Recent Elections and Ballot Initiatives May Suggest A New Era of Environmental Interest is Dawning In U.S. Politics

The recent elections indicate a shifting momentum for environmental awareness in the electorateIn previous U.S. Elections, environmental concerns were largely absent, but this changed on Tuesday November 5, 2013. Ecological issues were an important part of Virginia’s Gubernatorial race, they were also the primary focus of a county council election in Washington and several ballot initiatives.  Taken together, these results may be indicative of changing attitudes. Voters showed their support for renewable energy, and better water management, they also stood up to the fossil fuel industry and won.

Virginia Gubernatorial Race

In Virginia, Terry McAuliffe’s win over Ken Cuccinelli bodes well for the state’s environmental efforts. These candidates presented two diametrically opposed visions of the environment and climate change. The differences between these two candidates underscores the contrast between Republicans and Democrats.

The policy differences between the two candidates for governor could not be more stark. McAuliffe expressed his support for the President’s climate change offensive, and repeatedly talked about the need to address environmental concerns. Conversely, Tea Party favorite Ken Cuccinelli received most of his financing from the fossil fuel industry and he ran on a platform that doubts the veracity of climate change.

While McAuliffe raised about $34 million, Cuccinelli was only able to raise $20 million. However, the real story here is not the discrepancy between the funds raised by these two men, it has more to do with where the funding came from. McAuliffe’s campaign was financed by environmental groups and concerned citizens.

Cuccinelli has enjoyed the support of the dirty energy industry for more than 12 years. In 2012, Cuccinelli’s office was accused of impropriety for helping a coal company which provided a $143,544 donation. The case was so egregious that the people of southwest Virginia launched a class-action lawsuit in which a state judge called the conduct of a senior member of Cuccinelli’s staff shocking. Even the State’s inspector general deemed the behavior to be inappropriate.

When a reporter from NBC Washington asked McAuliffe if he supported the new proposed guidelines on carbon pollution for new power plants, McAuliffe said: “I do. You bet. What I’ve looked at I support, what we need to do to protect our air and water.”

Rather than support the EPA, Cuccinelli sued them over their finding that carbon pollution posed a danger to human health. In 2012, the D.C. Court of Appeals found the EPA to be “unambiguously correct.”  This was not the only time Cuccinelli used the courts to advance an anti-environment agenda.

Cuccinelli is infamous for using his powers as attorney general to launch an unjustified attack against University of Virginia (UVA) climate scientist Michael Mann. During the campaign, McAuliffe railed against Cuccinelli’s attacks on Mann saying, “the fact that UVA was forced to spend $600,000 to defend itself from its own Attorney General is outrageous.”

While McAuliffe wants clean air and water and sees the economic merits of renewable energy, Cuccinelli denies basic climate science. A report from the Center for American Progress Action Fund suggested that Cuccinelli’s climate denial could have cost the state $45 billion and 314,000 Virginians jobs, if he were to have been elected.

Although Virginia is a conservative-leaning swing state, a Fall poll showed Cuccinelli was out of step with voters’ views on climate change and a range of other issues. Another poll found that 85 percent of Virginians think climate change is happening. A July poll found that 73 percent of young voters (18-35) associated people who deny climate change with words like “ignorant,” “out-of-touch” or “crazy.” That included 53 percent of Republican respondents. In the same poll, 80 percent of respondents supported President Obama’s Climate Action Plan, and 79 percent reported they were more likely to vote for a candidate who wanted to take action on climate change.

In response to the election, Virginia LCV’s executive director Jeff Painter said, “Voters sent a strong message tonight in support of Terry McAuliffe’s vision for Virginia’s renewable energy future and trusting him to appoint strong conservation leaders to his administration.”

Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune said in a statement, “the voters have spoken and a climate denier has been denied. By electing Terry McAuliffe, Virginians are sending a clear message: they want a leader who will stand up for good jobs and climate action, not an extremist who will stand with big polluters.”

Climate scientist Michael Mann succinctly summarized the sentiments of many when he wrote that he is “pleased that Virginia voters rejected his [Cuccinelli’s] dangerous brand of politics & his contempt for science & rational thought.”

New Jersey Gubernatorial Race

In New Jersey, Republican Chris Christie won as expected easily defeating Democratic nominee Barbara Buono. His take on climate change is far more nuanced than the GOP’s typical denial. Despite Christie’s exit from the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), in June 2011, he said that “climate change is occurring and that humans play a contributing role it’s time to defer to the experts.”  A point which he reiterated in the last campaign debate. However, Christie also said he does not believe there is any proof that Hurricane Sandy was caused by climate change. It would appear that Christie is playing politics with the climate issue as he knows that many in his base are deniers. It has been widely reported that Christie will seek the GOP Presidential nomination in 2016. He may be straddling the fence on the climate issue in anticipation of a change in public attitudes. This may also explain why he regularly distances himself from his Republican colleagues.

