Skip to content Skip to footer

Forget the GOP Plan. Youth Climate Activists Want $10 Trillion for Infrastructure.

The Sunrise Movement wants to put millions of young people to work combating the climate crisis.

Paola Sanchez speaks during a rally with the Sunrise Movement calling on Congress to pass the THRIVE Act on April 7, 2021, in New York City.

Part of the Series

As President Biden haggles with Republicans on infrastructure, youth climate activists continue pushing for the bold vision of a Green New Deal. Sunrise Movement activist Lily Gardner says Biden should forget the GOP and listen to young people, who are fired up about the prospect of a Civilian Climate Corps that would create thousands of jobs combatting the climate crisis and building a sustainable future.

Music by Dan Mason.


This is a rush transcript and has been lightly edited for clarity.

Mike Ludwig: Welcome back to Climate Front Lines. Everyone in Washington is talking about infrastructure, or at least President Joe Biden’s attempts at negotiating with Republicans over new jobs and infrastructure spending. But for young people, broad investments in the highways and the energy systems and the people that make this country tick is about so much more than political deal making ahead of the midterm elections – it’s about reducing pollution, it’s about jobs and housing, it’s about the transportation systems we will use to get around for decades to come, it’s about creating resilient communities in the face of the climate crisis. Infrastructure is about what the future could look like, and with climate crisis raising so many questions about life on Earth for the next few decades, young people are paying close attention.

So, while Biden haggles with Republicans, the Sunrise Movement network of youth climate activists is pushing for a $10 trillion investment in a Green New Deal. $10 trillion is a lot more than Biden’s original $2.3 trillion infrastructure proposal, even if you add the additional $1.8 trillion Biden would invest in education and support for families. But $10 trillion is not some pie-in-the-sky number dreamed up by millennials, it’s based on legislation backed by Green New Deal Democrats in Congress.

A Green New Deal idea I find really interesting is the Civilian Climate Corps, basically a government jobs program what would put people to work improving communities and building next generation of clean infrastructure. As we will learn in a moment, young climate activists are walking hundreds of miles across the country to raise awareness around this idea. Biden has called for a Civilian Climate Corps too, but he has yet to secure funding. I wanted to know what young activists are doing about that, so I spoke with Lily Gardner, a national spokesperson for the Sunrise Movement.

Lily Gardner: So I think there are a number of components of that question. The first is that when we look at 10 trillion in the context of other crises that we faced throughout American history, even right, we know that at the peak of the war effort in World War II, America spent 40 percent of our GDP in one year, which is equivalent to $8.5 trillion right now in one year alone.

Right. So. What we are asking for is $10 trillion, at least 1 trillion over the next decade. And that looks really small in comparison to the ways in which we’ve mobilized throughout history. When we knew it was necessary. And now the question is why 10 trillion and quite frankly, it’s because we’re seeing a lot of room to grow in areas like housing research and development, and maybe most importantly, the Civilian Climate Corps, when we look at Biden’s current plan. So, it’s small in a historical comparison and also necessary in the sense of actually tackling the climate crisis.

Sunrise movement activists pass by aging fossil fuel infrastructure as they walk from New Orleans to Houston, Texas.
Sunrise Movement activists pass by aging fossil fuel infrastructure as they walk from New Orleans to Houston, Texas.

ML: Right. And Republicans attempted to low-ball Biden with an initial offer of around 500 some billion. And right now, negotiations are stalling. Do you see a point in a bipartisan compromise if the agreement would be such a small number compared to what is probably necessary?

LG: Absolutely. So I think there are two kind of components of that response. One is that the Republican Party and more specifically Mitch McConnell has said very clearly that their intention and focus is on stopping this administration and on blocking progressive legislation. And so, I think when we think about it from that lens, and we understand that the Republicans have chosen to be the party of violence that is hurting working people across the country, it becomes clear that we’re never going to be able to pass legislation to the degree that both science and justice and our current economic crisis demand, if we are caught up in the performative negotiation process with the GOP. And then I think the second component of that question is much more about, excuse me, at the kind of the, whether or not, um, or the scale of the crisis at hand. And I think we have a historic opportunity to tackle both, uh, a huge economic crisis and to stop the climate crisis. And I think to water, I think that the risk that we do that we take right now is to go too small and to not invest enough and to not have legislation that is bold enough as opposed to investing too much.

