Six Lessons Learned about the Politics of Climate Change

Over the past few weeks, every Democratic candidate running for president has discussed climate change in a major speech and made climate solutions a central part of their platform. Republican candidates continue to use stock phrases like “I’m not a scientist,” but at least they are talking about climate change.

We’ve come a long way.

When I started working at the NRDC Action Fund in 2004, climate change barely registered on the political landscape. I was coming off of Capitol Hill and most of my time was spent on parks and water issues, which we were just starting to think of in terms of climate change.  Most voters were concerned about the war in Iraq, No Child Left Behind, and the latest episode of Desperate Housewives—it was before streaming, after all. Global warming, as we called it then, was the focus of policy wonks and researchers and few others.

Then something shifted: climate change started hitting home in painful and costly ways. Nine out of the 10 hottest years ever occurred since 2002. We witnessed the destructive power of storms like Katrina and Sandy and became accustomed to using the words “record-breaking” when we talk about everything from snowfalls to wildfires. People’s lives were turned upside down by climate impacts, and Americans began calling on leaders to do something about it.

Now that I have decided to leave the NRDC Action Fund to return to my roots to head up the Ohio Environmental Council and its Action Fund, I can’t help but reflect on the progress made by my amazing NRDC colleagues and the larger environmental movement.

Not only have we helped secure policies to limit carbon pollution from power plants and cut climate change pollution from new cars in half by 2025—saving drivers $80 billion a year at the pump, but we have also helped put climate change on the campaign map. Candidates hoping to win the White House, the governor’s mansion, or a Congressional seat in 2016 must discuss the climate threat.

It’s been an honor to be a small part of this transformation. It’s also been an incredible learning experience. It turns out, for instance, that PowerPoint Presentations can win Oscars, but voters still don’t want to hear about carbon wedges. And Senator James Inhofe (R-OK) can throw all the snowballs he wants on the Senate floor, but he can’t fool the majority of Americans into denying climate change.

Local Climate Stories Move Voters: When Gary Peters ran for Senate from Michigan, he didn’t talk about worldwide CO2 emissions or sea-level rise. He described how climate change was hurting the Great Lakes and other beloved people and places in Michigan. And he celebrated the 80,000 green goods and services jobs in the state. He also took on the Koch brothers, who were responsible for polluting waterways in the state and funding the opposition.  He won, and he confirmed the power of connecting the dots between global climate change, the fossil fuel cronies, and voters’ daily lives.

Running Clean Works: NRDC Action Fund research has confirmed that candidates who campaign on clean energy and climate action from the beginning win—including Senators Jon Tester (D-MT) and Martin Heinrich (D-NM) in 2012 to Senators Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) and Brian Schatz (D-HI) in 2014. Clean energy provides a positive, solutions-based narrative to talk about issues that matter most to Americans: jobs, the economy, and the health of their families.

Big Money Is Here to Stay: Political time can be measured in two epochs: before the Citizens United Supreme Court ruling spilled millions of unregulated dollars into political campaigns, and after. It’s a fact of life now that spending has reached staggering heights. Fossil fuel industry spent more than $721 million in the 2014 election cycle alone. But the last presidential election proved that even that much money can’t buy you love. Despite the Koch brothers’ best efforts, clean energy and climate champions won up and down the ticket.

The Fight Is Spreading to the States in an even Bigger Way: Now that the Clean Power Plan has established limits on carbon pollution from power plants, each state can figure out how it will achieve its reductions. This is a huge opportunity to create new jobs and save people money on energy bills. But it is also a chance for naysayers to try to delay and interfere at the state level. That’s one reason I am joining the Ohio Environmental Council: I want to help set the bar high for climate action and clean energy growth in the Midwest.

Time to Paint Climate Stonewalling as Extremism: Republicans in Congress are trying to block the Clean Power Plan, and every GOP presidential candidate has decried it. Yet not a single one has offered a plan for tackling what is the biggest environmental and public health threat of our time. Poll after poll after poll confirms the vast majority of Americans want leaders to address climate change. It’s time to point out the GOP’s failure for what it is: out-of-step extremism.

It Will be Tough for a Climate Denier to Win the White House: Extensive polling from red and blue and purple states reveals that climate change matters to the majority of voters. And it really matters to three voting blocs that will be key to winning in 2016: women, Latinos, and young people. Voters want a leader in the White House who will confront the big challenges, not ignore their existence.

This Is a Marathon, Not a Sprint: Creating major political change requires stamina. The average bill becoming a law takes eight years to get passed, and most bills die well before that. A complex challenge like climate change will demand many bills, policies and technological innovations, but we will keep running until we cross the finish line. I do it because of my faith and because I want to leave the planet in better shape for my children. They deserve it. Our communities and beautiful wild places deserve it. And even our opponents deserve it.

