In Iowa, Sanders and Buttigieg Approached Climate from Different Angles—and Scored

The progressive stalwart and the moderate newcomer spoke passionately about climate change in a state ravaged by flooding and riven by the Dakota Access pipeline.

Iowa caucuses. Credit: Scott Olson/Getty Images
Climate change was the second-most important issue to Iowa caucus-goers on Monday night. In recent years, the state has been ravaged by floods and has resisted the expansion of the Dakota Access pipeline. Credit: Scott Olson/Getty Images

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Two threats—one from the skies, one underground—pushed climate change to the front of Iowans’ minds, just as they were preparing for their outsized role in the 2020 U.S. presidential race.

From the heavens came deluge—round after round of historic flooding last year, inundating millions of acres of farmland, washing foul muck into trendy riverfront restaurants, closing highways. Then came the subterranean threat—operators of the Dakota Access pipeline chose this moment to roll out plans to double the flow of fracked oil through the Midwest, by building new pumping stations that would propel 1.1 million barrels beneath Iowa every day. 

With Iowans battered by extreme weather and facing the prospect of oil industry expansion on their landscape, young Green New Dealers and anti-pipeline activists converged on the state along with the presidential candidates in 2019. It was a perfect storm for elevating climate change to prominence in U.S. presidential politics—named second only to health care as a top voting issue by likely Iowa caucus-goers.

And on Tuesday, after officials finally got a handle on the technology breakdown that delayed the vote count, the first results showed Iowa’s Democrats delivering a strong, but split message on the climate leadership they are seeking.


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With overwhelming backing from young voters in Iowa’s college towns, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), the most unabashed foe of the fossil fuel industry—was leading the popular vote. But Pete Buttigieg, the South Bend mayor who emphasized support for regional resilience and green agricultural practices, was leading the overall delegate count with strong support from rural counties.

Iowa’s mixed verdict, in a sense, reflected the divide between progressives and moderates that has come to define the 2020 race for the Democratic presidential nomination. But on climate policy, it showed something more. 

The results demonstrated that while every Democratic presidential candidate has voiced support for the Green New Deal, Sanders has sealed a position as its avatar, with the strong push he received from the Sunrise Movement’s endorsement and its army of young volunteers. Meanwhile, Buttigieg alone among the moderates, was able to deliver a coherent message on climate, with particular appeal to rural voters, even though he faced the same tough questions on fracking and pipelines from climate activists that had former vice president Joe Biden and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) ducking and flailing.

The Devastating 2019 Floods Framed Climate Change for Iowans

Many activists predicted that after the record-shattering floods that hit Iowa, along with the rest of the Midwest, last year, voters would be ready to engage with candidates over climate in a way they hadn’t in the past. “The Missouri flood plain is 10 miles wide, and 10 miles of land out of production for more than a year now is a pretty big deal here,” said Ed Fallon, a former Iowa state lawmaker who now runs the environmental action group Bold Iowa.

In a state with more than 86,000 farms—and more than 20 percent of employment linked directly or indirectly to agriculture—voters were connecting the dots between their economic futures and the climate crisis, said Adam Mason, state policy director for Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, a progressive advocacy group.

“Conservative voters across the state—who tend to live in the more rural parts, and those are farmers, by and large, that tend to be a more conservative voting bloc—are recognizing that this is happening and we need to plan for it,” Mason said.

Missouri River flooding in Hamburg, Iowa. Credit: Scott Olson/Getty Images
Flooding on the Missouri River devastated western Iowa last spring. Climate activists predicted that the high waters would lead voters to prioritize climate change. Credit: Scott Olson/Getty Images

In a Des Moines Register poll in January, 90 percent of Democratic caucus-goers said they felt climate change was extremely important or important in their voting decisions, just below healthcare, which was their top issue. 

As candidates vied to position themselves as climate hawks, traditional rhetoric aimed at winning over farm country went by the wayside. “Solving climate change got more messaging than ethanol, three-to-one” in the candidates’ last debate in Iowa, said Matt Russell, farmer and executive director of Iowa Interfaith Power & Light. 

And all seven remaining Democratic candidates have issued policy proposals or statements that specifically address the impacts of climate change on agriculture or the role agriculture can play in solving the climate crisis.

Farmers, increasingly, have started to view climate-friendly farming—which includes practices that can help trap carbon in the soil—as an economic opportunity. Though the country’s largest farm lobby, the American Farm Bureau Federation, has historically pushed against climate policy, even it has started to acknowledge that farmers need more support for these farming practices.

“We’ve got to lead on this and change the economics so we’re getting paid for environmental services,” said Russell. “That’s the new narrative.”

Buttigieg was especially well-positioned to address the concerns of these communities, as a mayor who had recently grappled with Midwestern flooding in Indiana. He stressed that climate shouldn’t be a partisan issue, and talked about a plan to convene a “Pittsburgh Climate Summit” within his first 100 days to bring together the best ideas from local governments already working on climate solutions. 

