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Green Leftists Prepare to Give Democratic Candidates Hell

Even progressives like Elizabeth Warren and Jay Inslee are facing skepticism from climate activists.

Becker1999/Flickr

On Tuesday, two days after Elizabeth Warren announced her candidacy for president, an aide gave a statement to Axios that suggested the Massachusetts senator intends to court the green-leftist vote: “Senator Warren has been a longtime advocate of aggressively addressing climate change and shifting toward renewables, and supports the idea of a Green New Deal to ambitiously tackle our climate crisis, economic inequality, and racial injustice.”

But for some environmentalists, this rather anodyne statement was cause for concern, not celebration: She only supports the idea of a Green New Deal?

Those words are a worrying caveat, said RL Miller, political director of the super PAC Climate Hawks Vote, who noted that Warren hasn’t signed the Green New Deal’s pledge not to accept campaign donations from fossil fuel companies. “This will be our litmus test,” Miller said. “You don’t sign on to this, we don’t support you, period, full stop.”

Miller isn’t alone in her skepticism. Jack Clarke, the policy director at Mass Audubon, recently told E&E News that Warren “does not have a record of advocacy and leadership on climate change issues.” The news outlet surveyed the climate community about Warren’s record, and activists “struggled to name a climate issue on which the senator has made a name for herself.”

Make no mistake: Warren has a strong environmental record. She has near-perfect lifetime score from the League of Conservation Voters, and last year introduced a bill that would require public companies to disclose climate-related business risks. The fact that climate activists are hesitant to embrace the top progressives of the 2020 field shows how much the politics of climate change have shifted since 2016. The green vote matters more than ever—and it will be harder than ever to win it.

It’s no longer enough to repeatedly declare that global warming is real, or even to make the issue central to your campaign, as senators Bernie Sanders and Jeff Merkley reportedly will do if they run for president. Even declaring that climate change is your top priority might not be enough. Earlier this week, when he effectively announced his candidacy in an interview with The Atlantic, Washington Governor Jay Inslee made clear what his top priority would be: He called climate change “the defining challenge of our time,” adding that there’s a “need for a presidential candidate who will put fighting climate change front and center. This is our legacy.”

Inslee is already being called the “climate candidate,” and perhaps rightly so. Unlike potential candidates such as senators Bernie Sanders, Cory Booker, and Kamala Harris, “Inslee is the only one who has actually run a government that has made climate-change policy central,” The Atlantic noted:

He was elected governor in 2012 and has, without much national notice, pursued arguably the most progressive and greenest agenda in the country, with fields of solar panels, fleets of electric buses, and massive job growth to show for it. And years before anyone was tweeting about the “Green New Deal,” Inslee wrote a climate-change book while he was in Congress: Apollo’s Fire, a 2007 blueprint for how much economic and entrepreneurial opportunity there is in saving the planet.

And yet, even Inslee is not immune to criticism from the environmental left. “Where’s the racial justice component in his overall climate approach?” asked Anthony Rogers-Wright, the deputy director of RegeNErate Nebraska. Miller is concerned that Inslee might approve a $2 billion methanol refinery in Washington, a controversial project which green groups say would “fuel the climate catastrophe [Inslee] is supposed to help curb, not escalate.”

These are the sorts of questions that climate activists are itching to ask in the upcoming primary season—and they may finally have the leverage to demand specific, unconditional answers.

At lot has changed since the 2016 election, when global warming barely featured in the televised debates. Last year brought record-breaking extreme weather that caused billions of dollars worth of damage across the country and world, and scientists sounded more alarmed than ever. The most frightening report, released by the United Nations in October, said the world only has about a decade to rein in emissions before irreversible catastrophic impacts begin.

Meanwhile, President Trump is withdrawing the U.S. from the Paris climate accord and is in the process of rolling back nearly a dozen climate regulations. A report in The New York Times this week showed how these moves present an opportunity for Democrats. An Indiana county that voted overwhelmingly for Trump has seen a rash of childhood cancer, and recent tests at an old industrial site revealed “a carcinogenic plume spreading underground, releasing vapors into homes.” The specific chemical—trichloroethylene, or TCE—is one for which Trump wants to weaken restrictions.

The increasingly dire news about global warming, and Trump’s furious assault on climate regulations, have turned the issue into one of the top priorities among Democratic voters. As the party’s base shifts left, it’s demanding more aggressive positions from politicians—and applying more aggressive tactics against politicians who don’t. Nearly 150 activists were arrested in one of two protests the Sunrise Movement held at the U.S. Capitol late last year, where they demand that Democrat leaders like Nancy Pelosi explicitly support the specifics of a Green New Deal.

“In 2020, people are going to be actually listening intently to what Democrats have to say about climate change,” Rogers-Wright said. “And there are gonna be some people running who have some explaining to do.” Stephen O’Hanlon, Sunrise’s communications director, said the group is “focused on pushing all the candidates to back the Green New Deal and reject fossil fuel money, which is the minimum they need to do in order to be taken seriously by our generation.”

The 2020 candidates are all vulnerable in one way or another. Warren is far from the only potential Democratic presidential candidate who hasn’t signed the pledge; Booker, Harris, Inslee, and O’Rourke haven’t as well. In O’Rourke’s case, he had signed the pledge while running his unsuccessful Senate campaign against Ted Cruz, but was removed after it was revealed that he accepted $430,000 from oil and gas industry employees. That’s a potential deal-breaker for some. “Solving climate change requires essentially dismantling the fossil fuel industry,” Rogers-Wright said. “How can we expect you’re going to dismantle a group that’s investing in you?”

But being the leftmost Democrat on climate change is no guarantee of support, either. Merkley has signed the no-fossil-fuels pledge, and has been a leader in introducing climate legislation in the Senate, but Rogers-Wright questioned his effectiveness. “You have to do so much more than have the policy to solve the climate crisis,” he said. “It will require a lawmaker who is skilled at bringing people together and holding people together, and I don’t know that Merkley has those chops.”

So who is leading the pack, as far as climate activists are concerned?

“I’m not sure anyone is really excited [about the 2020 field] yet,” said Miller of Climate Hawks Vote. O’Hanlon said that Sunrise has met with staffers from a number of potential candidates, “and right now don’t have a favorite.”

That’s not surprising, given the early stage of the race. The question is whether any candidate will do enough to satisfy some activists. As Rogers-Wright noted, the Democratic Party has not developed a plan to significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions. “Sure, they believe in [climate change],” Rogers-Wright said. “But as it pertains to acting on it, they’ve been anemic at best.”

In fact, none of the potential Democratic candidates—aside from Sanders, who ran in 2016—has released such a plan, either. But there is time yet for that, and pressure from environmentalists may well compel them to do so. As Miller said, This is finally going to be the climate election that we’ve been waiting for.”