Protesters with the environmental group Sunrise marched on Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi’s office on Tuesday. The group, made up of young people pushing for urgent action on climate change, planned to send a clear message to party leadership just one week after Democrats regained control of the House.
But this was no ordinary protest for the Sunrise activists, who typically stand on the opposite side of politicians. This time, they were joined by Rep.-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who is just weeks away from being sworn into office.
Rep.-elect Rashida Tlaib of Michigan joined the protesters in a rally at the Spirit of Justice Park near the Capitol on Tuesday morning, but she did not continue on to Pelosi’s office. “This is the most American thing you can do,” Tlaib said of the protest. Ocasio-Cortez and Tlaib also attended an event with the Sunrise activists on Monday night.
Members of the progressive political group Justice Democrats also joined the protest, which was attended by more than 150 people. “Nancy Pelosi and the Democratic Party leadership must get serious about the climate and our economy,” said the group’s communications director, Waleed Shahid, in a statement. “Anything less is tantamount to denying the reality of climate change. The hopeful part is that we’re ushering in a new generation of leaders into the Democratic Party who understand the urgency and will help build a movement to create the political will for bold action.”
A recent United Nations report found that catastrophic effects of climate change, some of which are already upon us, could become widespread as early as 2040. To stave off the crisis, the globe’s economy would have to be put on the equivalent of a war footing, scientists involved with the study concluded.
The protesters, including Ocasio-Cortez, are calling on Pelosi to create and give teeth to a new select committee on climate change.
The proposed committee, called the Select Committee for a Green New Deal, would be similar to something Pelosi established as House speaker in 2007, but with more authority. Back then, Pelosi created the Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming, and assigned her ally, then-Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., who has a strong environmental record, to chair it. The committee held dozens of hearings over the course of four years, until the tea party-led Congress, which took over in 2010, mothballed it. (The Republicans also got rid of the renewable plates and utensils Pelosi had introduced and replaced them with Styrofoam.)
The problem with that committee, Ocasio-Cortez and the Sunrise activists argue, was that it wasn’t funded well enough and didn’t have the true ability to write legislation. In 2009, Pelosi pushed through cap-and-trade legislation, meant to reduce emissions. But even that package moved largely through the Energy and Commerce Committee — not the select committee Pelosi had created. Markey, who chaired a subcommittee under Energy and Commerce, played a lead role in pushing through the bill, which became known as the Waxman-Markey bill, but it never came to a floor vote in the Senate. Some activists argued that it wasn’t robust enough to meet the threat of climate change, while defenders argued it was the best the chamber could do — and, as it turned out, it was far better than the Senate could do.
Since then, the global climate situation has only deteriorated, with once-in-a-century storms taking place with harrowing frequency, and drought conditions sparking war and mass migration. Dozens of people have died in still-raging fires in California that are the deadliest in the state’s modern history, and hundreds more are missing. “Resting on our laurels won’t bring back the 42 lives lost,” said Sunrise activist Varshini Prakash, referring to the deaths in California.
The proposed committee would, among other things, establish a 10-year plan to transition the U.S. economy to become carbon neutral, according to draft legislation that the activists presented to Pelosi’s office. The activists are also pushing Democratic leaders to reject campaign contributions from fossil fuel industry groups. “We need every person who is going to claim the mantle of Democratic leadership to take the no fossil fuel money pledge,” Prakash said at the sit-in outside Pelosi’s office.
Ocasio-Cortez’s decision to join the protesters and march on her own House leader sets a tone of urgency and combativeness that is rare on Capitol Hill. Walking into the Cannon House Office Building, she told The Intercept something new had to be tried. “The way things are done has not been getting results. We have to try new methods,” she said.
Pelosi may need Ocasio-Cortez’s support to win a second shot at the speakership. The California Democrat can only lose roughly 20 votes on the House floor, and already at least 10 Democrats, largely moderates and conservatives, have said they will not back her. Pelosi has expressed “100 percent” confidence that she’ll be elected speaker.
Pelosi has long been proud of her climate record, and she’s taken political risks in her attempts to tackle climate change. When she pushed for a vote on the cap-and-trade bill in 2009, for example, she did so despite warnings that it could cost her the House and was also unlikely to pass the Senate.
Drew Hammill, Pelosi’s deputy chief of staff, responded to the protest by saying that Pelosi is already on board with the proposals of the New Green Deal and the strengthening of the committee. When she addressed the protesters, Ocasio-Cortez said that the objective of the protest was to support Pelosi’s quest to tackle climate change. In an interview with The Intercept, she said that what Hammil said “is absolutely true, and so what we’re really doing is we’re trying to galvanize that into a priority.”
“There are so many different progressive issues that are important and climate change and addressing renewable energy always gets to the bottom of the barrel,” Ocasio-Cortez continued. “That can gets kicked from session to session and so what this just needs to do is create a momentum and an energy to make sure that that it becomes a priority for leadership.”
Ocasio-Cortez’s break with decorum could, paradoxically, open up space for her to ultimately support Pelosi on the House floor. After her primary victory, Ocasio-Cortez called for “new leadership” in the House and floated the possibility of Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., running for the job. If Ocasio-Cortez can extract concessions by publicly demonstrating against Pelosi, the incoming representative’s supporters may be more forgiving of a final vote in Pelosi’s favor.
Lee, a close ally of Pelosi, is running for Democratic caucus chair, the leadership post being vacated by Rep. Joe Crowley, the New York Democrat whom Ocasio-Cortez defeated in a primary election.
Pelosi and Ocasio-Cortez have had an uneasy public relationship. Pelosi was quick to dismiss the implications of Ocasio-Cortez’s June upset over Crowley, who’d been in office for 14 years. “They made a choice in one district,” she said of the voters who propelled Ocasio-Cortez, a democratic socialist, to victory. “So, let’s not get yourself carried away as an expert on demographics and the rest of that. … We have an array of genders, generations, geography and … opinion, in our caucus, and we’re very proud of that.”
Ocasio-Cortez later disputed the conclusion. “It’s not just one district,” she said.
Ryan Grim is the author of the forthcoming book, We’ve Got People: Resistance and Rebellion, From Jim Crow to Donald Trump. Sign up here to get an email when it is published.