Democrats Need a Candidate Who Will Talk Straight About the Planet's Future

The 2020 primary will be about Trump and healthcare, but Democrats will also need to confront environmental issues from clean water to climate change.

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Feb 15 2019, 5:00am

Protesters in New York in 2018 blocking the entrance to a Chase bank to call attention to banks' role in climate change. Photo by Michael Nigro/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty

Ask Kathy Sullivan, a former chairwoman of the New Hampshire Democratic Party, what issues will be critical in the state’s presidential primary race, and the first thing she mentions is healthcare—the issue that has dominated Democratic policy conversations for years and was a flashpoint when Barack Obama was squaring off against Hillary Clinton in 2008. Immediately after that, though, she mentions the climate.

“Climate change has gotten bigger and bigger and bigger as the reality is finally starting to wake people up,” she says.

The environment has rarely been a top-tier issue in US political debates, and 2020 contenders have so far spent more time focusing on economic inequality and poverty. But conversations with local party stalwarts who will help voters choose the nominee in a series of statewide contests suggest that that could be changing. The climate, environmental justice, water pollution, and other green issues seem to be among the biggest issues on many minds.

Polls suggest that an increasing portion of the electorate is worried about the environment. Gallup found last year that 62 percent of Americans think the government is doing too little on the environment, the highest rate in 12 years. Pew reported that 59 percent say climate change is already affecting their local communities. An annual survey that tracks concern over the climate found that 72 percent of Americans said that the issue was “personally important” to them, and 56 percent said their family would be harmed by climate change. Among Democrats, 10 percent named the environment as the single top issue in a November IPSOS poll—putting it on par with the economy and above crime, education, or immigration, although well below healthcare. And environmental issues are particularly salient for young and Latinx voters—two groups that are important and growing parts of the Democratic base.

Antjuan Seawright, a Democratic political strategist in South Carolina, says candidates heading to early primary and caucus states are hearing a lot about local environmental issues, which go beyond the problem of the earth getting hotter. When candidate Cory Booker visited the city of Denmark in early February, locals told him about a potentially dangerous chemical that the city water system had injected into a municipal well. Elsewhere, Seawright says, communities are sounding alarms about contaminated soil and other environmental health hazards.

“The issues are being brought more to the forefront than four years ago,” he says. “When you have candidates traveling across the country to all these places, they’re saying, ‘What are you going to do to fix it if you want our vote?’”



Rural Iowa has its own water quality issues, with agricultural runoff polluting local waterways. Measures to address the problem have been a major statewide issue over the past year. Susie Petra, who has been a progressive Democratic activist in the state since the 1980s, says that while environmentalism isn’t necessarily at the top of the party’s list of concerns, it’s a big deal to her and to many of the grassroots progressives she knows.

“I just think we need to understand what we’re leaving people as far as this earth goes, water goes,” she says.

Rae Breaux, director of the People and Planet First program for the group People’s Action, thinks there’s some truth to the idea that climate change isn’t the kind of bread-and-butter issue that typically moves regular voters. “'I’m a climate voter' is still not a top thing that people connect with,” she says.

But Breaux adds that activist organizations like People’s Action—which is planning candidate forums for Democratic 2020 contenders in Iowa, New Hampshire, and Nevada in the fall—have found voters get more interested in climate change when they see how it connects with day-to-day problems in their lives. When a Peace Action affiliate group in Colorado went knocking on people’s doors to talk about fracking, they found only limited concern about the long-term effects of dependence on fossil fuels.

“Everyone at the door was like, ‘Yeah, yeah, I know. But also I think our water is poisoned. Is there something you can do to help us on that?’” Breaux says.

So the group developed a campaign looking at levels of lead and other pollutants in the drinking water. Similarly, Breaux says, many people worry about the cost of electricity, the danger of floods and fires, or air pollution from power plants—which contribute to high levels of asthma in many black, brown, and poor communities. Breaux says it’s easy to draw connections between these local problems and climate change. For example, warming temperatures will exacerbate shortages of clean water in many areas, while the same refineries that use huge amounts of energy also produce lead pollution.

“Even though the issues feel very different, the root cause is parallel,” Breaux says.

Right now, the national conversation about environmental issues centers largely on the Green New Deal, the comprehensive framework for addressing climate change championed by Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and supported by 2020 contenders including Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Kristen Gillibrand. The proposal looks to circumvent the longstanding political tactic of pitting jobs growth against environmental protection by proposing the creation of an enormous number of well-paid green jobs.

As conversations around the Green New Deal evolve, Breaux says groups like People’s Action are watching with interest. To fulfill its ambitious goals of averting climate disaster and promoting economic justice, she adds, it would need to focus strongly on justice for communities most affected by climate change and other environmental problems. Already, though, the simple fact that politicians are talking about a big environmental plan is a positive step for activists concerned with all these issues.

“It is giving me a lot of hope, just the way it has broken through the national conversation,” Breaux says.

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