Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez campaigned for other climate supporters after defeating a long-time congressman in the Democratic primary. Dan Videtich for the Washington Post via Getty Images
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez campaigned for other climate supporters after defeating a long-time congressman in the Democratic primary. Dan Videtich for the Washington Post via Getty Images

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5 Election Winners to Watch on Climate as Environment Crusaders Head to Congress

They’ve taken on polluters and built climate solutions. Now they’re bringing activism to Congress in one of the most diverse freshman classes in U.S. House history.

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Capitol Hill is about to get an injection of environmental and climate activism.

The freshman class of the 116th Congress—in addition to including an historic number of women and being one of the most ethnically and racially diverse—will have a striking number of members who have been environmental crusaders. With track records of taking on powerful fossil fuel interests or building clean energy businesses, many of them are talking about a “Green New Deal”—a massive federal government effort for clean energy and jobs.

Although such federal legislation seems unlikely in the short term, given the Republicans’ hold on the Senate and President Donald Trump’s veto pen, this Congress will have members who have taken on big environmental and social justice challenges and prevailed.

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“We are thrilled that so many new members of the 116th Congress have been longtime leaders in accelerating our transition to clean energy and combating climate change,” said Tiernen Sittenfeld, senior vice president for government affairs at the League of Conservation Voters, which spent a record $80 million campaigning for green candidates this year. Sittenfeld said their expertise and track records in fighting powerful interests in their states are “a welcome addition to Congress at a critically important time.”

RL Miller, founder of Climate Hawks Vote, said she is “incredibly optimistic” about the next Congress. “The incoming freshman class is shifting the Democrats to the left—if you consider 100 percent clean energy ‘left,’” she said.

Here are just a few of this election’s winners who have pledged to push back against President Donald Trump’s rollbacks of environmental protection, while pushing forward a climate action agenda in the new Congress.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the Bronx and Queens, New York

Visiting the Dakota Access pipeline protests in 2016 “tipped the scale for me,” Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez wrote in a Reddit forum. Trump had not yet won the presidency, but Ocasio-Cortez’s candidate, Bernie Sanders, had lost his quest for the Democratic nomination. She and other Sanders campaigners, still eager to connect with likeminded protagonists, traveled to places like Flint, Michigan, where residents were fighting for clean water, and North Dakota, where the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe was waging a struggle against a pipeline near their water supply.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Credit: Don Emmert/AFP/Getty Images
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, an environmental justice activist, made climate action a centerpiece of her campaign. Credit: Don Emmert/AFP/Getty Images

Ocasio-Cortez, a former Bronx bartender, entered politics at the next opportunity—pulling off an upset win in the Democratic primary last spring to unseat long-serving Rep. Joe Crowley. She made climate action a centerpiece of her campaign, noting how coastal areas of her district like Throgs Neck and City Island are fighting erosion and rising sea levels. She also links environmental action with economic transformation and a mobilization toward 100 percent renewable energy nationwide by 2035.

“Radically addressing climate change is a potential path towards a more equitable economy with increased employment and widespread financial security for all,” her platform said.

Sean Casten, suburbs of Chicago, Illinois

Sean Casten and his father built an energy efficiency business around what he calls “boring, unsexy” technology: They helped manufacturers cut their greenhouse gas emissions and energy bills by capturing industrial waste heat and recycling it on site to generate electricity twice as efficiently as the power grid. Casten is determined to pursue policies that treat acting on climate change as a win-win opportunity that will create new businesses and jobs—as it did in his own life.

Sean Casten, an engineer elected to the U.S. House from Chicago's suburbs. Credit: Casten Campaign
Sean Casten, an industrial energy efficiency engineer, says he’ll pursue policies that take action on climate change and create new business opportunities and jobs. Credit: Casten campaign

Casten defeated Republican Rep. Peter Roskam, who had a pro-environment voting record of a mere 3 percent last year, according to the League of Conservation Voters scorecard.

“I believe everybody in this country deeply cares about climate change,” Casten said. “If you say, ‘Are you concerned with waves of refugees? Are you concerned with tropical diseases becoming subtropical? Are you concerned about all these billion-dollar insurance events? Are you concerned about energy costs?’ If you frame the issues where people are, they will connect the dots.”