See you in Ohio.

Fox News and the GOP Candidates Disappoint In First Debate

I came away from last night’s first televised Republican presidential debate feeling pretty disappointed in the lack of both questions and answers on climate change or clean energy. The closest anyone came to the topic was when Jeb Bush mentioned that Hillary Clinton doesn’t support the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline.

Maybe I shouldn’t be so surprised. Despite the 7 in 10 conservative voters in early primary states (New Hampshire and South Carolina) who want the next president to have a clean energy plan, and the three-quarters of those same voters who want their state to submit a plan to comply with the EPA’s Clean Power Plan, Fox News remains firmly in league with those who insist on continuing to deny both science and the will of the American people. Fox News provides a safe harbor for candidates who deny the science of climate change and gives them a microphone to spread inaccurate scare tactics about rising electricity prices and other myths.

I’m trying to look at it another way though. Many of the topics that were covered last night are indeed closely related to climate change.

At least one-third of the debate was devoted to issues of homeland security, terrorism, and the Middle East. But what Fox doesn’t want to admit is the fact climate change is a significant contributor to instability and conflict and therefore a major threat to our national security and the people whose duty it is to protect us. The Department of Defense and the CIA agree. Climate change is a factor in the rise of groups like ISIL; severe drought in Syria helped spur the civil war that led to the rise of terrorist Islamic State. I hope the candidates get asked about this at the next debate.

Ben Carson noted his background as a doctor and a neurosurgeon several times. And yet, he didn’t echo the message of the medical community, who are strongly in favor of limits on pollution from power plants because elevated ozone and particulate air pollution is linked to asthma attacks, cardiovascular disease, and premature death.

Donald Trump and John Kasich seemed to be the most willing to say things that are unconventional among fellow candidates. Trump gave a shout-out to Canada for their single-payer health care system (not exactly a conservative talking point!). Kasich defended his decision to go against some in his own party and increase Medicaid enrollment in Ohio. I hope they will both be willing to part from their party’s extremists and call for a future in clean energy and a move away from dirty fuels.

Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio spoke about their experience being a leader in the state of Florida. But you can’t truly do a good job leading a state with 1,350 miles of coastline and millions of people who live next to the rising sea (and the hurricanes and storm surges can come with it) if you aren’t willing to acknowledge that humans are contributing to the problem and need to be part of the solution.

At the end of the debate, most of the candidates spoke about their religious convictions. From Pope Francis, to the Episcopal Church, to the many religious Americans of all denominations who believe it’s morally imperative we care for our planet and the most vulnerable people on it, there are good examples out there for these candidates to follow.

Overall, Fox News did a disservice to its viewers and to the candidates by not asking questions about climate change and a clean energy future. Once these candidates step off the friendly Fox News stage and into the real world, they will be asked about it by the American people. And right now, the contrast between what voters want and what GOP leaders are offering them is quite large. I think they can all do better.

Obama’s Got a Climate Plan, Where’s the GOP’s?

President Obama has developed a concrete and achievable plan for confronting the threat of climate change. In a powerful speech on Monday, he announced the first-ever national limits on carbon pollution from power plants and laid out how it will shield future generations from climate chaos, make the air safer to breathe and save Americans money on energy bills.

What plan have Republican leaders offered? Nothing. All we’ve heard are the same tired criticisms while Republican leaders in Congress work to block any and all action to attack climate change.

Their opposition to carbon pollution limits is to be expected: they’ve vowed to block them for months now. Several GOP presidential candidates used Monday’s announcement to pile on, with Senator Ted Cruz calling the Clean Power Plan “lawless and radical,” and Former Governor Jeb Bush implying that carbon pollution will take care of itself—no government action necessary.

Hearing GOP candidates attack a Democratic president’s policies is not surprising. What should be surprising—and alarming—is that not a single Republican leader has provided an alternative solution to the biggest environmental and humanitarian crisis of our time.

Some of these leaders, like Ted Cruz, are sticking with outright denial of the science. And they don’t seem to have noticed how far public opinion has moved.

I just got back from a family road trip through 15 states and a dozen national parks. Along the way, we met people from across the country. None of them talked about global climate change explicitly, but many spoke about personal concerns that explain where the support for climate action is coming from.

One family we ate with in Yellowstone was glued to their phones for updates about a wildfire approaching their home. A mom we met was in a panic because her son forgot his inhaler at the Bright Angel trail. Another family we spoke to in Minnesota feared they would lose their crops due to flooding. Others were worried about drought in their hometowns.

