A New Climate Politics Is on the Ballot

A New Climate Politics Is on the Ballot

From Florida to Washington, a new generation of progressive candidates and social movements are closing the democratic deficit on climate change.

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum campaigning in Miami Gardens, Florida, November 1 (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

“What Florida voters need to know is that when they elect me governor, they are going to have a governor who believes in science, which we haven’t had for quite some time in this state,” said Andrew Gillum, Democratic candidate for Governor of Florida, on a CNN debate stage in Tampa, two weeks before the November 6 election. “I’m proud that the same week that Donald Trump pulled out of the Paris Accord, I broke ground in my city on a 120-acre solar farm, tripling the amount of solar energy that we produce,” he continued. “We’re prepared to lead.”

Party politics are perhaps the greatest impediment to action on climate change, with the Republicans controlled by the scientific equivalent of tinfoil-hat people and the Democrats largely sidestepping the issue. But, in a political climate already transformed by social movements ranging from Standing Rock to divestment, progressive candidates like Gillum could be on the verge of changing that—and just in time. The latest United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, released last month, underscores the urgency of our geological moment and Tuesday’s midterm elections. To prevent catastrophic warming of more than 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit), the target set by world leaders in the Paris Agreement, we must phase out fossil fuels and scale up clean, renewable energy as fast as possible—reducing emissions 45 percent by 2030 and achieving net zero emissions by 2050. This entails a complete overhaul of our economy and energy system: no more internal combustion engines, no more deforestation, no more fossil fuel corporations. But just because it’s unprecedented doesn’t mean it’s not possible: on the contrary, many of the tools for such a transformation are already at our disposal, from electric vehicles and cheap renewables to environmental regulations to macroeconomic policies like deficit spending and quantitative easing.

As Gillum spoke, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was approximately 407 parts per million (ppm), up from about 280 ppm before the industrial revolution. (Scientists regard the safe upper limit as 350 ppm, which is also the name of the global climate justice campaign, 350.org, where I work as a policy analyst.) In Florida, as across the United States and around the world, the pain of this unprecedented spike in greenhouse gas emissions—driven above all by the fossil fuel industry—is already being felt. A week prior, Hurricane Michael roared ashore in the Florida panhandle, causing forty-five deaths and an estimated $10 to 12 billion in damages. The hurricane caused storm surges up to fourteen feet—enough to submerge a regulation basketball hoop—foreshadowing sea-level rise that could, by century’s end, swallow cities like Miami whole. In the state, warmer seas have already fomented toxic algae blooms that turned coastal waters red, blue, and Nickelodeon slime green, killing fish, porpoises, and manatees. Their carcasses washed up on beaches across the Sunshine State—a harbinger of the silent springs ahead.

Some voters have started to lay blame at the doorstep of the climate-denying Republican Party. Florida Governor Rick Scott, now challenging incumbent Democratic Senator Ben Nelson, banned state employees from using the terms “global warming” and “climate change.” As “red tide” algae bloomed, Scott’s polling numbers slid. His would-be Republican gubernatorial successor, Ron DeSantis, has been less strident in his anti-scientific stance. On the debate stage, DeSantis gave a muddled response to the opening question about climate change, saying he would not be “alarmist” about the threats posed by global warming before accusing Gillum of foisting “California-style energy policies” on residents.

The exchange was peculiarly Floridian, but it also revealed shifting political currents on the issue. DeSantis has styled himself a Trumpian Republican. In a television interview, he warned voters not to “monkey this up” by electing Gillum, who would be the state’s first black governor—an obvious racist attack. But on climate change, he and some other Florida Republicans have cautiously split from the party line. Earlier this year, Carlos Curbelo, a moderate conservative congressman from Miami, introduced a carbon tax proposal to buttress himself against a strong challenge from establishment Democrat Debbie Mucarsel-Powell. Republicans in the House of Representatives preempted the marker bill with a resolution denouncing a carbon tax as “detrimental to the United States economy.”

The conservative clash, which pit the core of the Koch, Norquist, and Exxon-beholden GOP against a vulnerable colleague, elucidates the extent to which Republicans have painted themselves into a corner on the issue. And as climate change intensifies, that denialist corner is becoming untenable in Florida, a heavily impacted coastal equatorial state. And whether they realize it or not, Republican leaders across the South are in a similar pinch between environmental reality, skyrocketing damages, and party dogma that could create further fissures in their coalition. As the cliché has it: as Florida goes, so goes the nation.

