The climate crisis is hurting communities across the United States. Hurricanes, heatwaves and torrential downpours are on the rise, and have already exacerbated devastating floods, droughts and wildfires in communities from South Dakota to California, Florida and North Carolina in recent years.
The threat of environmental hazards is also increasing as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) rolls back regulations on clean water, toxic coal ash, fossil fuels, air pollutants, pesticides, smog and vehicle emissions.
Such deregulation may benefit big business polluters, including some of Donald Trump’s biggest donors, but the public health threat disproportionately affects millions of black, poor and Native Americans and Alaskans.
But amid mounting frustration with political leaders, a growing number of community activists are running for office on climate and environmental justice platforms in local and state elections – and winning.
“This was about about my kid’s health, and my health, and I didn’t have the luxury of someone else taking care of that,” said Eric LaBrant, who was elected in 2015 as a commissioner of his local port authority in the Pacific north-west.
Such candidates “are deeply engaged because they have firsthand experience of climate and environmental issues in their communities”, said Alex Cornell du Houx, co-founder of Elected Officials to Protect America, a group working with local and state representatives on these issues
He added: “They learn quickly once elected and have the capacity to make a big difference.”
Extreme weather events and environmental injustice also exacerbate food and water insecurity, housing shortages, economic hardship and other inequalities.
We profile four first-term officials who used their experience as community organizers and alarm over inaction in combating the climate crisis to win public office.
Veronica Carter, 59, a retired military officer, was elected to Leland town council in North Carolina in November 2019.
Carter moved to Leland, a coastal town of 24,000, in 2003, where she joined a fledgling grassroots group to oppose a huge toxic landfill planned for neighbouring Navassa. This economically deprived, predominantly African American community already had a superfund site and six of the seven brownfields in the county. “This was my introduction to environmental justice violators and it was a textbook case,” said Carter.
And when Hurricane Florence churned over the Carolinas for 72 hours in 2018, causing widespread damage that left poor people stranded, Carter was on the frontline. She organised a distribution centre, and organized volunteer teams to deal with fallen trees, flood damage and urgent repairs.
“Florence was the tipping point for me to move from activism to politics,” she told the Guardian.
“I realized that we needed to build for the next storm, and incorporate resilient methods and technology to improve our infrastructure and build affordable workforce housing … all this was swirling in my head when an opening came up on town council.”
Carter ran her campaign on safe air and water, infrastructure, climate resilience and workforce housing. She beat the incumbent by two points.
“I want to us see us build smartly, be more inclusive, and help our neighbours in Navassa get more attention in the state capital. I’m only one voice, but I will use my experience and ability to make sure every permit and ordinance the council considers is looked at through an environmental justice lens,” she said.
Eric LaBrant, 39, lives in Fruit Valley in Vancouver, Washington, a blue-collar neighbourhood with 1,200 residents and the Port of Vancouver located on the Columbia River. He was elected to the port authority and helped stop what would have been North America’s largest oil terminal.
Plans to construct the oil-by-rail terminal emerged in 2013 but the community couldn’t get straight answers from Texas oil giant Tesoro, or officials. “I had specific questions about the scope, scale, emissions and safety, but was ignored or got meaningless answers from the company and the port,” said LaBrant, who spent several years in his twenties working on offshore oil fields in Texas.
LaBrant, a member of the Fruit Valley neighbourhood association, trawled company documents and become increasingly alarmed at the risks posed by the exposure to carcinogenic contaminants, and the company’s environmental and safety track record. The project aimed to transport 360,000 barrels of crude oil by train to the port daily, ready for shipping to Asia.
But despite growing public concerns and numerous fatal derailments and accidents involving oil trains, the port signed a lease with the company. “It was discouraging to see how much money influences the political process, especially petroleum money, but this was about about my kid’s health, and my health, and I didn’t have the luxury of someone else taking care of that,” LaBrant said.
LaBrant was elected as a port authority commissioner in November 2015 after campaigning against the fossil fuel terminal, and for a sustainable green economy. Two years later, Don Orange, another anti-oil community activist turned candidate, was elected, too, giving those opposing the oil terminal the majority on the port authority. Soon after, the state recommended against the oil terminal on safety grounds, and the governor denied the necessary permits.
The port lease was cancelled, Fruit Valley had defeated big oil. Since then, the port has enacted a policy to not pursue fossil fuel terminals, and last June, set a record for the biggest shipment of wind turbine blades. “We’ve shown that ports don’t have to be polluters, they can be good neighbours, do business responsibly, and make money on green energy transition,” he said.
In Pennsylvania, Danielle Friel Otten, 42, was elected to represent the 155th district in the state house of representatives in 2018 after a race against the incumbent Republican who was largely defined by opposition to the Mariner East 2 pipeline project – a multibillion-dollar pipeline project to carry highly volatile natural gas liquids across Pennsylvania. The project is now subject to multiple criminal investigations and civil lawsuits.
“The gases are odourless, colourless and five times more combustible than traditional natural gas products, so there’s huge potential for mass casualties in undetected leaks. My property is within 50ft of the easement [pipeline] … I genuinely thought that people elected to represent us would protect our families, and not approve the project. When that didn’t happen, it blew my mind,” said Otten.
In 2017, Otten met with state representative Becky Corbin after drilling contaminated a water aquifer. “I was worried that the contamination could affect my son’s kidney condition … her reaction was cold. I started investigating publicly declared financial contributions and found companies directly involved in the project were donors to her campaign. That was my moment,” she said.
Otten helped two neighbours get elected as township supervisors before beating Corbin by 10 points. But the Republicans still control both houses, and the state governor is a “pro-fracking Democrat”. “We’ve not made much headway getting good environmental policies through the legislature this session. But for the first time in the history of the Democratic caucus, we’ve adopted the environment as a key pillar for our plan for Pennsylvania. It’s on the agenda,” he said.
“I do get down in the dumps sometimes because we are not making the big impact we so desperately need. No one person is going to be our saviour in this situation, but I bring up the pipeline and environmental justice at every opportunity, and offer tangible alternatives and solutions.”
Regina Romero, 45, was elected mayor of Tucson, Arizona, in November 2019 after campaigning on a climate crisis platform. She was elected alongside three council members who also ran on environmental and sustainability issues. In her first council meeting as mayor, the city signed up as an amicus brief in a lawsuit against Donald Trump’s promised border wall. “We took a position against militarizing our borderlands, separating our communities and environmental destruction by a border wall that will not make us more secure,” she said.
Romero is not new to local politics: she served three terms on the city council when she spearheaded an initiative by Pima county and Tucson officials to buy the 286-acre Painted Hills property on the foothills of the desert in order to curtail the urban sprawl and preserve it as green open space for the community and wildlife habitat.
“We love the desert, so taking care of our land and environment is essential for the survival of our community. I’ve seen with my own eyes the climate changing. Tucson is the third fastest warming city in the country, we have to do something,” she said.
Romero’s mayoral campaign was centred around a pledge to create a comprehensive climate action plan for the densely populated city, which is suffering its 21st year of drought.
Several decades of water conservation policies has meant the city has so far avoided rationing, but there’s more to be done amid dwindling water reserves and record high temperatures, including planting a million drought-tolerant native trees by 2030 and setting emissions reduction targets. “The first step is to create a climate action task force by January 2020 and start planting those trees,” she said.
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