ML: And 10 trillion, that’s not like, we’re going to start the negotiations at a really high number and come back down. That’s, that’s what would you think is feasible and also necessary. And maybe if you could break that down a little bit, why that much spending is needed and what kind of areas of spending it’s going to go into if you could get it passed.

LG: Absolutely. So I think when we think about. The infrastructure plan, um, more specifically the initial kind of physical infrastructure plan that would be broken down into areas of housing, research and development, transportation, and then most importantly, a Civilian Climate Corps. So, I think when we think about things like housing and transportation, it’s pretty clear that the initial plan only upgraded around 2 million homes out of a 140 million housing units across the country. And additionally, when we think about transportation, the investment is a lot less than had what has been proposed in both Senator Schumer’s Clean Cars Act and Warren, and Markey’s Build Green.

ML: And you’re talking about, Biden’s plan is less than what’s in those proposals.

LG: Absolutely.

ML: Gotcha.

LG: Those are investments that we’re looking for in those specific areas. And then I think. Yes. Certainly, the biggest one is for the Civilian Climate Corps and the plan that Biden has rolled out would create between 10,000 and 20,000 jobs in a Civilian Climate Corp, which would train an employee young people to build clean energy and decarbonize the economy.

But when we look at what representative Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Markey have proposed, we know that in order to truly put Americans back to work in good paying and union jobs, we need to support 1.5 million Americans that are going to save our planet through building up sustainable infrastructure and create strong resilient communities.

ML: You mentioned, um, some progressives, who’ve all also introduced some Green New Deal type proposals in Congress. How close is your $10 trillion proposal that Sunrise Movement is talking about tack to the kind of Green New Deal proposals that have come out from AOC and Bernie Sanders around for instance, housing?

LG: So I think that they’re all part of a bold vision for the Green New Deal and for our country. And I think what I mean by that is that at every point we are fighting to get the funding and the programs and the legislation that we need to realize a vision of the Green New Deal, which is a vision of, um, both that that really encompasses both the Green New Deal for public housing and tenant con um, control, and then also encompasses components of infrastructure and the Civilian Climate Corp and in future will likely include things around healthcare and education. And so, I think that is all to say that the, this, these varying pieces of legislation and opportunities shouldn’t be viewed in opposition of each other, but rather as something that is all going to build to create this bold vision and really frankly, to stop the climate crisis and, and to, to have all hands on deck, to be able to do that.

ML: Can you tell us a little bit about the vision for a Civilian Climate Corp and why it matters to young people?

LG: Absolutely. So I think right now has everybody, um, including yourself, knows young people are facing two converging crises and a climate crisis and an economic crisis. And this is a moment that really demands bold action, especially from president Biden, um, and the federal government, which we view as the creation of the Civilian Climate Corps and essentially a Civilian Climate Corp is a policy that would create a government jobs program, very similar to what we saw, um, as a part of the New Deal and in the wake of the Great Depression, that would put a new generation of Americans to work combating the climate crisis. And the way that they would do that is through building up sustainable infrastructure that would support in making our community stronger through good paying and union jobs.

So a few examples of jobs that would be a part of the Civilian Climate Corps. Things that I always talk about are caring for the elderly conserving public lands. Creating graphics to help promote climate policies in a town or a city and organizing localized food programs. And I think the reason that those jobs are so distinctive and unique is that when we think of a civilian climate Corp, it’s not simply about rebuilding physical infrastructure, but about thinking about the care economy and the ways in which we support each other.

I think that was a little bit of a ramble. And so this is all to say, I think there are a few kind of reasons that the Civilian climate Corps is of utmost importance right now. One is, is clearly that we’re, we’re facing a moment in time where folks need jobs and they need to be able to support their communities.

And I think the second thing, and I think the thing that really makes. Um, Representative Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Markey’s, uh, vision of a Civilian Climate Corp distinctive is that the CCC would prioritize giving good jobs to communities who have been disproportionately harmed by the climate crisis, systemic racism and by our broken economy.

And that is really a huge part of. Creating not, not just a mobilization that is going to meet the scale of the climate crisis, but also kind of the, the scale of justice as we like to say.

