Voters who have been fighting coal ash dumps in North Carolina and those who have been working to stave off rising tides in California are sharing the same sense of Election Day 2020: It is, they believe, a turning point.
In the farm country of Missouri, on a Navajo reservation in Arizona, in communities at the fenceline of power plants in Michigan, activists see the nation’s climate, energy and environmental future hanging in the balance in the last hours of the presidential campaign.
On the eve of the election, some climate and environmental justice advocates were heartened by polls showing that Democrat Joe Biden, who has pledged an ambitious $2 trillion clean energy transformation, has succeeded in building a broad moderate-to-left coalition behind his candidacy. But it remained uncertain whether it was big enough to overcome the built-in advantage the Electoral College gives to President Donald Trump, who has indicated his intent to further cement his fossil fuel-centric policy into place.
There was broad agreement among climate activists that a Biden victory would not be the end of their battle, but a chance for a new beginning, with much work to do. “Honestly, the election is one step along the way,” said Logan Mitchell, a climate scientist at the University of Utah, who a couple days before the election rode his electric bike to a drop box to deliver his ballot.
Here are some scenes from the fight for climate action and environmental justice in the United States and abroad in the hours before the polls opened.
Wayne County, North Carolina
From Bobby Jones’ point of view in Wayne County, North Carolina, environmental justice is on the ballot in this year’s pivotal election. Midway between the sea and the mountains, Wayne County has seen the legacy of fossil fuel power close up, in the form of toxic coal ash that contaminated drinking water.
Among more than 100 environmental regulations that Trump has repealed or sought to repeal were rules enacted under President Barack Obama to curb water pollution from power plants and clean up the huge ponds utilities use to store toxic coal ash.
“We were feeling pretty good with some of the protections that President Obama had put in place, but since 2016, our president has been rolling back everything,” said Jones, a Black environmental justice advocate with the Down East Coal Ash and Social Justice Coalition. His group has partnered with others to get out the vote and to resist voter intimidation.
North Carolina is a swing state that could decide who occupies the White House and whether the U.S. Senate flips from Republican to Democratic control. But the state’s more than 7 million voters will also be deciding control of the North Carolina Legislature and whether to reward Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, with a second term. His Republican challenger, Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, does not accept climate science. A flip from Republican to Democratic control in the Legislature would be welcomed by Cooper, who would like to see his ambitious climate and clean energy policies enacted.
In a state that’s suffered oversized climate impacts from more damaging hurricanes, and continuing environmental justice concerns, Jones said that in each race, “We are clearly hoping for somebody who will put our community and our environment ahead of corporate greed—not ahead of corporate profit, but of corporate greed.”
He added, “We hope the outcome can be one we can manage. We are not expecting miracles. We are going to have to continue to fight. We just hope that we don’t have to fight as hard as we have been fighting.”
Imperial Beach, California
Serge Dedina is the mayor of tiny Imperial Beach, California, the southernmost beach town in the state that sits just south of San Diego. At 55, he’s a life-long resident of the 4.5-square-mile community of 27,000 people and has been witness to the relentless assault by the Pacific Ocean from his boyhood days surfing to his time as two-term mayor.
The city is one of the most vulnerable in California to sea-level rise, where extreme high tides and winter swell overwhelm sea walls, riprap and sand berms, sending salt water coursing into residential neighborhoods and the business district. Imperial Beach faces the prospect of spending tens of millions of dollars to protect its infrastructure on an annual city budget of less than $20 million.
A 2016 Sea-Level Rise Assessment punctuates the jeopardy the city faces. The city could be cut in half by water if sea levels rise 6.5 feet, because it is bound on three sides by bodies of water—San Diego Bay to the north, the Pacific Ocean to the west and Tijuana River and Estuary to the south.
So there is a lot at stake for Dedina’s little town that was one of the first to stand up to the giant fossil fuel industry when it filed a lawsuit in 2017, accusing the industry of knowingly contributing to sea-level rise and coastal flooding by producing fossil fuels and ignoring warnings about the consequences.
“For Imperial Beach this election is critical, because it will determine whether or not we have a federal government that can proactively support the efforts of coastal communities to address and adapt to climate change, as well as help to finance the incredibly expensive cost of moving infrastructure in the coastal zone out of harm’s way,” Dedina said.
Salt Lake City, Utah
“I feel it’s the most important election of my lifetime,” said Logan Mitchell, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Utah.
Mitchell, who works with a research group that measures greenhouse gases and air quality, is a registered Republican, even though he says he doesn’t have a strong party identity. In GOP-dominated Utah, he feels it is the best way to make sure his voice is heard. But he has been dismayed that the national party under Trump seems to have turned its back on both climate and science.