President Obama spoke about similar concerns in his speech on Monday. He focused on how climate change and air pollution can hit home—how people struggle to breathe during asthma attacks triggered by dirty air, how they worry about their cities flooding at high tide or during storms, and how they want to leave something better for their kids.

This is how most people talk about climate change. They express concern about what climate change means for their daily lives.

Candidates who want to win in 2016 must embrace climate action and explain how it will help real people in their daily lives.

Poll after poll shows that the vast majority of Americans want leaders to do something about those impacts. That includes a sizeable chunk of Republicans. A Yale University poll found that 56 percent of all GOP voters support limiting carbon pollution, with 54 percent of conservative Republicans and 74 percent of moderate Republicans especially likely to favor them. A late July poll commissioned by the NRDC Action Fund and League of Conservation Voters of likely GOP primary voters in New Hampshire and South Carolina showed that strong majorities say it is important that GOP candidates have a clean energy plan, and three quarters support their state submitting a plan to comply with the EPA’s Clean Power Plan.

In the midst of flooded streets and scorched homes, people look to leaders who envision a brighter future and offer a roadmap get there. President Obama has put forward a plan for addressing climate change, bringing good paying jobs to states across the nation and improving our families’ health.

The Republican Party has shown up empty-handed to the climate fight. That’s bad for our communities—and it’s bad for candidates who want to win in 2016.

Bobby Jindal Should Know Better

Bobby Jindal

As we struggle to keep pace with our reviews of the ever-widening 2016 presidential field, we are ready to talk about one of the latest contenders: Bobby Jindal. Jindal is the current governor of Louisiana and a former member of Congress. When it comes to energy and climate policy, the governor has done some hemming and hawing, but it’s clear his allegiance lies with the Big Polluter Agenda and those who deny the need to act.

(And, in case you’ve missed them, don’t forget to check out our recent posts on Jeb Bush, Rand Paul, Rick Perry, Ted Cruz, and Marco Rubio).

This Should Be Easy For Jindal

There are plenty of reasons to think Jindal might be particularly concerned about climate change given the state he governs and his own personal beliefs.

As the leader of Louisiana, he knows that memories of Hurricane Katrina still haunt residents of New Orleans. Effects of the BP oil spill still reverberate along the Gulf Coast. And the potential for future climate-related disaster is acute with predicted rises in sea level that would swap the coast, and science telling us that hurricanes will intensify while saltwater intrusion could harm the state’s agricultural industry. The costs could be in the billions as soon as 2030.

LA coast loss

As a Catholic, Jindal has surely heard Pope Francis’s calls to act on climate change as a moral issue. As Pope Francis said in his recent encyclical on the environment:

“Climate change is a global problem with grave implications: environmental, social, economic, political and for the distribution of goods. It represents one of the principal challenges facing humanity in our day.”

The need to act to protect Jindal’s home state and the world’s poor has never been clearer.

Still Skeptical

Yet, despite the strong case for action on climate change in Louisiana, Bobby Jindal just doesn’t see the big deal. Jindal has been a leader of the “I’m not a scientist” camp of lame defenses. Last September he said:

“It’s not controversial to say that human activity is contributing in some way. The question is how serious that is….I’d leave it to the scientists to decide how much, what it means, and what the consequences are…. Let the scientists debate and figure that out.”

Previously, he took it a step farther. According to reporting in the National Journal, in a meeting at the Heritage Foundation suggesting that the campaign to act on climate change is some sort of vast liberal conspiracy:

At Heritage, Jindal said that climate change is a “Trojan horse” for the Left’s plans to try and reshape the economy and people’s lives to their liking. “It’s an excuse for the government to come in and tell us what kind of homes we live in, what kind of cars we drive, what kind of lifestyles we can enjoy,” he said.

Note to Jindal: two-thirds of voters, including nearly half of Republicans surveyed, are more likely to vote for a candidate who acknowledges human-induced global warming is happening. Seventy-eight percent of voters think the government should limit global warming pollution. Americans are looking for leadership, not conspiracy theories.

Blocking Action

Jindal has done all he can as a state official to block President Obama and the Environmental Protection Agency from moving forward on actions that would limit harmful carbon pollution. As governor, Jindal’s Department of Natural Resources wrote against EPA’s finding that carbon pollution was a threat to public health. Jindal erroneously claimed that reducing carbon pollution would have “devastating consequences” for Louisiana’s economy and would result in “significantly higher energy prices.” In fact, the legislation being considered at the time would have cost a mere postage stamp per day and both it and the Clean Power Plan being considered now have far greater economic benefits than costs.

In addition, Jindal has griped about FEMA taking steps to ensure that climate change considerations are part of disaster planning. Jindal called this common-sense step, which will save money and save lives, a way to “force acquiescence to their left-wing ideology.”

