Want to Elect Climate Champions? Here’s How to Tell Who’s Really Serious About Climate Change

Saying “Green New Deal” over and over in a stump speech is not enough. These tools and scorecards will help you find candidates truly committed to environmental issues.

People vote at the Meadows Mall on October 20, 2018 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Credit: Ethan Miller/Getty Images

People vote at the Meadows Mall on October 20, 2018 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Credit: Ethan Miller/Getty Images

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For U.S. voters who care deeply about climate change, the 2022 elections are about more than control of Congress and leadership of most states.

The results will, in a real sense, determine whether the U.S. can fulfill its pledge to be a leader in the drive to stave off the most catastrophic consequences of global warming.

Candidates elected this year will steer the direction of U.S. policy in the lead-up to 2025—a significant deadline set out in this month’s report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). That’s when the IPCC said greenhouse gas emissions need to peak if the world hopes to meet the Paris climate accord goal of holding the post-industrial temperature increase close to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit). 

President Joe Biden’s first year in office has made clear that the world’s No. 1 oil and gas producer won’t be able to curb its reliance on fossil fuels without more climate leadership in Congress and at every level of government. Despite the ambitious climate goals Biden has embraced, much of his climate agenda is stalled in the closely divided Senate. And he faces mounting pressure to maintain and expand fossil fuel production, both to rein in inflation and to address energy security concerns amid Russia’s war on Ukraine.

“I think people are really scared,” said RL Miller, co-founder and political director of the advocacy group Climate Hawks Vote. “People see that if we lose the House, as the pundits are telling us we will, and we are unable to pick up more seats in the Senate, then everything is just going to slip away. There’s going to be no more chance for climate action in a generation, and I don’t know how many more generations we’ve got left.”

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But with redistricting shaking up the political landscape, and leadership of 36 states as well as Congressional seats on the ballot, voters will be faced with long and sometimes bewildering lineups of candidates in the primary elections that begin in earnest in May.  How can voters increase their odds of selecting climate champions? It’s a question that Americans from across the political spectrum should be asking, with 69 percent of adults favoring steps to become carbon-neutral by 2050, including 66 percent of self-described moderate or liberal Republicans and 33 percent of conservative Republicans, according to a new survey by Pew Research Center. For liberal Democrats, 94 percent are in favor of such steps; for moderate Democrats, 88 percent.

We asked groups focused on climate-vetting of candidates how they make their choices, and how best to discern whether office-seekers will put promises into action on climate. Here’s their advice for ordinary voters who will make the difference in determining U.S. climate leadership in 2022:

What Does the Candidate Say?

Although it’s never good to judge a candidate on words alone, what he or she is (or isn’t) saying about climate is important—if only to gauge where it ranks among all the issues competing for attention of state and federal leaders.

Muted or missing messaging on climate is a concern for advocates like Karyn Strickler, founder and president of the Vote Climate U.S. political action committee. “You have to make public statements that show it is a top priority,” said Strickler. “What bills do you co-sponsor? Are you writing op-eds? What do you say in your speeches?”

Strickler wouldn’t name any particular candidates she thought were guilty of climate silence.

But one example might be Maryland Comptroller Peter Franchot, who is leading the polls among nine Democratic candidates for governor in that state. His website doesn’t mention climate or environmental justice in an otherwise extensive discussion of environmental protection. Franchot does have clean energy goals—including a pledge to make Maryland the nation’s first net-zero carbon state, which he has recently flagged as his top climate policy plan on Twitter. 

Advocates also advise poring over the candidate’s social media posts; there are several ways to search an individual Twitter account for mentions of the word “climate,” for example.

Vote Climate doesn’t weigh in on primaries, but its voter guides for the general election this fall will score the strength of the climate plans articulated by Congressional and gubernatorial candidates. No candidate in the two 2021 governors’ races (New Jersey and Virginia) had stellar plans under Vote Climate’s stringent criteria—which, for example, rewarded candidates that supported “100 percent renewables by 2030.” (In contrast, Biden’s goal is “to create a carbon pollution-free power sector by 2035.”)

