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There was a collective sigh of relief in the climate sector when U.S. President Joe Biden signed an executive order putting the powerful nation back in the Paris Agreement on climate change, alongside other orders to restrict new oil and gas leases and expand the country’s sustainable energy sector.
But 27-year-old Varshini Prakash’s breath is still bated and might be for some time. Her expectations for climate justice go far beyond autographed papers to the thing that the youth climate movement has been skipping school and shouting and signposting and petitioning for: real, sweeping, things-will-never-be-the-same-again change.
Prakash, an Indian-American, is the executive director and co-founder of the Sunrise Movement, which has grown since its founding in 2017 to become one of the largest movements of young people taking action to stop climate change and support the Green New Deal. Already in her time at its helm, she’s led a sit-in at the office of Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi days after the U.S. 2018 midterm elections, a publicity lightning rod of an event that was joined by then representative elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
Compounded with all of her prior activism, this event solidified Prakash and the Sunrise Movement as more than a movement but an active watchdog, perhaps more on the democrats than on conservatives, as Prakash saw that many leaders in the liberal party viewed climate change as a politically divisive issue that they were afraid to touch.
That said, she does not view politicians as the enemy. “It is an all-hands-on-deck moment to stop the climate crisis,” Prakash said in a GLF Live on climate justice last year. “Let’s be clear about that: young people cannot do it by ourselves – we definitely need other generations to team up with.”
It even seems a natural progression that she might end up in political office herself. During President Biden’s 2020 campaign, she served on his climate task force alongside Ocasio-Cortez and now special presidential envoy for climate John Kerry, putting together the candidate’s climate agenda. She has described this as a “surreal experience” in the Washington Post magazine, despite being one that toed the conflict-of-interest line with her own organization.
If and when she does land at the top of climate policy, or something of the like, a large part of the change she will decidedly incur is the inclusion of more diverse voices like her own.
“Many of the things that Greta Thunberg has been saying have been said by lots of Indigenous, black and brown leaders, particularly from island nations, for so long,” she said in the GLF Live. “And yet they have not been uplifted in nearly the same way.”
“Those closest to the pain can speak toward the solutions that we need with the greatest clarity. It is absolutely essential that those folks have a place in our movements, otherwise we’re going to have major blind spots.”