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The Sunrise Climate Activists Are Going on Hunger Strike

Galvanized by news that Senator Joe Manchin might kill the Clean Energy Payment Program, climate activists will fast in front of the White House to demand Congress pass the reconciliation bill’s climate measures.

Climate activists hold signs in front of the White House.
SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images
Protesters with the Sunrise Movement in front of the White House in June

On Wednesday at 9 a.m., five people with the youth climate activist group Sunrise Movement will begin a hunger strike outside the White House to demand Congress and President Biden work to pass the climate measures in the House Democrats’ reconciliation bill, which forms the backbone of Biden’s legislative agenda. “We’re here to highlight how dire this moment is,” hunger striker Kidus Girma, 26, told me over the phone. “A couple hundred people in a two-part building in D.C. are deciding the scope of what climate justice can look like—and not just climate justice, but a lot of critical programs that before this pandemic folks did not think were possible. We’re so close to landing things that seemed impossible,” he said, “and this hunger strike is about creating space for that possibility again.”

The decision to strike was made after The New York Times reported on Friday that Democrats were considering scrapping the the Clean Energy Payment Program, or CEPP—incentivizing utilities to increase renewable energy usage—because of West Virginia Democratic Senator Joe Manchin’s opposition. “There’s an overwhelming sense of rage and grief, and we sort of expected this moment throughout this entire fight,” Sunrise advocacy director Lauren Maunus said by phone. “It illuminates how broken and corrupt our so-called representative democracy is.” Sunrise is reaching out to members of Congress to join them in the hunger strike.

The hunger strike is part of a week of action that kicked off yesterday, targeting key politicians holding up the bill. Yesterday Sunrisers rallied outside Kyrsten Sinema’s office in Phoenix and by Joe Manchin’s yacht in D.C. Others from the group were carried off Congressman Josh Gottheimer’s Wycoff, New Jersey, driveway in handcuffs.

Contrary perhaps to centrists’ expectation, Sunrise activists and several progressive legislators who backed Bernie Sanders and his $16.3 trillion Green New Deal in the primary have become the fiercest defenders of the White House’s far more modest Build Back Better program. As they themselves sometimes observe with frustration, they’ve been more outspoken than Biden himself has been in defending his legislative agenda. “Our demands are his demands,” Girma, who’s active with Sunrise’s Dallas hub, said. “We’re just asking him to follow through on what he committed to the American people. He needs to be fighting a lot harder.”

On Thursday, the group is asking people around the country to participate in solidarity fasts and for young people to break them on Friday by striking from school alongside Fridays for Future demonstrators around the world. Those who can make it to Washington, D.C., are encouraged to participate in a centralized school strike “turning into a more escalated mobilization,” Maunus said, at the White House.

Girma has been preparing himself for the strike by gradually reducing his caloric intake in the lead-up to the water-only fast. “The effects on the body start pretty immediately,” he said. “In two to three days, you experience muscle loss and mental health risks like apathy and depression. As the weeks go on, there’s the possibility of organ failure and cardiovascular issues. Right now, where we are is: This is indefinite.”

From political prisoners to suffragettes to activists in anticolonial struggles, hunger strikers have a long legacy in social movements that Girma has been acquainting himself with over the last several days. Just last month, German climate activists ended a weeks-long hunger strike. After two weeks, one of the participants was hospitalized before being returned to the encampment in Berlin. The group demanded meetings with German party leaders in the lead-up to federal elections there, which candidates only agreed to take after voters had already gone to the polls and on condition the meetings be held behind closed doors.

Sunrisers are hoping for a better result. Progressive nonprofits and activist groups, many of whom have enjoyed an unusual level of rapport with senior White House staff, met over the weekend to discuss possible paths forward. While they aren’t giving up on the CEPP, different organizations are also exploring possibilities for redistributing funds to beef up different climate-related line items, like clean energy tax credits and building electrification. They’re also looking for other ways to target power sector emissions, in particular. That could include a program incentivizing state-level clean energy standards and deployment with federal funds. Groups including Sunrise and Friends of the Earth also want to ensure that the CEPP program, if it survives in the bill, isn’t amended to define gas and certain kinds of coal generation as clean. Maunus and others are skeptical that a carbon tax, which outlets have reported Democratic leaders may be considering to replace CEPP, could be a “silver bullet solution” for the power sector emissions the CEPP seeks to curb; Manchin himself struck down the proposed trade-off Tuesday morning. U.S. power sector emissions are responsible for just under 3 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions per year.

The worst-case scenario, Maunus told me, “would be people giving up hope, deciding that there’s no path forward to reach a deal, and letting Manchin and Sinema dictate, delay, and ultimately kill what voters elected the Democratic trifecta on.” (With the vice presidential vote breaking the 50–50 split in the Senate, Democrats theoretically hold both houses of Congress, in addition to the White House.) Conceding the budget fight and paring back the bill, she added, would mean Democrats “going into a midterm election having nothing to deliver on their promises, and also losing the chance we had to actually start transitioning off of fossil fuels and to start addressing the climate crisis. That seems like a pretty doomsday scenario for both climate crisis and the state of our democracy.”