Activists Demanded to Know Where the Candidates Stood on Dakota Access

All of the candidates found themselves face-to-face with the controversy re-emerging over the Dakota Access pipeline, which bisects Iowa diagonally on its 1,172-mile route from North Dakota to oil terminals in Illinois. Four years ago, Dakota Access was the scene of an emotional standoff at Standing Rock Sioux reservation in North Dakota that gained nationwide attention. President Barack Obama had delayed its permit in order to conduct a more thorough environmental review, but President Donald Trump gave the project the go-ahead in one of his first acts in office. 

The Iowa Utilities Board, which had sided with Dakota Access against landowners when it first approved the project’s permit in 2016, ruled last fall that the company will need to file a petition for an amendment to its original permit—a requirement the company is resisting. So when the activist group Bold Iowa sent 250 volunteers across the state to bird-dog presidential candidates, video-recording their responses to questions on climate, the candidates also were asked whether they opposed the proposed expansion of Dakota Access. On this issue, Buttigieg joined with progressives in opposition to expansion of the pipeline; Biden gave conflicting answers and Klobuchar would not engage with the activists.

In one tense exchange at a block party in Des Moines the week before the caucuses, Biden brushed off Fallon, of Bold Iowa, for challenging him over his position on pipelines. “Go and vote for someone else,” Biden said. Fallon, who personally was backing billionaire climate activist Tom Steyer ahead of the caucuses, posted the video and a blog suggesting that Biden was hurting himself with climate voters. In Fallon’s view, Biden is contradicting himself by saying he opposes pipelines but advocates repairing and replacing existing pipelines.

“With Biden, I don’t know if he is trying to confuse us, or if he himself is confused,” said Fallon.

In Iowa, protesters carrying mock pipelines converged on one Amy Klobuchar rally, seeking to goad her over her failure to take a stand on Dakota Access or on Line 3, a controversial pipeline in her home state of Minnesota that its operator, Enbridge, is seeking to upgrade.

Klobuchar “has a terrible track record on climate, and is definitely not speaking to young people or trying to engage young people,” said Michaelyn Mankel, a 24-year-old volunteer for the Sunrise Movement, who was canvassing Iowa for Sanders. Mankel was not impressed with Buttigieg either—deriding his position, which she believed was in favor of carbon cap-and-trade, as inadequate. (In fact, Buttigieg’s proposal is for a carbon “cap-and-dividend” program, in which proceeds from the market-based program would be sent to households to help offset higher energy costs.)

“I think there’s a lot of talk coming out of a lot of different campaigns—every candidate we see framing themselves as champions of climate change,” she said.

For Mankel and other Sunrise activists, no other candidate came close to Sanders in his $16.3 trillion Green New Deal plan and his call for a rapid end to fracking and a halt on new pipelines. In contrast, Buttigieg’s climate plan includes $2 trillion in spending.

“Our First Question Is Always, ‘Are You Worried About Climate?’”

Mankel is typical of the young people who have become politically engaged over climate, and are now backing Sanders. Before this year, when she began working with Sunrise, Mankel had never followed electoral politics closely enough to know the role of the Iowa caucuses as the site—at least up until now—of the first voting in the presidential primary. A native of Grand Rapids, Mich., she initially “wasn’t super-excited” about the idea of being deployed to Iowa by Sunrise. “When I realized the importance of Iowa, I gratefully jumped in,” she said.

Canvassing students at Iowa State University, Mankel said she spoke to one young Iowan who had friends forced out of their homes in flooding that hit Davenport last spring. “Our first question is always, ‘Are you worried about climate?’ and the answer is overwhelmingly, ‘Yes,’ even in a more conservative place like Ames.”

Sunrise noted that entrance polling at the caucuses showed more than 30 percent of caucus-goers participated for the first time, and that the youth share of caucus-goers had rose by 33 percent over 2016—numbers it says are a mark of success for its campaign focused on youth turnout. 

“There is a broad, widespread mandate for the Green New Deal, and Iowans turned out in force last night to make sure presidential candidates don’t forget it,” Sunrise said in a statement. 

It remains to be seen whether the dynamics that lifted Buttigieg and Sanders to the top of the pack will be in play as the candidates move on to other states. But the strong climate concerns that candidates were hearing in Iowa are in synch with the rest of the nation, according to tracking by the Yale Program on Climate Communication. 

Its survey in November showed that the number of Americans “alarmed” about climate has tripled in the past five years to encompass 31 percent of the country. “That’s a huge shift in the underlying political, social, and cultural climate,” said program director Anthony Leiserowitz on the podcast Climate 2020, “and I think it goes a long way to helping us understand the role climate is playing in the presidential campaign.”

Judy Fahys contributed to this report.

Editor’s note: The story has been updated to clarify that Buttigieg’s proposal is for a cap-and-dividend program.