The Vote Climate guide gives higher scores to candidates who voice support for policy that keeps fossil fuels in the ground (for example, ending oil and gas extraction on public lands), and elimination of human greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

Terms like “net zero carbon” and “carbon neutral” are red flags, said Strickler. It means the candidate envisions continued use of fossil fuels, with reliance on technology that does not yet exist to capture the carbon. “To me it means they are not willing to get off fossil fuels,” Strickler said. “Now, politicians are all about so-called ‘realistic’ policies. But at some point, we need to deal with the reality of the existential threat of climate change.” 

Miller warns that she’s grown wary of candidates who say things to appeal to climate voters—for example, that they support the “Green New Deal”—without demonstrating that they know what’s involved or how to implement a strong climate policy. That’s why it’s important to look at actions as well as words.

What Does the Record Say?

A key resource for understanding where candidates stand on climate is the League of Conservation Voters’ scorecard, which keeps track of how each member of Congress votes on bills and even climate-relevant amendments and cloture motions. LCV’s website tracks recent votes and its scorecard archives date back to the 1970s. It’s an unmatched record that offers both current and lifetime scores for even the longest-serving members of Congress seeking reelection. 

“This is why LCV exists, to hold incumbent members of Congress accountable, [with] lots of transparency,” said Craig Auster, LCV’s vice president for political affairs.

The LCV scores indicate that not all Republicans or Democrats walk in lockstep on climate, and climate-concerned voters should not assume that party affiliation is a guarantee of an anti- or pro-climate stand. For example, Republican Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania, with a lifetime LCV score of 77 percent, voted in favor of pro-climate action measures like regulation of methane, climate-resilient wastewater systems and the bipartisan infrastructure bill last year, even though he—like all House Republicans—voted against Biden’s big climate spending package. Meanwhile, Democratic Sen. Jon Tester of Montana, with a lifetime LCV score of 89 percent, cast votes for two anti-climate measures that ultimately failed: to keep the Keystone XL pipeline alive and to bar the Environmental Protection Agency from banning fracking. 

To discern the record of candidates not currently in office, voters can look to the research done by LCV and other advocacy groups who interview candidates, delve into their histories and consult with advocates on the ground. For example, Give Green, a project by LCV Victory Fund and NRDC Action Votes (an affiliate of Natural Resources Defense Council) provides information on its website on contenders it views as strong climate candidates. For example, its biography of Stacy Abrams, the Democrats’ leading candidate for Georgia governor, includes details like the senior thesis on environmental justice she wrote while at Spelman College, her membership on climate advisory boards and her work in pioneering a climate strategy as executive director of the Southern Economic Advancement Project.

Miller said some of the strongest climate candidates she’s seen in recent election cycles don’t have a political record at all. “They’re in the clean tech industry, or on the climate science side of things—somehow involved, not as activists, but in what I would call the fact-based, as opposed to the emotion-based end of things,” said Miller. For example, in the scramble among eight Democratic candidates vying for North Carolina’s open 4th Congressional district, Climate Hawks Vote has endorsed Ashley Ward, a Ph.D. in geography and water policy associate at Duke University who previously was a scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration helping communities plan for climate extremes. 

How About Fossil Fuel Money?

For evidence of why climate voters should follow the money before making their decisions, they need only look at the top recipients of oil and gas money in Congress in 2022, as compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics. At the top of the list by a large margin is Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), who’s not even running for re-election this year, but has played a central role in blocking Biden’s climate agenda. Manchin has expressed interest in reviving Biden’s Build Back Better bill—but only if it contains support for oil and gas production as well as climate investments.

“How much money candidates have taken from fossil fuel interests is something we’re regularly drawing attention to,” says LCV spokeswoman Emily Samsel. “Especially right now, when gas prices are a big part of the conversation, it’s not surprising to see candidates who’ve taken a lot of money from oil and gas suggesting that the answer to high gas prices is more oil and gas production in the United States, when we know that the real answer is to energy independence in the long term is clean energy.”

The Center for Responsive Politics’ Open Secrets website is especially useful because it categorizes the voluminous data on donations that federal candidates report to show the breakdown, industry by industry. 

