds and hundreds of pledges to vote" for Sanders by canvassing college campuses and doing other shoe-leather campaigning ahead of Super Tuesday in March.
Today? “It is very hard to organize right now because of covid, and also because young people are not excited about voting for Joe Biden,” she said.
Sarah Kaplan contributed to this report.