Thirty years of fossil-fuel-billionaire-backed disinformation campaigns have rendered the Republican Party an enemy of scientific fact. Bipartisan folk wisdom says this bullheadedness precludes the potential for legislation. But such a polarized field, where one side denies the existence of a metastasizing ecological cancer, also creates ample opportunity for Democrats. Despite owning a political monopoly on the issue, though, Democrats have not rallied around a clear climate plan or message. For them, belief in climate change has become little more than a campaign applause line. On what should be done, there is little substantive agreement—or even productive disagreement.

That’s what is so refreshing about Gillum and the burgeoning list of candidates with strong climate platforms. Gillum aims to set Florida on course for a fossil fuel–free future, and he proposes a renewable energy portfolio standard, which would require electricity providers to source more energy from renewables, paired with investments in solar to move Florida in that direction. And, as any sensible lawmaker should, he wants the state to start planning for sea-level rise and climate migration.

Gillum is far from alone. Up and down the ballot, candidates are touting their climate bona fides as never before. Deb Haaland, candidate for congress in New Mexico, shares Gillum’s conviction and has stood up to fossil fuel corporations trying to frack her ancestors’ sacred homelands in Chaco Canyon. She supports the goal of powering the United States on 100 percent renewable energy and, if elected, would be the first Native American woman in congress. In Minnesota, Ilhan Omar, the first Somali American to run for congress, is also speaking out against the fossil fuel industry. She opposes expansion of the Line 3 pipeline and calls for climate policies that center communities of color and Indigenous peoples. In Nebraska, Public Service Commission candidate Christa Yoakum is running on an anti-Keystone XL platform and, if elected, could cast a vote to stop the long-embattled pipeline. And in New York, Attorney General candidate Tish James has already proven to be a strong climate advocate, pursuing a lawsuit against ExxonMobil for purposefully misleading the public about the climate impacts of their business activities and supporting the divestment of New York state pensions from high-risk, low-return fossil fuel assets.

Meanwhile, progressive congressional candidates like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in New York and Randy Bryce, who is running for Paul Ryan’s seat in Wisconsin, are campaigning for a Green New Deal that envisions a Roosevelt-style fiscal stimulus to kickstart a shift in our energy systems and create millions of good, green union jobs in the process.

And in Washington state, residents will vote on ballot measure 1631, which would make big polluters pay for their waste and reinvest revenues raised into clean energy, tribes, workers, and frontline communities endangered and left behind by the fossil fuel economy. The measure could provide a state-level model for a Green New Deal.

If elected, progressive politicians will face entrenched opposition from fossil fuel corporations. But they will also have to negotiate carefully with a stubborn labor movement and particularly with the more conservative building trades that represent fossil fuel industry workers. In September, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said that labor “would not bear the cost of climate policy alone.” The statement reflected longstanding tensions between environmentalists and unions, but it also suggested that Democrats who want to wrangle the emergent climate coalition should increase their ambitions—not temper them. A just transition for workers displaced by the fossil fuel economy is a must, and ideas like utility-scale solar and a federal jobs guarantee could attract support from unions, building bridges between constituencies. And when Democrats prove gutless, social movements like the student movement for divestment and the multiracial environmental justice movement built around Standing Rock can—and will—intervene, pushing Democrats to align their policies with science and the moral imperative of this moment. Their momentum is already building. Under pressure from activists, more than 1,200 candidates and elected officials have signed the No Fossil Fuel Money Pledge, vowing not to take a cent from big coal, oil, and gas.

It is too early to know how this will play out. Progressives could legislate on climate change through surprising avenues—a healthcare package that addresses environmental justice concerns, for example, or immigration reform that takes on climate migration. And the coalition behind climate policy could also disintegrate on the same disagreements that have long dogged environmental and labor movements.

But from Florida to Washington, the democratic deficit on climate change is closing, and on Tuesday the window to a new politics for a rapidly changing world is ready to be opened.

Julian Brave NoiseCat is a policy analyst at 350.org, correspondent for Real America with Jorge Ramos, contributing editor at Canadian Geographic, and freelance writer. His work has appeared in the Guardian, the Nation, the Paris Review, and other publications.