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The Rise of the No-Compromise Climate Candidate

The Rise of the No-Compromise Climate Candidate

When the
New York state legislature approved the Climate Leadership and Community
Protection Act, or CLCPA, in 2019,
The New York Times called it “one of the world’s most ambitious
climate plans.” It seemed as if the state was finally going to tackle climate change, sparing
New Yorkers a future filled with the kind of devastation they experienced
during Hurricanes Irene and Sandy.

to that of other states, New York’s climate policy is relatively ambitious. But
organizers say even New York isn’t moving fast enough. And in a time when
voters across the country are experiencing the catastrophic effects of climate
change firsthand, many are running out of patience with elected officials who
fail to grasp the enormity of the crisis. Unsatisfied with three-year-old
targets the state is not on track to meet, a new crop of candidates in New York say passing climate legislation that
matches the scale of the crisis is their top priority. And they’re joining a
larger wave of climate candidates, stretching all the way to states like
Kentucky and  Florida, who believe their
communities deserve leaders who will treat climate like the life-and-death
issue it is—even in places as hostile to climate action as the Kentucky state legislature.

In New
York, a coalition of climate justice organizations known as Climate Can’t Wait
urging the legislature to pass 12 climate bills before the legislative session
ends in early June. (As of this writing, only the Cumulative Impacts Act, which requires environmental impact statements to
address the effects of certain facilities on disadvantaged communities, has
passed both houses and
is awaiting the governor’s signature.) Organizers are still pushing for
the All-Electric
Building Act, which would allow permits for the construction of new
buildings to be issued only if they’ll be all-electric after 2023; the Clean Futures Act,
which would prohibit the development of any
major new electric generating facilities that would be powered by fossil fuels;
and the Build Public Renewables Act, or BPRA, which would enable the New York
Power Authority to build affordable renewable energy to meet New York’s climate

Eisenberg, an activist with Public Power New York,
a coalition of environmental groups devoted to passing the BPRA, said “the
entire climate movement” is united behind the Climate Can’t Wait package. “Yet [the
state legislature] is at most thinking of trying to move one or two of these
bills, because they think that’s the level of necessity they need to show at
this time.”

David Alexis, 33, a climate organizer from Flatbush,
Brooklyn, who is challenging New
York State Senator and Energy Committee Chair Kevin Parker, has attributed the
urgency he feels to the blackouts and flooding his community experienced in the
wake of Hurricane Ida, high rates of respiratory illnesses, and his own
daughters’ asthma. (I spent an afternoon
collecting signatures to get Alexis on the ballot.)

Sarahana Shrestha, 41, is a first-generation immigrant from
Nepal running for a New York State Assembly seat in the mid-Hudson Valley. An intense ice storm hit
her district in February, leaving
more than 60,000 households and businesses without
power for days amid freezing temperatures. Initially an activist, she was so
frustrated with her elected officials that she decided to run for office herself. Her opponent, Kevin
Cahill, has held his seat since 1998. While
organizing with Public Power New York, Shrestha met with a number of legislators
who, she said, “appeared to have a tough time” seeing the democratization of
the state’s energy system as an urgent priority. Legislators like Cahill, she
present themselves as climate champions while taking money from the fossil fuel
industry and refusing to back bills like the BPRA. “I decided to run because
time is running out,” she said, and “we need organizers in office, especially
climate organizers, who really understand the scale of the issue.”

The rise of these candidates is
often attributed to a generational shift: Younger people supposedly care more
about these issues because the crisis will affect a larger portion of their
lives. (We often hear about those driven by climate despair to forgo parenthood
entirely.) And some examples do seem to support that thesis: At 28, Jessica
Cisneros, an immigration
lawyer running on a climate-focused platform for a congressional seat in South
Texas, is young, especially compared to
her 66-year-old opponent and most of Congress.

But many of these candidates
are, like Alexis and Shrestha, in their thirties and forties: old enough to remember Al
Gore connecting global
to the heat waves, droughts,
flash floods, and forest fires already ravaging the United States in the 1990s and desperate to
protect their own and other families from
the disasters we’re already experiencing and those yet to come.

for these candidates is partly driven by frustration with the fossil fuel
industry’s grip on many incumbents. Cisneros’s opponent, Henry Cuellar, took $157,000 from the oil and gas industry in the 2021–22 election cycle. As of November
2021, he was the fourth-biggest
recipient of oil and gas campaign contributions in the House
of Representatives in that cycle.

