For a week in February, Julia Paramo woke up in a freezing house, with spotty power, in Garland. The Texas grid had failed, and Paramo lived through the coldest three-day stretch on record in the Dallas–Fort Worth Metroplex. Each morning, the 24-year-old would first check the pulse of her dog, who slept by her side. Then she’d use the limited power left on her devices to call members of her local hub of the Sunrise Movement, a national climate advocacy group, to discuss how they could best lend a hand to those struggling in DFW.
Through those efforts, Paramo met 26-year-old Kidus Girma, a recently hired Sunrise staffer. Girma had spent the freeze in his parents’ house in Wylie, as he studied remotely for a master’s degree in citizenship and public affairs from Syracuse. The two bonded during the freeze over shared frustrations at decades of state leadership that had led Texas’s electric grid to near complete failure.
“I slept maybe six hours total that week and barely ate anything just to organize, whether it was fund-raising or finding out who could make meals in their kitchen, who could deliver them,” said Paramo, explaining that many other Sunrise activists had similar experiences. “You’re in survival mode, you want your community to survive.”
Paramo and Girma say the experience radicalized them. The failure of the grid was precipitated by unprecedented cold temperatures in North Texas—the likes of which might become more common because of climate change. But it also represented a failure of leadership. While Sunrise raised tens of thousands of dollars for the Dallas community, Senator Ted Cruz infamously traveled to Cancún as many Texans were without power, before sheepishly returning home after constituents expressed their outrage. And local officials on the Dallas City Council, Girma said, didn’t seem to realize that their lack of urgency in retrofitting city buildings with generators was partly responsible for the crisis.
The two North Texans are now trying to ensure that such a disaster—or any climate-inflicted one—will not reoccur. This month Paramo and Girma traveled to Washington, D.C., to partake in an indefinite hunger strike with three other Sunrise activists. They hope to pressure President Joe Biden into sticking to his campaign promises on the environment, which include establishing a Civilian Climate Corps that would employ hundreds of thousands of Americans in green jobs, investing in renewable energy through subsidies, and providing funds for communities that have been disproportionately affected by natural disasters and pollution.
Since October 20, the young strikers, wrapped in blankets to brave the cold, have demonstrated on the lawn outside the White House, or in front of the U.S. Capitol, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m daily. They’ve set up a canopy nearby their protests with supplies and cots in case they need to rest. Doctors stop by three times a day to check their blood pressure. A handful of Sunrise volunteers also stay with the strikers in shifts, and assist in pushing them around in wheelchairs, which they’ve began to use to conserve energy. “You feel in your joints, you’re losing muscle, you really shouldn’t stand or walk around too much,” said Paramo of the experience.
For Girma and Paramo, the decision to strike followed months of activism with Sunrise. In May, they both participated in the Generation on Fire march, a 400-mile walk from New Orleans to Houston to highlight the devastating effects of climate change on Southern communities battered by intense hurricanes and rising sea levels. There they met a third Texan who joined Sunrise Dallas in the months after the freeze, Roshni Khosla, a 19-year-old student at Austin College, who has now begun fasting intermittently in solidarity with them.
This fall Sunrise activists developed an idea for a hunger strike in response to Congressional Democrats’ struggle to pass a reconciliation bill that would have allocated, in its original form, roughly $600 billion for climate policy. Paramo and Girma believe that, in addition to mitigating future natural disasters, strong climate commitments in the bill would give Biden leverage in convincing other countries to take the climate crisis seriously at COP26, the United Nations climate conference that kicked off this week. Paramo and the other strikers consulted with a group in Germany, who had gone on a 27-day hunger strike for climate justice that began in late August, for advice on how to safely execute the action.
Within a week of striking, Democratic officials seemingly started to pay attention. Jamaal Bowman, who serves a district in New York, and Representative Rashida Tlaib of Michigan have visited the strikers on the White House lawn. Congressman Ro Khanna, who represents parts of Silicon Valley, referenced them in a speech on the House floor. White House press secretary Jen Psaki fielded a question about them Wednesday, expressing admiration for their advocacy but saying she was not aware of their specific demands.
On Thursday, the White House released a new framework for the reconciliation package, with a price tag of about half of what Biden originally proposed. His green commitments weren’t cut back much: the framework includes $555 billion for a slate of climate and energy proposals, including tax breaks of up to $12,500 for those who buy electric vehicles, support for natural disaster-stricken communities, and the creation of a Civilian Climate Corps.
That evening, members of the national Sunrise movement shared over Zoom their reactions to the news, which were mixed. Not every goal of the Sunrise Movement made the new framework, including a tax on methane leaks from oil and gas operations and the creation of a program to financially reward U.S. energy suppliers that make the switch to renewable energy and to penalize those that do not.
After the evening Zoom, I spoke with Paramo and Girma, who were deliberating on whether the proposal meets their demands. They were encouraged by the relatively slim cuts to climate proposals, but ultimately decided to keep up their strike. “We recognize in the political context that [climate] got the least amount of cuts,” said Girma. “But the point of doing these actions is to change what is possible to get what we need.”
The consequences of not eating for nearly two weeks are beginning to take a serious toll. Three of the five original strikers, including Girma, have been admitted to the hospital for brief stays and one has dropped out entirely. “This is a difficult thing to watch people you care about go through,” said Paramo.
As of Monday, day thirteen, Girma and Paramo were still actively striking. Biden’s new proposal, which some politicos speculated could go to a vote this week, is in doubt as West Virginia Democratic senator Joe Manchin—a necessary vote for passage—has said he might oppose it. Regardless of what transpires in Congress this week, the strikers are planning an event for this Thursday that is bluntly named We Want to Live.