Green Groups See 2020 as Climate Change's Time in the Sun

The Green New Deal and a broad Democratic field, including climate-focused candidate Jay Inslee, should invite more attention.

Democratic presidential candidate Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, second from right, speak during a Columbia Climate Strike rally at Columbia University, Friday March 15, 2019, in New York. "When we see young people taking action we need to listen to them, said Inslee. This is a moment to build a clean energy economy."
AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews
March 20, 2019, 8 p.m.

After not drawing a single question in the eight debates over the last two presidential general elections, the climate-change issue may finally be having its moment, environmental groups hope.

Climate change is expected to be a marquee topic of discussion over the next year, as more than a dozen Democrats contend for the party’s nomination to take on President Trump.

A recent CNN poll found that 80 percent of likely Iowa caucus-goers believe primary candidates should talk “a lot” about climate change. And an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found 56 percent of voters think the Democratic Party’s views on climate change “are within the mainstream,” while 63 percent say the Republican Party’s position is “outside the mainstream.”

For Kevin Curtis, executive director of the Natural Resources Defense Council Action Fund, it’s been a long time coming.

“I’ve got gray hair, and I’ve been at this fight for a while,” Curtis said. “I want to celebrate the moment and I’m encouraging everybody to celebrate the moment, because climate change has been a pressing issue, but it feels like the political system is now recognizing that.”

The Green New Deal, an ambitious outline of economic programs to address climate change unveiled last month by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Sen. Ed Markey of Massachusetts, pushed the issue into the mainstream conversation.

Then earlier this month, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee announced for president and declared climate change as the singular focus of his campaign. “Our country’s next mission must be to rise up to the most urgent challenge of our time: defeating climate change,” he declared in his announcement video.

At this very early juncture in the process and with such a large field of Democrats, major environmental advocacy groups have no immediate plans to endorse Inslee or anyone else. Groups including the Sierra Club, the League of Conservation Voters, and the Natural Resources Defense Council, who have no history of backing a contender at this point in the race, want to keep up the pressure on all of the candidates.

Last cycle, when Hillary Clinton was the obvious front-runner for the nomination, the LCV gave her its earliest-ever endorsement in November 2015. The NRDC endorsed Clinton as well, though it was the first time it had ever endorsed a presidential candidate. The Sierra Club didn’t get behind Clinton until June 2016, right after she locked down the nomination.

Inslee, speaking to reporters Wednesday after keynoting the American Council on Renewable Energy’s policy forum, said he isn’t focusing on or counting on backing from those groups.

“We’ve got a good response everywhere we’ve gone—where I met entrepreneurs in Nevada doing solar, and wind energy in Iowa, and people in New Hampshire understanding climate change big-time with sea-level rises,” he said. “So we’re getting a good response.”

Jared Leopold, senior communications adviser to Inslee, said the candidate “looks forward to more endorsements as this movement grows.”

Curtis said that his group will “absolutely celebrate” a candidate like Inslee, who’s got a track record on climate issues, but that it would “hurt the issue” for major environmental advocacy groups to get behind Inslee right now.

“I want to create a virtuous cycle where these folks are saying, 'I believe in climate change; here’s my plan; I want to do it,'" Curtis said. "And then they hear back from the groups, 'Yes, we agree; we want more detail; we want you to be more aggressive'—and it stays in the mix for the next couple of months. The process is designed to, you know, be a competitive process.”

Tiernan Sittenfeld, the LCV’s senior vice president for government affairs, said the group is unlikely to endorse “for the foreseeable future, certainly not in 2019."

“We are thrilled that there are so many candidates who are running who are so focused on climate change, unlike in past elections when climate change did not get the attention that it deserved,” Sittenfeld said. “It’s clearly front and center, and that’s what the voters are calling for, and I think the candidates are recognizing that. And it’s clear that if you are anyone who’s serious about running for president, you need to be serious about combating the climate crisis, both on the campaign trail and on Day One in the Oval Office should he or she become president.”

Still, Sittenfeld was quick to praise Inslee’s single-issue campaign, which allows it to stand out next to more formidable candidates.

“He’s really raising the bar when it comes to focusing his campaign around it, when talking about the scale of the problem, the urgency of taking action, the scope of what’s needed when it comes to solutions,” she said. “It’s great to see him focused on climate change.”

Ariel Hayes, the Sierra Club’s national political director, said this is a “unique and, frankly, historic” moment.

“We’re seeing our role as to mobilize our 3.5 million members and supporters to find out where these presidential candidates stand on key issues and to listen to their climate plans, to push them in the right direction, and to really elevate this as an issue,” Hayes said. She added that the Sierra Club’s grassroots-driven endorsement process could take some time, “especially with this large of a field.

“What we’re overall looking for is not just someone who is excellent on climate, but someone who is going to make this a top 1 to 2 priority if they are elected to the White House,” she added.

Wendy Wendlandt, senior vice president and political director for Environment America, said what her group is “looking for is a candidate that will bring the country together to solve our most urgent environmental problems, from climate change to lead in our drinking water and everything beyond that. Right now, I couldn’t tell you who that person is.”

This story was updated at 10:20 a.m.

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