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Activists’ emphasis on fossil
fuel donations represents a shift from other metrics environmental groups have
used to evaluate candidates. Cuellar, for example, received a score of 91 percent on the
League of Conservation Voters’ 2021 scorecard, which assesses how members of
Congress have voted on environmental issues. But
“if you want to know where somebody’s going to go,” Leah Greenberg,
co-executive director of the progressive organization Indivisible told me,
“look at where their money is coming from.” Indivisible has endorsed Cisneros. “The first and most obvious contrast” between
Cisneros and Cuellar, Greenberg said, is Cisneros’s refusal to take fossil fuel

Even in
states where environmentalists have been fighting an uphill battle for decades,
there are signs of change. In 2021, teacher and organizer Richie Floyd won an election
for an open seat on the City Council of St. Petersburg, the fifth most populous
city in Florida. He became the first
open socialist elected in the state in a century
, in part by emphasizing St. Petersburg’s need to be
better prepared for climate change; in addition to pledging to
“aggressively” transition the city to 100 percent renewable energy, he vowed to upgrade
its sewage system to curb the pollution contributing to the area’s infamous red

LeVertis Bell, a 42-year-old public school teacher and father of three running to
represent a district that includes the city of Louisville in the Kentucky House
of Representatives, told me most politicians don’t bother talking to his
community about climate change. But when he brings it up, he sees a lot of
heads nodding in agreement. “People fear for their
lives,” he said.  “People fear for their
children’s lives.… I’ve talked to some of the voters in some of the not-wealthy
neighborhoods in the city of Louisville, and they get it.… They saw the tornadoes
in Kentucky last year. They see these ‘hundred-year’ floods that happen every
few years; many of them live right by the river. They’re concerned. They’re not
stupid. They just haven’t been engaged in any way.” 

Part of the problem, Bell added, is the way some
progressives approach the issue. “When I talk to [voters in my district] about
climate, I don’t say, ‘The solution to this issue is that everybody is going to
need to buy a $60,000 electric vehicle’ … or, ‘Give your money to the Sierra Club, and they’ll figure it out for us.’ I say, ‘This is something that we all have
to work together to fight, not as consumers, but as people in the community, as
workers, as voters, etc.’” Especially in the summer, temperatures in his
district are soaring. Some of his constituents are older people afraid of what
will happen if their air conditioner goes out when it’s over 100 degrees. “We’re
expecting these 110-degree summers for the foreseeable future,” he said. “People
are legitimately afraid that this is going to kill them.” 

Bell knows what he’s up against in a state like Kentucky.
“Getting ambitious legislation passed or even defending mainline Democratic
national priorities is a tall, tall climb,” he said. “We’re still having to
struggle to defend basic abortion rights. We’re still having to struggle to protect
our ability to teach Black history in schools; these are things that my friends
and colleagues and comrades in New York City are not having to deal with when
they go to Albany.” Still, he added, “we’re playing defense, but we also have to
play some offense too.”

in the promised land of an Andrew Cuomo–free Albany with a veto-proof Democratic supermajority, Bell’s New York
colleagues are fighting battles of their own. Some hoped Governor Kathy Hochul
would be a better climate ally after Governor Cuomo, who said in 2014 that
he didn’t want to get into “a political debate” about the causes of climate
change, resigned in disgrace. But Hochul’s 2022
budget excluded crucial climate legislation, including the BPRA. Pete
Sikora, climate and inequality campaigns director at New York Communities for Change, told me
he considers it a plus that Hochul is “not a psycho” and her staff are
“not the threatening, bullying crazoids that were Team Cuomo.” But in terms of
“actual policy and substantive differences,” he added, “so far the same problem
obtains, where there’s a ton of rhetoric about the vital nature of climate
action—‘It’s an existential threat, we can’t ignore this problem’—and then they
don’t back that up with requirements or money at the scale of the crisis.”

its own law, New York only has until 2030 to increase the share
of its electricity
that is generated from
wind, sun, and water to 70 percent. As of November 2021, that figure was less
than 30 percent. Aside from the 55 state legislators who signed a letter in December calling on
Hochul to include the BPRA in her budget, Albany hasn’t
seemed too worried about this discrepancy

As the climate crisis worsens, not just veteran environmental activists but scores of new demonstrators and voters are tired of waiting for their representatives to act. People of all ages—from
the 80-year-old climate activist

weeks ago in Queens to the septuagenarians and nonagenarians arrested at climate

in recent years, to the twenty-, thirty-, and fortysomething candidates running for office
nationwide and the kids who walked out of school en masse in 2019—understand
what’s at stake. Time may be up for the government officials who don’t.

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