“Trump’s embrace of the fossil fuel industry and more broadly, the Republican Party’s embrace of it, is a threat to the future of our economy, and our future ability to lead the world in an energy transition,” Mitchell said. “Also, the marginalization of expertise—it’s really catastrophic. I do feel strongly that in our system we need to have two responsible parties, and I feel the Republican party has completely abdicated its sense of good governance.”
But Mitchell is quick to say that he has been feeling optimistic about the future—in part because the cost of clean energy has come down enough to compete with fossil fuels, and in part because of the bipartisan momentum he has seen growing in Utah to address both climate change and air quality. Residents are keenly aware of the connection between air quality and quality of life, because of the pollution in the Wasatch Front—the chain of cities between the mountains and the Great Salt Lake in northern Utah. Mitchell has worked with a group of leaders from business, government, faith and civic institutions that have signed on to a compact to implement a climate and clean air roadmap for the state.
“People think Utah is a really red state, but there’s a lot going on on the ground that’s really changing the narrative,” Mitchell said. That work will continue after the election, he said.
Roger Berle, 77, of Falmouth, Maine, defines his political life in two ways: as a life-long Republican (he shook President Dwight Eisenhower’s hand during his 1952 campaign) and as an environmentalist. As the Republican party has shifted during the Trump administration, it’s the second of those that has taken precedence.
When Susan Collins won her first campaign for the U.S. Senate in 1996, Berle was there at the victory party. This year, for the first time, when donation calls came, Berle declined to write her campaign a check. And when he filled out his ballot, he voted for the Democratic candidate, Sara Gideon, Maine Speaker of the House.
Collins’ voting record is what bothers Berle the most. Collins, Berle notes, says she’s voted against Trump nearly a third of the time. But Berle said she thinks it’s all part of Collins’ political calculus, that she votes with Trump when the vote matters, and against him when a vote is already sure to go through.
For Berle, the final straw was a vote that Collins cast for Trump in support of the 2017 Tax Act. Not only was it a big win for wealthy individuals and corporations, it also removed protections for the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and launched the Trump administration’s efforts to drill for oil there.
“It was the Republicans who passed all the great environmental legislation 40 or 50 years ago,” said Berle, who recently finished a 10-year stint on the board of Maine Conservation Voters. “I was trying to wave that flag for a long time, but it doesn’t wave that well anymore.”
Navajo Nation, Arizona
In Arizona, voters had eyes on races up and down the ticket. The state helped give Trump his victory in 2016, but polls showed the possibility of Biden benefiting from a Blue Wave in the state in 2020. Replacing Republican Martha McSally in the U.S. Senate seat with Democrat Mark Kelly looks likely, and Democrats were also hopeful to turn the GOP-majority state Legislature blue, as well.
On the Navajo Reservation in rural, northeastern Arizona, environmental activist Nicole Horseherder is looking for a possible shift of the Republican-controlled Corporation Commission, a fourth branch of state government overseeing energy that might also flip from Republican to Democratic control.
But she’s not convinced that will automatically mean her community will get its proper share of water rights, or a just transition from coal to clean energy jobs. “It doesn’t matter if it’s a Democrat or a Republican—it’s all the same for Indigenous people,” said Horseherder, director of the environmental advocacy group, Tó Nizhóní Ání. “We have to fight for what we need in this nation.”
In Houston, Robert Bullard was wary of how Covid-19 and voter suppression efforts aimed at voters of color would affect voter turnout.
Polls were showing Biden and Trump in a virtual tie in Texas, a state that Trump won by nine points in 2016. And the battle was taking place not only at the ballot box but in the courts. A federal judge rejected a GOP-led challenge seeking to invalidate nearly 127,000 drive-though ballots cast in Houston, a Democratic-leaning city.
Bullard, a professor of urban planning and environmental policy at Texas Southern University who is known as the “father of environmental justice,” said he felt encouraged by the vast scale of pre-Election Day voting and the widespread voter turnout efforts. He said he saw issues like environment and climate and social justice issues like health and civil rights converging “like no other time that I have seen in my 40 years working on these issues.”
He added, “All these things are on the ballot, and all the people that I’ve been working with and talking with understand that…and that’s why it’s important to vote.”
It’s not just Americans holding their breath.
“I am sending frantic messages to all my friends, relations and Twitter followers who are eligible to vote in the U.S. to ensure that they vote not just for America but for the world,” said London-based Saleemul Huq, director of the International Center for Climate Change and Development.
Huq believes that global actions to reduce emissions, as well as to pursue climate justice, will be at risk if Trump remains in the White House four more years.
“We need Biden and Harris in the White House,” he said. “The future of the world depends on that.”