Rashida Tlaib, Detroit, Michigan

Michigan officials insisted there was no danger from the black piles on the Detroit riverfront—petroleum coke, a waste product of the billionaire Koch brothers’ oil refining operations. In 2013, wind was blowing the black dust into the air, into the Detroit River, and into the homes and gardens of constituents of Rashida Tlaib, then a representative in Michigan’s legislature.

Frustrated with the state’s inaction, Tlaib (pronounced tah-LEEB) grabbed kitchen gloves and plastic baggies, and with a small team of citizens marched past the “No Trespassing” signs to collect samples. They found it contained potentially harmful vanadium and selenium, and ultimately, the piles were removed.

Rashida Tlaib. Credit: Tlaib Campaign
As a state representative, Rashida Tlaib helped force a cleanup on the Detroit waterfront of petroleum coke, a waste product of the billionaire Koch brothers’ oil refining operations. Credit: Tlaib campaign

Tlaib plans to take the environmental justice fight to Congress, as well as working for curbs on corporate campaign contributions. “Taking on corporate greed is an environmental concern,” she told ThinkProgress. Filling the seat of retired Rep. John Conyers, Tlaib, along with Minnesota’s Ilhan Omar will be the first two Muslim women in Congress.

Mike Levin, suburbs of San Diego, California

Mike Levin launched his campaign for Congress at a town hall last year, when he handed  “Climate Change for Beginners” to his congressman, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.). Issa, who had called climate science a “convenient lie” and attacked clean jobs programs, eventually retired rather than face reelection in a once-Republican district that voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016.

Mike Levin. Credit: Mario Tama/Getty Images
Mike Levin, an environmental lawyer, co-founded a clean energy nonprofit and lobbied for state rules to cut greenhouse gas emissions and deploy more electric vehicles. Credit: Mario Tama/Getty Images

Levin has said that growing up on California’s coast inspired him to become an environmental lawyer and activist. He co-founded Sustain OC, a clean energy nonprofit in Orange County and helped lobby for the state policies now in place to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and deploy more electric vehicles. He also worked to establish renewable energy projects, like a fuel cell power plant at the University of California San Diego that is running off of the waste methane produced at the Point Loma wastewater facility.

“If we think about the integration of solar and wind and storage and other renewables, waste to energy, where eventually they will become 100 percent of our energy mix, it will be a massive economic opportunity,” Levin told local news station KPBS. “Now what we need is a supportive federal government.”

Veronica Escobar, El Paso, Texas

The smokestacks of the American Smelting and Refining Company, known as Asarco, loomed over El Paso’s landscape and history when Veronica Escobar began her tenure as county commissioner in 2007. The shuttered site was where some of the first studies established the toll of lead pollution on children. When Asarco sought to reopen the smelter, Escobar opposed it, testifying in the state capitol and joining in protests. The opposition was successful and Asarco was eventually ordered to clean up the site.

Veronica Escobar. Credit: Escobar Campaign
As a county commissioner, Veronica Escobar fought polluters and helped block a utility’s attempt to charge more money to customers who have rooftop solar. Credit: Escobar campaign

Escobar, who later became the top county executive, sought a cleaner, healthier future for the community, started a public-private ecotourism commission to promote the local outdoor recreation industry, and created a foundation to build a riverside trail across the county. She intervened to block an effort by El Paso Electric to charge more money to customers that had rooftop solar.

“Our planet is being destroyed in front of our very eyes, on OUR watch,” Escobar said on Twitter after the Trump administration unveiled its plan to roll back President Barack Obama’s signature climate initiative, the Clean Power Plan. “We have an obligation to fight to protect our environment with every fiber of our being. These midterm elections are the most important of our lifetime. For us, for our planet, for our children.”

She is replacing Beto O’Rourke, who decided not to seek reelection last year when he began his unsuccessful run against Ted Cruz for the U.S. Senate. Escobar and Sylvia Garcia will be the first Latinas to represent Texas in Congress.

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