As Divestment Movement Collapses, Activists Shift To Campaign Trail
A new anti-fossil fuel group with plans to sway the 2018 vote in Western states like Nevada and Colorado, has formally launched a campaign to deploy an “army of young people” to push climate change and renewables issues in an effort to assume the mantle of the fading campus divestment movement.
Through social media posts, emails, and a newly released video, the “Sunrise Movement” outlines its multi-state campaign of trainings and offers of full-time activism for the 2018 election, targeting politicians for an anti-fossil fuel campaign and paying special attention to one oil and gas company in particular: Exxon.
“But a greedy handful of fossil fuel executives are standing in the way of our progress. Forty years ago, they knew the truth about climate change,” the video’s narrator intones. The video incorporates stills of Rex Tillerson, former Chief Executive Officer of Exxon and currently the U.S. Secretary of State for the Trump administration, as well as the slogan “Exxon Knew.”
The group published a “Welcome to Sunrise” video November 1, providing further details on “building an army of young people across the country” Sunrise hopes will be “thousands strong” by the 2018 election. Leading activists are asked for form a “Sunrise hub” and gather 25 names, which will earn the hub Sunrise-logoed promotional gear.
For those who want to go “all-in,” Sunrise offers a 6-month “Sunrise Semester” where activists will be deployed “full time” from June through the election, according to the video.
“Instead of studying in a classroom, you’ll learn the real life skills of grassroots organizing, community building, and public speaking. If you’ve ever wanted to take a gap year after high school, take a semester off college, or leave your boring job, this is the time,” Sunrise’s narrator says.
Encouraging a campus hiatus appears to dovetail with evidence the campus divestment movement has begun to wane. The college fossil fuel divestment movement, which began in 2011, appears to be losing momentum of late with several campus groups announcing they are shutting down operations or changing tactics, including the promotion of the Sunrise Movement to their members as the shutter their social media accounts.
The movement’s original goal—to compel universities to rid their endowments of investments in the Carbon Underground 200—a list of the top oil and gas and coal companies worldwide, has proven to be a difficult task since endowments don’t typically hold direct investments in these companies, but rather invest in external funds managed by third parties.
Just this week, Fossil Free CU, the student group at the University of Colorado Boulder, announced it will be shutting down its operations. “Dear groundbreakers, system-shakers, power-builders, and people-movers; dear friends and family: We have decided, after a five year campaign of changing the conversation about the role of the fossil fuel industry on campus, statewide, and nationally, that we are closing this campaign. To get involved in the next wave of momentum, check out Sunrise Movement.”
The Origins of Sunrise
The Sunrise movement is a political group, registered as a 501(c)4, with the stated goal of influencing the 2018 midterm elections in favor of their preferred climate policies. The group itself is unifying volunteers and staff who have ties to not only the divestment movement, but other climate protests including those against the Dakota Access Pipeline.
“Back in 2015, a bunch of us were working in different parts of the climate movement. Some of us were leading campus-based fossil fuel divestment campaigns working to stigmatize the fossil fuel industry and revoke its social license to act. Others were figuring out how to build political power in red and purple states. And another set of us were working on place-based extraction or pollution fights,” Sunrise co-founder Varshini Prakash told the online magazine Waging Nonviolence. “What we all had in common is that we found ourselves asking one question again and again: Are we enough? Are we building the movement we need to stop the climate crisis? Are we getting active participation by the millions? Are we winning? Clearly, the answer was no. So, a group of us coalesced around a singular objective: to build a mass popular movement capable of ending Big Oil’s assault on our climate, economy and democracy.”
Sunrise promotes itself as a group focused on “building an army of young people to stop climate change and create millions of good jobs in the process.” It claims to be non-partisan, but its policy priorities are decidedly anti-oil and gas including: “A transition to a 100% renewable energy economy, an immediate halt on all new fossil fuel projects, the break-up of the large energy monopolies and a transition to local, democratic control over our energy system.” The group is vowing to only support candidates who “refuse to take any money from the oil, gas and coal industry,” and to fight against “fossil fuel billionaires” who “use racism or classism to get their way.”
Sunrise itself has direct ties to the divestment movement. Prakash led her campus’s UMass Fossil Fuel Divestment campaign for two years and later worked for the Divestment Student Network (DSN) coordinating various divestment campaigns throughout the country. DSN is a project of the Alliance for Global Justice, which has received grants from 350.org and the George Soros-backed Open Society Foundations, and also has ties to Occupy Wall Street.
Several other staffers are alums of their own campus’s divestment movements, while others have volunteered for organizations like 350.org and Climate Truth.
It is unclear who is funding the group and its ambitious political efforts. The group is sponsoring several initiatives including the “Sunrise Semester,” grassroots mobilization targeting “politically significant states” and organizing “thousands” of volunteers for the effort, and a four year plan that aims to create small “hubs” throughout the country and influence elections in 2020 and beyond.
An October 18 email from Prakash and Sunrise noted trainings in Nevada, along with Wisconsin and Minnesota. Colorado joins Nevada as a Western state targeted by Sunrise, joining Georgia, Massachusetts, Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, California, New York and Florida.
As a 501(c)4, Sunrise does not have to disclose its donors. According to IRS 990 forms, Sunrise was formerly the 501(c)3 group, U.S. Climate Plan which was formed in 2013 to support President Obama’s then-climate efforts. That group’s web presence has since been essentially eliminated, and the organization’s former website is now defunct.
The U.S. Climate Action Network (USCAN) lists Sunrise as a member of its network, along with activist groups like 350.org, Ceres, Climate Hawks Vote, Environmental Defense Fund, Greenpeace, League of Conservation Voters and others. Sunrise was also listed as a 2017 USCAN grantee, but the size of the grant was not disclosed.
History of Fossil Fuel Divestment
Early on, the campaign racked up a few high profile victories—Stanford and Syracuse University agreed to sell a small amount of direct coal investments—but the movement quickly lost steam after failing to convince any major college board to completely divest from the fossil fuel industry. Since 2015, prestigious universities like MIT, NYU, the University of Michigan and the University of Pennsylvania have all officially rejected student divestment petitions.
At the University of Pennsylvania, the campus group Fossil Free Penn has publicly discussed plans to take a new approach to protesting after failing to convince the school’s board to divest. Last fall, the board announced its unanimous decision rejecting divestment from fossil fuels.
The University of Colorado’s Board of Regents officially rejected divestment in April 2015 with a 7-2 vote. It’s not the only Colorado school do to so—Colorado College’s group ceased activity last year citing “lack of participation.” The University of Denver also rejected divestment in January on the grounds that it would cost money and “would not be an effective means of mitigating global warming.”
But as interest in the divestment movement has waned in recent years, many former student divestment groups, like Fossil Free CU and Swarthmore Mountain Justice, are instead rebranding themselves under the banner of the newly-formed Sunrise Movement.