Trump's inaction forces governors to take up the fight on climate change

Strong state action on climate change has never been more needed, nor more politically popular, than at this moment.

The U.S. government’s new terrifying climate report was barely a day old when President TrumpDonald John TrumpAustralia recognizes West Jerusalem as Israeli capital, won't move embassy Mulvaney will stay on as White House budget chief Trump touts ruling against ObamaCare: ‘Mitch and Nancy’ should pass new health-care law MORE declared, “I don’t believe it,” making clear his administration will not deviate from its pro-carbon-pollution policy. In the meantime, deadly, climate-induced wildfires continue to claim lives in California, while Southern states still struggle with recovery from another record hurricane season. While action in the Democratic-controlled House is critical for setting the agenda in 2020, the world cannot wait another two years for meaningful progress on climate. States must act.

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Climate change wasn’t the issue driving headlines in the 2018 midterms, but thanks to years of hard organizing work and the increasingly obvious effects of human-driven climate change on our civilization, it was an issue essential to the progressive movement that drove the victories of Democratic candidates across the country. The institutions, the grassroots movement, and the voters who created a blue wave this election all expect bold action on climate change from their leaders.

The newly elected Democratic governors of Michigan, Illinois, Wisconsin, Colorado, Nevada, Kansas, Maine, and New Mexico will be making a mistake if they think they are an exception. These governors must ensure their states join or continue with the bipartisan United States Climate Alliance, which seeks through state-level action to hold the United States to its commitments in the Paris accords, despite Trump’s withdrawal.

First, the voters. Probably more than anything else, the conventional wisdom that voters don’t care about climate has prevented bold action at every level of government. Yet, the data doesn’t support this argument. The exit polls from the midterms showed that an astonishing 43 percent of voters were “very concerned” about climate change, and another 27 percent were “somewhat” concerned, a clear majority of the electorate. The voters who cared about climate change said they supported Democrats by a margin of two-to-one. Civis Analytics, in a widely covered poll earlier this year, showed that Democratic voters put action on climate as the third most important issue for a Democratic Congress, even ahead of immigration.

Working-class communities and communities of color understand the threat of climate change. They are who, after all, are least able to recover financially when a hurricane wipes out their home. It's their children who have the hardest time getting medical treatment for heat-related asthma attacks. The intersectionality of climate change, good jobs, and social justice is not just theoretical. These voters want solutions.

Next, the movement. The progressive movement has also adapted to see climate as part of the larger social justice fight over the last decade. In my experience, the volunteers and activists who joined me in largest climate march in U.S. history, back in 2014 are exactly the people that the Democratic Party is relying on for success: young folks, people of color and women.

The most iconic climate fight of the past few years, the battle against the Dakota Access Pipeline at Standing Rock, was planned and led by indigenous communities. These activists have many other concerns around racial, social and economic justice, but they understand that climate change is already a direct threat to marginalized communities.

This year’s progressive superstars, those who either came straight from this movement or captured its imagination, know this is true. Rep.-elect Alexandria Ocasio-CortezAlexandria Ocasio-CortezOcasio-Cortez: By Lindsey Graham's 1999 standard for Clinton, Trump should be impeached Ocasio-Cortez mocks idea Kushner could be Trump's chief of staff Nearly the entire country gets it wrong on the minimum wage MORE (D-N.Y.) joined young climate activists just after the election in a protest of her own elected leadership as they demanded concrete climate action in the upcoming Congress.

Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas), who came closer than any Democrat in a generation to winning a Senate seat in the nation’s historic oil capital of Texas, called climate change “the defining existential threat of our time” and wants the country to rejoin the Paris Agreement. While neither necessarily put climate at the center of their campaign, both understand that they cannot ride the movement wave without a strong climate stance.   

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Lastly, the institutions. Alignment among the core institutions of the left for bold climate action has been growing for years. We not only focus on climate, but support one another's fight for health care, living wage jobs, immigration issues, and civil rights. The message to governors is simple: If you want to satisfy our demands for climate, jobs or justice, you can’t just address some of these issues, you have to address all of them. The time for half measures is over.

Of course, if these new governors take up the fight on climate, they will be opposed. Money from oil companies will flood into the fight, as happened in Washington state this election, where at least $31 million in oil-company cash paid for last-minute attack ads to defeat what had been a popular ballot initiative to institute the nation’s first-ever carbon pollution fee. The fight for climate justice is not for the faint of heart. But these leaders need to ask themselves, who would they rather be fighting: the movement, or oil and gas company CEOs?

Newly elected Democratic governors should not let the conventional political wisdom about climate change blind them to the lessons of the last election. Fighting for a just transition in these states is good politics and good policy.

Paul Getsos is the national director of the Peoples Climate Movement, the coalition behind the historic 2014 and 2017 climate marches.