ML: Right. And no, I don’t think you rambling. I actually want to ask you about some of this. Um, you know, both Biden’s $4 trillion plan and Sunrise’s $10 trillion proposal, have a care economy component. And more specifically, this is about funding good paying jobs for people who care for the elderly, often at home, people who care for children, people who care for people with disabilities, who are traditionally often underpaid. And, and, and although they, they provide an incredibly crucial service to the economy by allowing people to go to work. And I think it’s notable that, this is in both your proposal and Byron’s proposal, and it’s the kind of thing that the conservatives would love to just take right out, even though it’s so key to the economy, but how does this intersect with climate change? You, I can understand how we might need to like update levees to be more hurricane resistant, or we might need to update our energy grid with renewables in order to reduce emissions. But where do you see the intersection of the care economy and climate?

LG: Definitely. I think, I think it’s about this idea that we can’t just stop climate change. We have to build an economy that works for everyone, and that supports people to live good dignified lives in the process. And so what I mean by that is that as you said, the care economy has become a huge part, both of the, um, of our economic base and a huge necessity in the ways that we’re functioning.

And I think when I think of the Green New Deal and what I think of when I think of stopping climate change, it’s not simply about doing that. It’s about creating these frameworks, grounded and mutual aid and supportive community infrastructure that are going to set us up for a better economy in the process.

And so I think that’s kind of the clearest link between climate, um, as this abstract idea and the Green New Deal, which is, which is both about stopping climate change and again about supporting people and of which the care economy is a huge part. So I think that’s kind of the clearest link.

Sunrise Movement activists rally for a Green New Deal in the halls of Congress in 2018.
Sunrise Movement activists rally for a Green New Deal in the halls of Congress in 2018.

ML: You know, one of the things that’s always kind of interested me about sunrise is that y’all have allies in Congress, you know, um, there is some progressive there that have these. As far as I know, have worked with you on some stuff and listen to what your activists have to say, but you also are challenging lawmakers, I imagine even progressive lawmakers as well. And I’m curious what some of the activism around, I guess this is we’re talking about the Green New Deal. What does that look like lately now that we have going on in Washington over what an infrastructure plan could look like?

LG: Definitely. So I think the first thing I’ll say is that we, I always like to joke at least that sunrise has no permanent friends and no permanent enemies. So I think absolutely except maybe fossil fuel, the billionaires and the GOP is really instituting themselves as a permanent enemy. However, I think that is to say you’re right, that we are constantly pushing back against progressive champions in Congress. When, when we, we do see them start to compromise or when we do have disagreements or, or have a different vision. And I think part of the reason that we’re able to do that is because we do have thousands of people on the ground and communities across the country who are actively working towards a vision of the Green New Deal in their communities and are willing to, to put their power behind ensuring that it’s a Green New Deal. Um, as we’ve been talking about, like to the robust, uh, to the robustness I’m not sure, that’s a word, but that is necessary. And so I think one thing that’s happening right now, um, that that is really a show of like the level of sacrifice that a lot of Sunrisers are willing to endure to realize this vision of the green new deal is that we have folks who are marching over 600 miles across the Gulf Gouth and California in the name of winning a robust Civilian Climate Corp.

Right. So this is part of a broader, good jobs for all campaign that my hub in Lexington, Kentucky was a part of earlier this year and that hubs across the country have participated in. And now we’re seeing, as members are walking 400 miles in New Orleans, um, or excuse me, from New Orleans to Houston in the Gulf south and a little over 250 miles from Paradise to San Francisco. And they have very different paths and stories and even often reasons for marching, but the the fundamental reality is that they are going to be meeting community members across the country who are most impacted by the climate crisis. They’re going to be hosting visioning sessions. And really, they’re going to tell the stories of young people who are fighting to live through continuous climate disaster and urge president Biden to pass an ambitious CCC.

So I think that’s one thing that I, although I’m not participating in, um, I’m most proud of seeing on the ground and seeing the ways in which young people are willing to, to sacrifice months of their lives to, to walk, you know, 10, 15 miles a day. And to really go through a lot, just to realize a vision of the CCC and to show kind of the need for it.

ML: It makes sense too. Cause it seems to me that a Civilian Climate Corp, which as you said, would, it may not be focused on young people would probably would hire a lot of young people, but it sounds like the kind of thing that inspires young people right now, especially, um, some of us who came of age during times of economic trouble.