Who Are the Heroes and Hawks?

With Republicans in Congress so unified in opposition to Biden’s climate agenda, and the president’s own party mostly in support—with some key exceptions like Manchin—it might look like choosing climate champions is as easy as voting Democratic. In the general election, this often will be true. But while climate advocacy groups acknowledge the real partisan divide that has developed over action on global warming, they stress the importance of looking beyond party in the primary season and focusing on putting true  climate leaders on the ballot.

Vote Climate’s 117th Congress scorecard reveals distinctions among Democrats in its separate scores on “leadership,” and whether the candidate supports a carbon fee or related policy to reflect the social costs of carbon in the price of fossil fuels. For example, Rep. Jamie Raskin of Maryland scores 100 percent for his climate plan, leadership, and his support of a carbon fee. But Raskin’s fellow Maryland Democrat, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, scores only 87.5 percent because of weaker leadership and carbon fee scores than Raskin. 

“Steny Hoyer could make a big difference as a leader if he did make climate a top priority,” said Strickler. “We can see from his website that he is an advocate of climate action, but it’s clearly not a top priority for him.” 

Strickler said it’s important to make such distinctions and to push for the candidates her organization describes as “climate heroes” because having a simple Democratic majority in Congress clearly has been insufficient. “We don’t have a climate action majority,” she said. “Democrats are not good enough on this issue.”

Climate Hawks Vote produces a shorter list of endorsements than many other advocacy groups, because it aims only to weigh in on candidates who’ve distinguished themselves as climate leaders. “We do not endorse mediocre Democrats, no matter how vehemently a Republican opponent may deny climate science,” the group says

Where Do They Stand on Democracy?

For all voters—not just those focused on climate change—a shadow hangs over the 2022 campaign as the first national election after the unprecedented and violent attempt by former President Donald Trump’s supporters to overturn the 2020 election result. In the time since, 19 states have passed legislation to limit access to voting, according to the Brennan Center for Justice.

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Environmental advocates increasingly are encouraging voters who care about climate to also ask where candidates stand on voting rights and getting dark money and corporate money out of politics. The LCV, for example, which previously scored office holders only on how they voted on environmental legislation, has expanded its scoring to include issues such as voting rights, campaign finance reform and judicial nominations. In North Carolina and Ohio, environmental advocates have been leading the legal fight against gerrymandered districts. The same forces that suppress representation in urban and minority communities, they argue, have contributed to the difficulty in getting a pro-climate action majority in Congress.

“Increasingly, we’re talking as an organization about these connections,” said Auster of LCV. “There’s a connection between having a strong, equitable democracy and being able to have voters elect candidates that reflect their values, including on protecting the environment and addressing climate change.”

Don’t Forget Candidates for State and Local Office

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine and others have concluded it is possible for the United States to achieve a 50 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030—Biden’s goal under the Paris climate accord. But nearly every analysis says it will require state and local government action as well as federal action. States and cities in fact, have led the way in setting renewable energy policy and policy to spur adoption of electric vehicles.

Campaign finance data on candidates for state races is compiled at the Follow the Money website, operated by the National Institute on Money in Politics in partnership with the Center for Responsive Politics’ Open Secrets project. As for voting records, LCV has a network of 30 state affiliate organizations, many of which have their own scorecards tracking the environmental voting records of members of state legislatures. And a four-year-old nonprofit, Climate Cabinet Action, has been scoring state legislators on climate in more than 20 states.

In the coming weeks, Strickler said her group plans to announce a partnership with Climate Cabinet Action so that both groups’ scores will be available on the Vote Climate website. She is hoping that having climate scores for Congressional, gubernatorial, and state legislative candidates in one place will help encourage more voters to become climate voters, and more candidates to become climate champions.

 “If used as intended, we think our voters’ guide could revolutionize the politics of climate change,” Strickler said. “We know voters are increasingly prioritizing climate, and this gives them a tool to do that. That’s how we’re going to get a majority big enough to pass the climate legislation we’ve never seen in this country and that we desperately need.”