Even as American voters head to the polls, an unusually intense late-autumn hurricane with forecasted winds of up to 140 mph and deadly flooding rains was aiming at Nicaragua. The dangerous storm was moving to the coast just a day after a super-typhoon hit the Philippines, leaving at least 16 dead and villages buried in mud.
“The super-typhoon hitting the Philippines and Hurricane Eta in the (Caribbean) are testimony that the poorest countries are being impacted due to the inaction of the richest country,” Huq said.
He is hoping a big youth turnout will help sweep Biden and more progressive candidates into office and generate momentum for climate action.
“I have a great deal of faith in the first time voters, the young ones,” Huq said.
Harlan County, Kentucky
Former coal miner Carl Shoupe of Harlan County in Eastern Kentucky said he and four of his friends have worked hard to get the message out that Democrat Amy McGrath deserves a shot at the U.S. Senate.
Support has poured in from around the country for McGrath, who is challenging Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
“I really believe this woman has a shot at upsetting him,” Shoupe said of McGrath. “So many people are fed up with him.”
But McConnell’s history is that he wins races even when his own popularity is low, and Shoupe acknowledged a lot of people he’s approached to talk about the race have not been receptive.
“I have a lot of Republican friends,” said Shoupe who, at 74, still fights for coal miner benefits and an equitable economic transition from coal for Eastern Kentucky. “I’d bring up the election. I’d hand them a McGrath sticker or button and some just give it back, thank me real nice and shake their heads.”
To illustrate what McGrath was up against, on Monday the Democratic candidate took to social media to argue that McConnell had not kept his promises to Eastern Kentucky, and that he was wrongly blocking coronavirus economic relief to unemployed Kentuckians. “It becomes more clear every day,” she said. “We simply can’t afford another six years or even six months, with McConnell’s obstruction at the helm of the Senate.”
McConnell, meanwhile, used his perch atop the Senate to his advantage, announcing federal funding of $5.5 million to eastern and southern Kentucky coal regions for economic development and expansion of opioid addiction recovery programs.
“As Senate Majority Leader, I’m constantly drawing outsized attention to Kentucky and helping families access the federal resources to succeed,” he said.
Rural areas helped deliver Trump’s 2016 election victory.
But this election cycle, environmental and progressvie farm groups are making a concerted push into “Trump country,” hoping to put a dent into areas that have become entrenched Republican strongholds.
“We’ve prioritized rural races in a way we haven’t before,” said Krissy Kasserman, a North Carolina-based political organizer with Food & Water Watch. “There has been an increased effort on the part of the Democratic party to reach rural voters. In 2016, rural voters felt ignored and left behind and they turned out for Trump.”
After getting battered by weather in the last several years, more rural voters are also starting to call on politicians to address the climate crisis.
“People in rural places are increasingly experiencing some of the worst effects, particularly in places with heavy agricultural presences,” Kasserman said. “They’re really vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. We’ve seen that this year with droughts, wildfires, floods, superstorms. People are definitely beginning to connect the dots. They’re connecting their lived experiences with the need for action on climate change and I think that’s going to influence their voting.”
It’s unclear whether any shift in attitudes will have an impact on Election Day (or in its aftermath), but left-leaning groups are sensing an opportunity. After the 2018 midterm elections, the progessive-leaning data analysis group, Catalist, took a deep dive into election returns data and found that Democratic gains were the largest in the country’s rural areas.
“Environmental groups realize they need to spend more energy and time in rural areas and there’s a movement of progressive groups,” said Jake Davis, a rural political strategist and farmer based in Columbia, Missouri. “Going into rural areas to talk about these issues, that begins to move the needle. I’m not going to tell you that if you asked 100 people in rural Iowa about climate change, that they’d tell you it’s real. We’re not over the mark yet. But we’re certainly starting to see a more thoughtful response to the changing climate.”
In Michigan, for the people and organizations campaigning to improve the environment in communities of color and for people with low incomes, feelings are raw.
“There’s been a lot of anxiety but also there’s a lot of hope,” said Juan Jhong-Chung, policy associate for the Michigan Environmental Justice Coalition, which represents dozens of environmental groups. “Now more than ever we know how to rely on each other.”
Michigan was key to Trump’s 2016 victory, and the president was joined by Vice President Michael Pence for a rally in Traverse City on the last day of the campaign. “If we win Michigan. It’s over,” said Trump. “We win the whole thing.”
Jhong-Chung said the anxiety he is seeing in communities is not only about the election, but also about the way that coronavirus has hit hard in communities that were already struggling with high levels of pollution and the effects of climate change. Rather than frame this in partisan terms, he said the challenges are exceptional regardless of who is elected president.
“Whichever candidate or party wins, there is still a lot more work to do,” he said. “We definitely want to continue pushing forward an agenda of environmental justice and climate justice.”