New York City Mayoral Election

Bill de Blasio was elected in New York City making him the first Democratic mayor of that city since 1993. This bodes well for action on climate adaptation efforts in one of the world’s largest cities. While neither candidate focused on climate change during the campaign, de Blasio is very progressive and as such he is expected to continue Mayor Bloomberg’s proactive stance on adaptation.

County Council Election in Washington

Four candidates opposed to coal exports defeated their Republican aligned opponents and won seats on the seven member Whatcom County Council in Washington State. The newly elected County Council will resist the proposed building of a gateway that would have shipped 48 million tons of coal to Asia. Anti-coal forces won in the county despite opposition from coal umbrella groups like the Alliance for Northwest Jobs and Exports.

“Tonight, the people of Whatcom County stood up to hundreds of thousands of dollars in big polluter cash to secure a victory for a healthy future for our communities, our families and our planet,” said Natalie McLendon, a Sierra Club volunteer leader in Bellingham, WA.

Colorado’s Fracking Ballot Initiative

Three out of four towns in Colorado said no to fracking. Colorado voters in Boulder, Lafayette and Fort Collins agreed to impose a fracking moratorium despite almost one million dollars spent on city specific campaigns by Colorado Oil and Gas Association. In Broomfield, the anti-fracking measure failed by just 13 votes.

Boulder, Colorado Utility Ballot Initiative

In two ballot initiatives, voters in Boulder cleared the way for the city to take control of its own electric grid. One ballot initiative enables the city to incur debt to buy Xcel Energy’s infrastructure and the other kept the city on the path to municipalization which will enable the city to create its own utility and increase its reliance on renewable energy. The win for renewable energy comes in spite of a million-dollar campaign waged by Xcel.

“We made it really clear that this issue is about our environmental and economic future,” Boulder Mayor Matt Appelbaum said.

Texas Water Ballot Initiative

A Texas Water Ballot initiative gave the state the right to amend the constitution and invest in better water management. The $2 billion investment will come from the state’s rainy day fund and be poured into a water bank that will finance water planning projects.

Portland, Maine Tar Sands Ballot

By a slim margin of only 200 votes, South Portland, Maine residents narrowly defeated (4,453 to 4,261) a ballot initiative intended to prevent the export of Canadian tar sands oil. A grassroots coalition was defeated by a group of oil companies and affiliates who outspent them by a margin of nearly six to one.

“It is clear to all of us why this vote played out why the vote was so close: oil companies and the American Petroleum Institute poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into South Portland, in one of the biggest expenditures on a local referendum in Maine history,” Pohlmann continued. “This money was used to fund a relentless campaign that spread misinformation and fear.”

Despite the loss, they are not yet ready to capitulate to big oil. Led by Mayor Blake, the council voted for a 180-day moratorium banning new construction on the piers.

Adirondacks Land Swap Ballot Initiative

Voters across New York state approved amendments to the state Constitution clearing the way for land swaps in the Adirondack Park. The ballot initiative authorized the state to exchange a 200 acre old-growth forest preserve for land of equivalent value from mining company NYCO Minerals. After NYCO’s mining of wollastonite is completed, the land will then be returned to the state.

With voters showing their support for a wide range of ecologically themed initiatives, the environment was the big winner on Tuesday night.  Overall, these elections and ballot initiatives suggest that there is growing support for environmental concerns in the U.S.  These results give us reason to believe that democracy can withstand the powerful influence of the old energy interests. We may very well be witnessing the beginnings of changing public attitudes.

“Public opinion polls across the country show that the call from voters for clean energy and climate action is loud and clear—now, its time our political leaders listen,” Brune said. ”Those running for office now must choose whether they stand with solutions or whether they stand in the way. The climate crisis won’t wait, and neither will we.”

These elections and the outcomes of the ballot initiatives can be interpreted as a referendum on the changing environmental attitudes of American voters.
Richard Matthews is a consultant, eco-entrepreneur, green investor and author of numerous articles on sustainable positioning, eco-economics and enviro-politics. He is the owner of The Green Market Oracle, a leading sustainable business site and one of the Web’s most comprehensive resources on the business of the environment. Find The Green Market on Facebook and follow The Green Market’s twitter feed.

Image credit: Steve Wall, courtesy flickr 

Richard Matthews
Richard Matthews
Richard Matthews is a consultant, eco-entrepreneur, sustainable investor, and writer. He is the owner of THE GREEN MARKET, one of the Web’s most comprehensive resources on the business of the environment. He is also the author of numerous articles on sustainable positioning, green investing, enviro-politics, and eco-economics.

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