LG: I think definitely. And I think the CCC. I think what we see is that young people across the country are so excited about it and about the possibility. Yeah. And even the hope that it provides for the future. I will say, I think, I think absolutely. I can’t speak to kind of an older generation of young people. I was, I think I was eight when Occupy happened. So I’m a, I’m a bit behind in that sense. But I think even in my community, in a hub that I kind of cross age in the sense that it has high schoolers and middle schoolers and folks who are older and already a part of, of things like the gig economy, right.We see an overwhelming desire from everybody for a CCC and for what it would mean.

ML: So what’s next. Um, you know, Biden is really leading the infrastructure negotiations right now. And he was already willing to come down from $4 trillion for the entire package. That’s the American jobs plan and the American Family Plan. He was willing to come down just in the name of bipartisanship. So it doesn’t seem like we’re going to get a $10 trillion package this time around. So what’s the next thing for climate activists in this moment? With everyone focused on spending? And where else is activism popping up? Uh, with young people?

LG: Sure. So I think. I think we are going to continue to push president Biden until the very end of this infrastructure fight to have a degree of investment that we’ve been talking about this whole time. And then I think we’re also going to continue to push through bold legislation. The ones that we talked about, right? Like we are going to continue to support, um, the CCC as proposed by AOC and Senator Markey. We’re going to continue to support the Green New Deal for public housing. And we’re, we’re going to continue to build coalitions and, uh, to bring real community and grassroots power across the country in support of those legislative fights and in support of this broader vision that we know includes a federal jobs guarantee and, uh, a clear path forward to stop climate change.

And so I think that’s always really a little abstract and frankly, I think I often don’t know what’s next, right? Because so much of the work that we’re doing apart from our localized communities is um, often about, about sounding the alarm and the need for this degree of investment and, and about continually pushing for it, with our, with our allies.

But what I can speak to is that young people across the country are, are not waiting for the federal government, right? We know that federal investment and mobilization from the federal government is the way we’re going to stop the climate crisis. But young people are organizing in their communities in the name of all visions of the Green New Deal. Right?

Currently we are supporting constituencies and 10 major cities to run a green new deal for public housing program and to mobilize their communities and support of that legislation. We’re building out rural constituencies and Latinx constituencies and figuring out, and, and on top of all of that, I think continually supporting the hubs that, that we have that are doing such incredible work in their communities to realize varying kind of components of the green new deal that makes sense and their local contacts and bring more people into this vision. So I think that’s, I think that’s what young people are doing right now. And they’re going to continue to do no matter what is happening on the hill or in the White House.

ML: You know, it kind of just struck me that if, um, the people walking or are marching across the country for the CCC are starting off from New Orleans and going through the Gulf south, and they are walking right through an area of the country that would be transformed by a Green New Deal because it’s dominated by oil and gas and refineries. And, uh, many of the communities around that industry are extremely poor. Um, the extraction and the processing hasn’t benefited them very much. And that’s the kind of place where federal money can be used to not only revitalize communities, but transition us away from this dirty energy that actually doesn’t benefit the people who live around it. And it really only produces pollution. And so they’re like walking right through the kind of place that could be transformed like this and they’re, and they’re gathering those stories and those experiences of connecting with one another. I think that is actually really powerful. And I’m excited to hear some of those stories that come out of this walk.

LG: Absolutely. And I think, I think you’re totally right. And, and I, and I think that this is the start of conversations that are going to be happening across the country. Why, when I look at some of the tracks, I think of my home and Appalachia, that could be also so transformed by something like the CCC and the role that, that young people across the country have in supporting their communities and the places that they call home in, in sharing stories about, about what this would mean and bringing people into that vision. So, absolutely.

ML: Well, thank you so much for joining us today on Climate Front Lines, Lily.

A critical message, before you scroll away

You may not know that Truthout’s journalism is funded overwhelmingly by individual supporters. Readers just like you ensure that unique stories like the one above make it to print – all from an uncompromised, independent perspective.

At this very moment, we’re conducting a fundraiser with a goal to raise $13,000. So, if you’ve found value in what you read today, please consider a tax-deductible donation in any size to ensure this work continues. We thank you kindly for your support.