(An aside: as a member of the House of Representatives, Jindal uncharacteristically voted in favor of a nonbinding resolution that endorsed the idea of mandatory limits on carbon pollution. In the context of his otherwise consistent opposition to climate action and his abysmal 6% LCV score, you almost wonder if this vote was a mistake.)

Drill, Baby, Drill

Well, we know Jindal doesn’t want to act on climate change. What does he want to do when it comes to our nation’s energy policy? Last September, Jindal released his blueprint for American energy policy and it fully echoes the Big Polluter Agenda. His top priority is more drilling for fossil fuels, including in our offshore areas and on public lands including in sensitive Arctic ecosystems, and building the Keystone XL pipeline to transport dirty tar sands oil. He also focuses on what he calls “eliminating burdensome regulations,” which, in my experience, is usually code for “eliminating public health protections.” In calling for “fundamental reforms” to bedrock environmental laws like the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), the Clean Air Act, and Clean Water Act, Jindal makes clear that protecting public health and the environment will not be his priority.

Time to Wake Up

When voters go to the polls next November, they will be looking for leadership. Americans see the consequences of climate change unfolding before their eyes. Bobby Jindal has seen some of the worst effects up close. The leader of his faith is calling for action. Yet, he still denies the need to act. He should know better.

Baron Hill Is Running for Senate. Will He Run Clean?

Indiana voters may have a chance to significantly change their state’s representation in Congress when they go to the polls next fall to elect a replacement for retiring senator Dan Coats. Coats, who returned to the Congress in 2010 after a break following nearly two decades of service, has earned himself the title of Dirty Air Villain. One declared candidate, Baron Hill, has the potential to be a Running Clean candidate who can speak up for Indianans who want to breathe cleaner air and who want action on climate.

Dan Coats’ Dirty Record

Dan Coats WVD

The open seat is currently occupied by Dan Coats, one of the dirtiest members of the Senate. Coats is a Dirty Air Villain in the database, having voted 100 percent of the time against clean air. He’s received $626,916 from polluting industries. While Coats has a not-terrible lifetime score of 25 percent with the League of Conservation Voters, Coats hasn’t cast a pro-environment vote since 1998.

Coats has been a leading climate denier in the Senate. As you can see from this January tweet, Coats seems to think climate change is a joke, not a serious problem deserving action.

Coats is an original cosponsor of the Capito Polluter Protection Act, which would derail EPA’s Clean Power Plan and halt important steps to address climate change. Coats has also worked to block limits on mercury pollution from coal-fired power plants, with a bill, an amendment and his votes.

Two declared candidates appear ready to follow in Coats’ footsteps. Eric Holcomb is Coats’ former Chief of Staff and has received Coats’ endorsement. Rep. Marlin Stutzman is a current member of congress, a Dirty Air Villain who has received $115,336 from polluters so far and who has a 7 percent lifetime score from LCV. I think it’s fair to assume these guys would pursue the Big Polluter Agenda.

Indiana can do better.

Baron Hill’s Record

Former congressman Baron Hill has announced he’ll run for the seat being vacated by Coats. During the 2010 election season we described Hill as having a “strong record” on the environment, pointing out his solid 86 percent rating from the League of Conservation Voters (LCV) and 93 percent rating from Environment America. Most importantly, Hill voted for the American Clean Energy and Security Act (ACES), a comprehensive energy and climate change bill that would have limited dangerous carbon pollution.

Hill didn’t just vote for the bill. He worked it, writing an op-ed in his hometown paper, improving the bill with an energy efficiency component, and making an argument that Pope Francis would probably approve:

“Look, folks: this is God’s green earth and we ought to respect it. We ought to do what is right for our environment. This bill is what’s right for our environment. This is God’s green earth and we ought to protect it.”

Hill is a Blue Dog Democrat from a coal-dependent state who was long considered a “maybe” on the climate bill. He could easily have opposed climate action as others in similar positions (like fellow Indiana Blue Dog and now-Senator Joe Donnelly) did. Hill didn’t do it. He did the hard work of getting to yes, finding ways to make the bill better for his state and his district and ending up on the right side of history. Some might say he lost his seat for it (though that’s not true, as post-election analysis of the 2010 results found “no overall effect” of voting for the bill compared with strong negative effects for other controversial legislation). But, he fought for what he believed was right and I like to think that voters will reward him for that next fall.

November 2016

Next fall, Hoosiers will decide what kind of senator to send to Washington. Will they send someone who will work to advance the Big Polluter Agenda? Or will they send someone with a history of running clean, working to advance protections for the state and its people? I can’t wait to see.