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Behind the scenes of Generation Green New Deal

Student activists with the Sunrise Movement occupy Nancy Pelosi's office  on Nov. 13, 2018 to demand that she and the Democrats act on climate change.

Student activists with the Sunrise Movement occupy Nancy Pelosi's office Nov. 13, 2018 to demand that she and the Democrats act on climate change. Photo by Rachael Warriner.

Rachael Warriner

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi didn’t know what was coming Nov. 13, 2018. Rallied by the youth-led organization Sunrise Movement and accompanied by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the youngest member of Congress in U.S. history, more than 250 young people descended on Pelosi’s office for a sit-in, calling for a Green New Deal that would simultaneously would tackle the twin crises of climate change and inequality.

Over the past few months, I’ve had the honor of collaborating with some talented filmmakers and storytellers working to chronicle what’s happened since that moment, and the story that’s still yet to be written. Called Generation Green New Deal, the feature documentary — currently in production and with an accompanying podcast — tells the inspiring story of how young people are pushing climate change to the center of American politics.

We’ll be bringing this conversation to life at VERGE 20 with a keynote featuring Varshini Prakash, executive director and co-founder of the Sunrise Movement; Julian Brave NoiseCat, vice president of policy and strategy for Data for Progress; and Amy Westervelt, founder and executive producer of Critical Frequency

Speaking of which, if you haven’t yet registered for VERGE 20, this is the week to do it — our $99 All Access Pass is a total steal, and prices will increase after Friday, Sept. 11. 

I caught up recently with NoiseCat, who’s played a critical role in shaping the Green New Deal. The following conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

Shana Rappaport: Talk a little bit about your involvement with the Green New Deal and the role that you're playing now.

Julian Brave NoiseCat: I am currently the vice president of policy and strategy at Data for Progress, which is an upstart, left-wing think tank that has been leading a lot of the research to shape the Green New Deal. I came to Data for Progress from 350.org, where I got to know some of the leaders of the Sunrise Movement well before they became a household name and one of the main players in politics. I actually distinctly remember getting drinks with them at this beer garden near my apartment when they were first planning the sit-in of [Rep. Nancy] Pelosi’s office. I'll admit that I was skeptical at the time that it was going to work.

We need more voices from business that are standing up in favor of things like the Green New Deal.

Since then, I've had the really incredible opportunity to work with different movements and politicians, helping to shape many of their platforms, policies and legislative proposals, which has been really exciting and fulfilling. I feel like I get to be right in the control room where a lot of the levers are getting pulled.

Rappaport: What's the biggest misunderstanding about the Green New Deal that you feel is important to demystify?

NoiseCat: I think there's a notion that the Green New Deal is this socialist, anti-business agenda. But one of the core ideas underlying it is this thing called industrial policy, which is the idea that government should intervene in markets, but do so in a way that promotes sectors and industries aligning with the public interest. 

One of the core ideas underlying the Green New Deal is that the public sector should play a role in stoking a historic build-out of green business and technology, and making sure that the development of those industries is sustainable and equitable. 

But the notion that this is all about command-and-control economics has basically been fomented by Republicans, who want voters to believe that the Green New Deal people want to take away hamburgers and pickup trucks and airplanes. This is very far from the truth. 

Rappaport: What’s the role of business in all this? How can companies help?

NoiseCat: I am based in Washington, D.C., so I primarily see the ways that corporations show up in politics via their K Street lobbyists. I think one of the biggest challenges that we face is that, to a certain extent, many of the major lobbying arms of the private sector, like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, have showed up in D.C. politics as opponents of bold and ambitious climate action. 

Businesses are obviously a very powerful, organized interest in American society and politics. We need more voices from business that are standing up in favor of things like the Green New Deal — programs and policies that support a deep and sustained decarbonization and adaptation to climate change.

Right now, I think there’s a general impression that it's Elon Musk and no one else. I want senators and members of Congress to understand that there are lots of businesses that would be very excited to see action on climate change and to show that opponents of that kind of policy and strategy are far outnumbered in the business community.

Rappaport: What do you feel is most important to understand about how indigenous peoples can contribute to addressing environmental issues?

NoiseCat: Indigenous peoples are often viewed as victims, not just in the broader historical understanding but also in terms of our role in society and politics today. There is obviously a great deal of truth to the notion that indigenous peoples have experienced immense amounts of pain and harm in United States history. Yet even today in United States politics, that story completely leaves out the ways that indigenous leaders and movements have been some of the strong voices for environmental justice.

Politics isn’t just about getting the people who are already with you to mobilize, but also persuading more people to see the light in your cause — people from different backgrounds and political commitments — and get them to be in coalition with you.

In fact, in many parts of the country, it's indigenous management of fisheries, forests and other natural ecosystems that are sustaining those vital resources. One of the things that excites me about this current generation of environmentalism is the potential for indigenous peoples to be viewed as protagonists in the story — as people who are offering real, cutting-edge and authentic, workable solutions.

Rappaport: What have you learned about fighting for change that might be of value to others?

NoiseCat: My career trajectory so far has primarily involved being an activist, campaigning and building outside pressure on the political process. I still really believe in that theory of change as being crucial to fostering a diverse and more egalitarian society. 

Now, as someone who has my own team and research portfolio, I realize the ways in which progressives tend to overlook the importance and power of persuasion. The ability to persuade people who don't necessarily share all of your ideological, ethical or political commitments is really crucial to being successful — not just in politics but any other sphere. At the end of the day, politics isn’t just about getting the people who are already with you to mobilize, but also persuading more people to see the light in your cause — people from different backgrounds and political commitments — and get them to be in coalition with you. 

This part of politics is what I've been increasingly interested in over the last couple years, as I've started to see the ways that we can use our research, analysis and media work to convince more moderate members of the Democratic Party — folks who maybe don't see themselves as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez-style progressives — to champion some of our policies and causes. 

Especially in the Democratic Party, which represents a great deal of social, racial, economic and ideological diversity, the ability to persuade the people to your left and your right to be in coalition is essential. In my view, this is true for any sort of successful project.

This article first appeared in GreenBiz's weekly newsletter, VERGE Weekly, running Wednesdays. Subscribe here

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