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Glocal Warming

Global Warming Is on the Local Ballot This Year

A new crop of primary challengers is mobilizing voters by pointing to Hurricane Sandy, Lake Mead, and other local climate concerns.

Amy Vilela speaks into a megaphone.
Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call, Inc/Getty Images
Democratic candidate for U.S. Congress Amy Vilela speaks at a gun violence protest in May.

“Las Vegas is the fastest warming, fastest growing city in the country,” reads Amy Vilela’s campaign website, “and we’re rapidly running out of water. We need a Green New Deal now.” Vilela, a progressive challenging a centrist Democrat for Congress in an upcoming primary, has been emphasizing the vulnerability of her district to climate change.

She’s not alone. This midterm year, some progressive Democrats are betting that contrary to conventional wisdom, the climate crisis may mobilize voters in November. They may be right to ignore the consultants on this one. Off-year elections provide a particularly opportune time to reach the public, because they encourage a turn from the more abstract national and global to the local, which is closer to voters’ day-to-day experience. And this could be particularly good for climate politics—because while the climate crisis can feel abstract and theoretical at the global level, its local effects are concrete, perceivable, and urgent. This year offers a chance for politicians to talk with voters about how climate affects their own lives and landscapes.

“Here is Las Vegas, we don’t have the luxury of ignoring the climate crisis,” Vilela told me, explaining that Lake Mead has been reduced to 30 percent of its water capacity, the lowest since the reservoir was created in 1935 as part of the original New Deal. “People can see how low our water is getting,” Vilela said. She is running what she calls a “climate-first campaign,” while, she says, her opponent, incumbent Democrat Dina Titus, not only doesn’t support the Green New Deal but has introduced a developer-backed giveaway of public lands that will expand the size—and emissions—of the already warming and water-threatened city of Las Vegas unsustainably. It would be, Vilela said, the equivalent of adding another city the size of St. Louis onto this already parched desert. Titus’s office did not respond to a request for comment on this story.

In another congressional race, across the country in New York, Brittany Ramos DeBarros is battling centrist Max Rose in a Democratic primary, and the winner will challenge incumbent Nicole Malliotakis, a far-right Republican who voted against certifying the results of the 2020 election, even after the January 6, 2021, mayhem at the Capitol. DeBarros often emphasizes that Staten Island, an important part of her district, is still recovering from Hurricane Sandy, as well as the more recent Hurricane Ida. Both Staten Island and South Brooklyn (also in the district) are particularly vulnerable during climate-related disasters; every time there is a storm, DeBarros says, “we’re getting buckets and bailing out our basements.” More than half the people who died during Hurricane Sandy were Staten Island residents. And it’s not just an accident of location. The built environment contributes to the vulnerability of people living there; DeBarros says these are some of the areas with the weakest infrastructure, whether in drainage systems or housing stock. That fact is so politically salient that even Malliotakis voted for the most recent infrastructure bill, drawing Trump’s ire.

These new challengers are targeting incumbents who have conspicuously failed to vote for climate and infrastructure policy that would help their districts prepare. Oregon’s 5th district candidate Jamie McLeod Skinner beat centrist incumbent Kurt Schrader, who opposed Build Back Better but retained the support of Biden and the rest of the party leadership, in a May primary. Skinner talks about climate change from the perspective of an emergency responder who has been helping the region cope with (and prevent) wildfires. The district is now a bit more conservative due to redistricting, so Skinner could face a competitive general election.

Meanwhile in South Texas, where the collapse of the power grid cost hundreds of lives during the Great Texas Freeze of 2021, Green New Deal supporter Jessica Cisneros came so close to beating conservative Democrat Henry Cuellar last month that she has asked for a recount. Cisneros campaigned on the thoroughly preventable 2021 blackouts, while attacking Cuellar’s record as “Big Oil’s favorite Democrat.” Cuellar has received hundreds of thousands of dollars from the industry and has the worst environmental record of any Democrat. He, too, was supported by party leadership.

Opinion research supports this emphasis on the local, suggesting that the “global” warming frame may always have been flawed. Pew found last year that a majority of Americans say climate change is affecting their local community. And around the world, it’s clear that more people are driven to activism by local environmental threats than by the global crisis alone. People in upstate New York organize to protect their drinking water against fracking; Ecuadorians to protect mangrove forests; people in Niger against the oil companies ravaging their natural resources. A 2012 study of coastal Ghanaiansmany of whom face air and water pollution, as well as declining soil quality and fisheries—found that almost all of them had an opinion about local environmental conditions, while only about half had an opinion about global environmental conditions.

As we recently explored, significant numbers of environmentalists aren’t voting; getting these people to the polling stations could make a difference. In fact, it could be key not only to winning the midterm elections but to ensuring better climate policy. Environmentalists with local concerns might be more likely to vote for candidates who are serious about the issue and not funded by the fossil fuel industry.

Data on public opinion makes it easier than ever to guess what kinds of messages on climate might work locally. The Yale Center on Climate Communication creates maps and fact sheets on every congressional district and metro area in the country, showing how people answered specific climate questions. Almost half (49 percent) of respondents in Nicole Malliotakis’s district—as well as in Henry Cuellar’s district in South Texas—say they have experienced the effects of the climate crisis personally.

Of course, climate’s resonance with voters—or even potential voters—is not the only reason for progressives to talk about the issue in the midterms. Climate could be a winning issue, but even if it isn’t, emphasizing it in electoral campaigns—which remains one of the best ways to reach large numbers of people—helps scare the fossil fuel–owned incumbents and build a more environmentally conscious majority for the future. More immediately, the climate crisis has what political insiders call “intensity”: Even if it doesn’t sway everyone’s vote, climate mobilizes those people who do care about the issue, generating volunteers and money, all of which does help win elections, usually more than policy nuances. Vilela says in her district, her opponent’s seat has been safely Democratic for a long time, but there’s been “an enthusiasm gap,” and voter turnout is much higher in the adjacent Republican district. Addressing working-class people’s need for good jobs and a clean environment could help.

Brittany Ramos DeBarros is making the same bet. She says her campaign’s surveys and door conversations have found widespread support for a Green New Deal, even from voters identifying as conservative. People respond to, and have great ideas for, what a Green New Deal could do for their underinvested area; DeBarros says constituents’ ideas include a “powerful green maritime economy” because of its waterfront location, as well as better transportation to lessen reliance on cars and investment in jobs on the island to reduce commuting itself.

Staying focused on how the climate crisis has been hurting people in her district—and inviting constituents to envision how its solutions could improve their lives—allows DeBarros to avoid some of the knee-jerk culture wars that environmentalism can provoke, she says. “These millionaires are bought and paid for by the ultrawealthy and don’t care whether we live or die,” she says of her opponents. That message, she adds, laughing, “allows me to engage with people across the political spectrum.”