The foundations funding the national litigation effort against energy companies are the same donors supporting the Sunrise Movement, the upstart group behind the recent push for the Green New Deal, according to reporting by Inside Philanthropy.
A recent profile of Sunrise shows that the group received much of its initial financial support from the Rockefeller Family Fund and Wallace Global Fund. Sunrise was founded in 2017 and emerged from a coalescence of alumni from several previous anti-fossil fuel activism efforts like the divestment campaign and protests against energy infrastructure.
Until now, not much was known about Sunrise’s financials since they are not legally obligated to disclose donors. Inside Philanthropy reports that Sunrise raised just under $1 million in 2018 and aims to increase that figure to $2.5 million this year.
Institutional funders are responsible for more than half of Sunrise’s annual budget, at 55 percent. The rest comes from individuals and non-profits.
Both the Rockefeller Family Fund and the Wallace Global Fund provide substantial financial support to EarthRights International (ERI), the Washington, D.C.-based non-profit representing Boulder County, Boulder City and San Mateo County in their lawsuit against ExxonMobil and Suncor. In their lawsuit, the localities are alleging that the two defendants are liable for damages resulting from climate change. The lawsuit is a part of a national campaign where local governments are teaming up with non-profits and plaintiff attorney firms to file suit against large energy producers in state court.
Among Sunrise’s most prominent priorities is the adoption of a “Green New Deal,” which, in represents a push for massive investment in renewable energy and a shift in the economic status quo away from one dependent on fossil fuels. The end-goal is to achieve 100 percent renewable energy and create “millions” of jobs through new infrastructure projects.
Sunrise is also focused on the political game. During the 2018 midterm elections, the group released a targeted list of states where they hoped to sway the outcome. Sunrise also offered a “Sunrise Semester” where participants would be deployed for six months on the campaign trail.
The Green New Deal has been attracting much attention in Congress, as Democrats took back the majority in the House in 2018. The idea is championed by freshman U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), who helped put Sunrise into the national spotlight when she attended the group’s sit-in of then-incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office in November.
Rolling Stone recently interviewed Varshini Prakash, who is the co-founder of the Sunrise Movement. When asked why Sunrise was targeting a politician like Pelosi, who has been a strong supporter of climate legislation in the past, Prakash said, “Following the [midterm] election, we realized that all of that wasn’t going to matter if we didn’t push this new Congress to put climate on its agenda and make sure the climate remained on the map for the duration of the entire Congress. We actually believe that Democrats care about tackling climate change and they want to do something about it. We just know that they need to be urged to take action at the scale and scope of the crisis.”
Accordingly, Sunrise is setting its target on Congressional Democrats, who they view as more likely to advance climate legislation when under pressure.
“That is why we’re pushing Democrats. We see that there’s a real pathway here. But we were also seeing a lot of articles that said “Dems Tamp Down Hopes on Climate.” And we saw Nancy Pelosi reviving a decade-old committee [the lackluster Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming]. And we were like, this is not enough. We need to make sure that the real solutions to the crisis are foregrounded in the Democratic Party’s agenda,” Prakash added.
Sunrise is largely reliant upon a grassroots network of young volunteers who are based throughout the country. The group is positioned to use direct action and political lobbying in order to make climate change a top issue for voters. In addition to protests in Pelosi’s office, activists also demonstrated in the office of U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.), who is the chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee.
The strategy to pressure Democrats into supporting their agenda has met some success. Rep. Ocasio-Cortez is the Green New Deal’s most vocal advocate. But other lawmakers have endorsed the idea, including Democratic Presidential Candidate and Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren and former Democratic Senatorial Candidate in Texas, former Rep. Beto O’Rourke.
Recent studies show that, despite hundreds of millions of dollars spent on climate change communication efforts by wealthy foundations, the issue has failed to register as top of mind for voters.
Research by Northeastern Prof. Matthew Nisbet analyzed $556.7 million in donations distributed by 19 major environmental foundations between 2011-2015 and found that more than 80 percent were dedicated to promoting renewable energy, communicating about and limiting climate change and opposing fossil fuels. But during that time frame, polls showed climate change consistently ranking near the bottom of priority issues for respondents.
Perhaps the longstanding relationships and concentration of donations to well-known organizations like the Sierra Club and Natural Resources Defense Council is why Sunrise says institutional funders have been hesitant to fully commit to their cause. Worth noting that the Wallace Global Fund was one of the 19 donors Nisbet analyzed.
“I think for certain funders, the grassroots organizing-based theory of change is a little foreign to them, and they don’t know how to make sense of it, and maybe they’re a little skeptical that it’s going to add up to real impact,” William Lawrence, Sunrise co-founder and development director, told Inside Philanthropy.
Nevertheless, Sunrise says it is in talks with additional potential donors.
“What’s been nice about [the past month] is that our impact is incredibly clear and everybody is seeing it, because of the way we’ve been able to put truly ambitious and truly equitable climate action on the map in a way that nobody expected,” Lawrence said. “That’s opened some doors that might have been closed before, because people are seeing the value of movement building.”