Anna Mowery grew up in a world where adults didn’t care about climate change. Her senator, Mitch McConnell (R-KY), a noted climate change denier, took office in 1985, more than 15 years before Mowery was even born. Mowery is ready for that to change.

“The Green New Deal is necessary for my future,” Mowery said. “It’s the only real climate legislation that we’ve had in the past, well, since I’ve been alive.”

Mowery, 17, grew up in Louisville, Kentucky. She hopes to study public health when she gets to college. And she’s already skipped school twice this year to travel to Washington with dozens of other Kentucky students to demand a Green New Deal, a sweeping 10-year plan to zero out U.S. carbon emissions while guaranteeing a job, health care and housing for every American.

Mowery is part of the Sunrise Movement, a national group of young people fighting to curb climate change. Sunrise exploded onto the national scene late last year by staging protests outside of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office to pressure her and fellow Democratic leaders to support a Green New Deal. Last week, members of Sunrise in California, along with protesters from the Youth Vs. Apocalypse movement, made more headlines after a confrontation with Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein about a Green New Deal.

But for Mowery and her fellow Kentuckians, it’s Republican leadership from their home state — namely, Mitch McConnell — that presents the biggest roadblock to dealing with climate change. This week, the movement held its second-largest protest on Capitol Hill, where dozens of protesters from Sunrise’s Kentucky chapter stormed McConnell’s office to demand the veteran lawmaker acknowledge the pressing need for action on climate change. Some of Mowery’s fellow Kentuckians — most under 20 years old — were arrested and escorted out of the Senate building after the protest.

Critics of a Green New Deal, especially on the right, like to dismiss climate movements as the purview of East Coast elites. Chowing down on a burger in front of reporters Wednesday, House Natural Resources Committee ranking Republican member Rob Bishop of Utah dismissed the Green New Deal as “designed by a bunch of Eastern urbanites.” But groups like Sunrise are showing that youth leadership is often strongest in deep red states.

Kentucky sent the largest delegation of young people to participate in the December action outside of Pelosi’s office — nearly 75 people, Mowery said. And last week, Mowery and several other Sunrise Kentucky members spent hours protesting outside of McConnell’s office in Louisville while he was home on recess. Many slept in the building Thursday evening.

Teens like Mowery are keenly aware of how climate change imperils their home states. Rising temperatures threaten more flooding in Kentucky, which saw eight flood deaths last year. Schools across the eastern part of the state were shut down due to floods Monday as Mowery and her fellow Sunrise members marched through the Senate halls.

Anna Mowery waits with a crowd of Sunrise protesters outside the Russell Senate Office Building in Washington, DC, February 25, 2019. Photo: Ken Schles

McConnell has ignored the growing risk of climate change while cozying up to the coal industry. As the teens were quick to point out, his support for coal companies hasn’t translated into support for coal workers. While McConnell has railed against regulations on coal power, he also failed to fight for federal funding to treat black lung or support coal miners in retirement.

When protestors visited his office, they not only highlighted the consequences of his policies for Kentuckians, but also the consequences for friends and family around the world. Oli Tierney, 17, of Louisville carried a picture of her relatives into McConnell’s office Monday. Her family had left Kentucky to move back to the Philippines, she said, and are routinely facing life-threatening hurricanes and storms.

“I’m terrified I am going to lose them soon,” Tierney told reporters. “Mitch McConnell doesn’t recognize that these people are still his constituents.”

Oli Tierney speaks outside the Russell Senate Office Building in Washington, DC, February 25, 2019. Photo: Rachael Warriner

The pressure campaign, the group said, is working — and inspiring more action. After the protests, McConnell postponed his proposed vote on a Green New Deal — a move intended to troll Senate Democrats — to some time before the August recess. Activists hailed the delay as a victory.

On Tuesday, young people with Sunrise in cities including Boston, Philadelphia, New York, and Lansing, Michigan, inspired by the action in Washington, rallied to demand action from their lawmakers. A different youth group is planning a mass school walkout for March 15.

Protesting doesn’t come without consequences. Tierney and another Sunrise member were suspended by their high school, where Mowery also attends, for missing class last week for the protests, the group said. But for Mowery, this type of action is crucial to make lawmakers like McConnell sit up and listen.

“We only have 11 years until our mistakes will be irreversible,” she said. “I’m going to have to live with all the mistakes people have made in the past.”

Molly Taft writes for Nexus Media, a syndicated newswire covering climate, energy, policy, art and culture. You can follow her at @mollytaft.