Democrats serving in local offices across the country say they’re finding themselves more liberated to talk about climate change and the environment.
Their messaging is being driven by mounting evidence of the effects of climate change in their districts and highly visible public figures who have tugged environmental issues into the mainstream.
“It feels a little bit like the way guns used to feel,” said Ross Morales Rocketto, co-founder of the progressive activist group Run for Something. “Back in the day, Democrats never felt they could touch guns. In the same way, Democrats are increasingly feeling like they can talk about climate issues without getting massive backlash for it.”
Nationally, 75% of registered voters think global warming is happening, according to Yale University’s Program on Climate Change Communication. That figure is the highest ever recorded by the Yale program and is 10 percentage points higher than it was five years ago.
Pennsylvania state Rep. Ryan Bizzarro (D) has seen the changes first-hand. Bizzarro has long been concerned about climate change, but he also represents Erie County, which supported President Donald Trump in the 2016 election and is home to many plastics and manufacturing jobs.
Yet Bizzarro has also found that voters are more open to at least hearing about climate change, in large part because of rising waters and beach erosion along the shores of Lake Erie.
“A lot of people’s opinions have changed,” he said. “Even if people don’t necessarily agree with it wholeheartedly, they’re more susceptible to having a more cordial dialogue and hearing the science behind global warming and climate change. They might not 100% agree, but at least you can have them sit down and talk about it.”
In Connecticut, state Rep. David Michel (D) is another beneficiary of the changing times. His district encompasses the coastal city of Stamford, and he said his constituents are growing increasingly worried about shoreline flooding and strong storms.
A longtime environmental activist, Michel was already outspoken about climate change in his first successful run for state office in 2018. Since then, Michel says he’s been emboldened by growing crowds at local climate rallies and a “broader understanding of the need to protect our oceans and biodiversity.”
As a result, he pledges to be even more aggressive in bringing legislation forward if he wins re-election in November, including bills to push for clean techniques in building out renewable energy, mandate green roofs in new construction, and promote coastal infrastructure retrofitting and remediation.
“The Green New Deal, along with the climate youth, have led, encouraged, and pushed progressive candidates to run on a climate change agenda,” said Michel, referring to the 2019 legislative blueprint (H.Res. 109, S. Res. 59) championed by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.).
Translating to Local Level
Florida state Rep. Anna Eskamani (D) said the climate rallies have given her a chance to talk to voters about energy policy in a new way.
“A lot of folks at the climate strikes would be talking about the Green New Deal. I would say, ‘I’m so glad you’re getting engaged in these issues. Do you know about House Bill 97?’” Eskamani said, referring to a state measure that died in March and that would have mandated 100% renewable energy in Florida by 2050.
“It was an opportunity to remind our activist community that it’s awesome to promote things at a national level, but we need your help right now in Florida,” Eskamani said.
The shift in government policies has also come with an increased trend of litigation over climate change. Several state and local governments, including in California, Maryland, Colorado, New York, Hawaii, and Rhode Island, have sued to seek to hold industry financially responsible for the local impacts of climate change.
‘Different Way of Talking’
Some down-ballot Democrats have adopted the same language that national figures use. In Maine, state Rep. Chloe Maxmin (D) sponsored a “Maine Green New Deal” that was signed into law in June 2019.
Maxmin’s Green New Deal focuses on job creation and renewable energy, meaning it’s not as sweeping as the one congressional Democrats have floated. But she still found it useful to borrow the name.
“Being in office, I’ve been able to talk about climate policy in a way that is coming from a rural, conservative community,” Maxmin said.
Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, said Democratic incumbents and candidates are experiencing a positive feedback loop from voters. When candidates talk about climate change, constituents get more engaged—which gives candidates room to talk about it even more, he said.
Not all climate-focused Democrats feel the same freedom. That’s especially true in red states like Kansas, where pocketbook issues rank as a far higher priority among voters than environmental issues.
Lindsey Constance (D), who’s running for the Kansas Senate, is a renewable energy advocate who co-founded an advocacy group called Climate Action KC. But in the solidly Republican 10th District outside of Kansas City, she says she focuses “hyper-locally” on issues like green streets, efficiency reductions, and food waste reduction.
“I’ve learned what people’s priorities are: health care, saving taxpayer dollars, making us more resilient to flooding. So I guess my approach is to focus on what I know people care about,” Constance said.
The same localized approach has worked for some Republicans seeking to focus on environmental issues.
For example, Craig Thurmond (R), mayor of Broken Arrow, Okla., recently instituted a curbside recycling program that diverts plastics from landfills. But the idea also had 82% support from residents, and Thurmond isn’t talking about big-picture environmental issues in his reelection bid.
It’s the same dynamic in Arizona, which is suffering from hotter summers, record droughts, and more wildfires—the increased incidence of which is linked to climate change.
“We don’t use the ‘climate change’ language here in Arizona,” said Chuck Coughlin, president of Phoenix-based political consulting firm HighGround Inc. “We use ‘drought’ and ‘water conservation,’ thereby avoiding the ideological battle.”