How Students Convinced Beto O'Rourke to Stop Taking Fossil Fuel Money

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The transformation of Beto O’Rourke into a legit climate change candidate took another turn on Wednesday night when he announced he was pledging to turn away donations from fossil fuel executives.

The news was surprising because for months, O’Rourke has refused to sign the pledge that a dozen other presidential candidates have signed. But a turning point came at the College of William and Mary a few weeks ago when Sunrise Movement activists confronted him about it at an event. That began a behinds-the-scenes series of conversations resulting in Wednesday’s announcement. The end results show that youth activists continue to play a major role in shaping the 2020 presidential election and they’re making climate change one of the most—if not the most—prominent issue.

“You can make change, and we are an example of that,” Kelsey Wright, a freshman at William and Mary and member of the local Sunrise hub, told Earther in the group’s first interview after the announcement. “We started [the hub] in February and we have changed a presidential candidate’s platform.”

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The story began in early April when the campus Democrats invited O’Rourke to speak to students. Wright and fellow Sunrise member Hannah Ferster hatched a plan with other group members to get into the event and position themselves throughout the room, upping the odds someone would be called on. The goal was ask O’Rourke to sign the pledge, and to learn why he was reticent to. One of their members got called on and asked him.

“If you work in the oil fields, you answer the phones in the office, if you’re one of my fellow Texans in one of our state’s largest employers, we’re not going to single you out from being unable to participate in our democracy,” O’Rourke responded.

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The pledge, however, doesn’t say anything about fossil fuel workers. Instead, candidates signing it agree to “not knowingly accept any contributions over $200 from the PACs or SEC-named executives of fossil fuel companies.” Other activists have asked O’Rourke about it on the campaign trail, but the William and Mary event appears to have been a watershed moment for him.

“The signing occurred after taking the time to meet with and listen to young people, clean energy advocates and students who are leading the fight to combat climate change, including at town hall discussions on 29 campuses across 13 states,” Chris Evans, a spokesperson for O’Rourke’s campaign, told Earther in an email.

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That may be because another Sunrise member approach him after the event and explained the pledge in more detail and asked to continue the conversation. The group then followed up with his campaign via email, reiterating how important the pledge was to them and what taking it entailed.

“A day later, I had a voicemail my phone from Beto saying that he wanted to reach out to our Williamsburg Sunrise Members and follow up with us directly over the phone,” Ferster told Earther. “We hoped that his team would respond, but I don’t think we expected anything, especially not a voicemail from Beto himself. It was really exciting to just to know that we were being listened to and that our action had worked in getting him to think more about the issue.”

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The group eventually persuaded O’Rourke to sign the pledge, making him the twelfth presidential candidate to sign on in addition to dozens of local, state, and federal candidates running for other offices. Ferster said the group plans to continue ratcheting up pressure on presidential candidates who haven’t signed on yet, particularly Cory Booker, Kamala Harris, and Joe Biden.

O’Rourke’s signature represents an ongoing evolution in his campaign. He’s never been a major voice for climate change, though he did have a lifetime score of 95 from the League of Conservation Voters for his environmental record in the House. But in recent weeks, he’s begun getting serious about the issue. That includes releasing a $5 trillion plan to address climate change as his first presidential policy proposal and calling the issue his “north star.” Signing the pledge represents the next step, though he still has a few more steps to take to satisfy climate activists.

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His recently-released plan, for example, includes the goal of getting the U.S. to net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, something Sunrise flamed him for for not being an aggressive enough timeline (before stepping back on their criticism a bit). Ferster said her and her fellow Sunrise members will keep pushing for him and other candidates to release comprehensive climate plans that include a goal of getting to net-zero by 2030. It’s ambitious, but they see it as essential.

“Our generation is going to be the first to really have to deal with a catastrophic climate change,” Ferster said. “I think it’s really important right now for young people to stand up across the country and know that their voices are powerful in shaping climate change policy and the political arena in general.”

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This post has been updated with comments from O’Rourke’s campaign.

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