On Friday morning in her office in San Francisco, Senator Dianne Feinstein met with a group of child activists from the Sunrise Movement, an organization of young people dedicated to legislative climate action. If Feinstein was expecting an end of the week meet-and-greet, it did not go as planned. As the young lobbyists gave their case for why the senator should support the Green New Deal, Feinstein made her defense to her constituents, who ranged from 7 years old to teenagers:
Young activist one: Senator, if this doesn’t get turned around in 10 years you’re looking at the faces of the people who are going to be living with the consequences.
Young activist two: The government is supposed to be for the people, and by the people, and all for the people.
Dianne Feinstein: You know what’s interesting about this group, is I’ve been doing this for 30 years. I know what I’m doing. You come in here, and you say it has to be my way or the highway. I don’t respond to that. I’ve gotten elected, I just ran. I was elected by a million vote plurality. And I know what I’m doing. So maybe, you should listen a little bit.
Generally, if a lawmaker explains California’s new plurality vote system to a 7 year old, they’re entering gaffe territory. What makes this encounter more of a PR fumble is that young climate activists — perhaps more so than other issue for those who cannot vote yet — have the greatest interest in securing aggressive policy, as they will be around much longer than anyone born in the 20th century to experience the rough-and-tumble catastrophes of environmental collapse. Across the globe, teenage activists are picking up the mantle of climate change, from the Swedish 16-year-old Greta Thunberg — who told an audience at Davos that “our house is on fire” — to the 21 young Americans suing the federal government for violating their due process rights by knowing about the dangers of climate change for decades, but doing nothing about it.
Later in the day, Feinstein responded on Twitter, saying that she heard the Sunrise Movement activists “loud and clear,” and that she is committed to “real, meaningful climate change legislation.” Feinstein, the oldest sitting senator at 85, was primaried from the left in the midterms by a candidate with a robust climate record, and has faced some criticism from Californians for not pursuing a more aggressive environmental agenda. Her comments on Friday line up with some of the more disdainful observations on the Green New Deal from the Democratic old guard. After Dick Durbin, the second-highest ranking Democrat in the Senate, read through the Green New Deal on Wednesday, he reportedly asked, “What in the heck is this?” And earlier this month, Speaker Pelosi referred to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s and Ed Markey’s ambitious climate legislation as “the green dream, or whatever they call it.”
The Sunrise Movement’s capable moment on Friday shows the increasingly important tactic of recording direct contact with lawmakers to distribute on social media — executed most effectively by Ana Maria Archila and Maria Gallagher, who confronted then-Senator Jeff Flake about his vote to confirm Brett Kavanaugh. Conversely, for lawmakers it represents a new challenge: to be articulate, but noncommittal in interactions with constituents. As Sam Adler-Bell, who writes for the Nation and the Intercept, puts it: