On November 13, 2018, just days after Democrats reclaimed the House of Representatives, dozens of young activists filed silently into Representative Nancy Pelosi’s office on Capitol Hill. Some sat down along the walls of the office, unfurling banners and forming a circle. Others stood in the center and told their stories. A teenage woman from Northern California began, “There were fires at my school. There was ash falling from the sky for a week.” She and her companions in the Cannon Office Building that day carried manila envelopes containing pictures of the people and places in their lives that climate change would destroy—or already had. On one side of the envelopes were the words “Dear Democrats”; on the other, “What Is Your Plan?” After some time, they began to sing—the protest songs of another generation, like “Which Side Are You On?,” and new ones they’d written themselves, about waters rising up and people rising, too. Their voices echoed down the marble halls.
Within weeks, their ambitious demand for a “Green New Deal” to decarbonize the U.S. economy by 2030 and provide a green job to anyone who wants one was on the lips of every congressional staffer, cable news reporter, and progressive candidate for president in the country. Reporting for Vox in late 2018, veteran environmental writer David Roberts described the astonishment of longtime climate wonks and advocates at the sudden ubiquity of the Green New Deal, the sense among those involved that they had “caught a tiger by the tail.”
Achieving this sort of moment, in which the horizons of political possibility expand with an almost audible snap, is what every social movement hopes to accomplish. But only some