By a mere four votes, Rayonte Bell won his race for Michigan’s Berrien County Board of Commissioners this year. The 22-year-old Democrat made climate change an important part of his platform, calling for deeper investment in solar, water and wind energy. Bell also acknowledged climate change as the cause of the Michigan shoreline eroding an estimated six inches each year — though not all local officials connect erosion with climate change.
“There’s often a lack of acknowledgment that climate change is a threat to our society. Without that acknowledgment, you find an incomplete understanding of some of our local environmental problems,” Bell said. “These are issues local officials need to step in to address.”
Bell also advocated for replacing local jobs in the fossil fuel industry with those in more environmentally friendly energy sectors — typically a tough sell in Michigan towns.
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Backed by passionate climate justice activists throughout the country, more candidates for city, county and state legislative office like Bell are centering climate change and fighting for stronger local climate policy. A 2019 survey from the U.S. Conference of Mayors showed that 74 percent of voters aged 18-29 want local officials to address climate change given regressive federal policies, underscoring the demand for candidates like Bell.
The need for local leadership is clear, as federal leadership on climate change has failed the past four years under the Trump administration. The U.S. left the Paris climate agreement in 2017, and President Trump announced that he is reversing dozens of environmental rules during the remainder of his time in office. President-elect Joe Biden has promised to reenter the Paris climate agreement.
Yet climate justice activists look to the new administration with some concern, especially since a recent Biden appointment to his cabinet has ties to the fossil fuel industry. Activists are also pushing the administration to go even further than the Paris climate agreement.
All of this illustrates a growing appetite for bold local leadership on climate justice policy. There is a broader national strategy led by groups like the Sunrise Movement and Renew New England to support local candidates for public office who champion stronger climate justice policies like the Green New Deal, along with a range of progressive policies.
“I am so inspired by the passion of local candidates to fight for climate issues and all social justice issues,” said Lucas Good, a 17-year-old organizer with the Sunrise Movement’s Down Ballot Disruption initiative. “It is very tangible to support work at the local level.”
Founded in 2017, the Sunrise Movement supports candidates who back climate justice initiatives and other progressive policies. The organization has also conducted larger public demonstrations to call out leaders who vote against bolder climate policies.
Sunrise Movement’s Down Ballot Disruption program supported approximately 25 local candidates across 13 states in 2020, including winners Danielle Friel Otten in Pennsylvania and Todd Lippert in Minnesota. Friel Otten proposed establishing the Pipeline Early Detection and Warning Board, to help alert residents more quickly of local pipeline hazards. Lippert has also made climate a key part of his platform, pledging to fight for 100 percent clean energy for Minnesota by 2050.
The Sunrise Movement also has more than 400 local volunteer chapters, or hubs, that help engage in outreach to voters in support of local candidates.
In Los Angeles, Democrat Nithya Raman, 39, received support from local Sunrise Movement hub activists, and she won her 2020 race for Los Angeles City Council against incumbent Democrat David Ryu. Raman ran as a champion of the Green New Deal and was viewed as stronger on climate policy than the incumbent.
Unlike much of the rest of the City Council, Raman supported Los Angeles’s 2015 mobility plan, which pushes for an incremental shift away from driving cars and in favor of bicycles and other environmentally friendly modes of transportation.
Raman is already seeing pressure from local activists to go even further than the 2015 mobility plan, demonstrating how climate activists push local policymakers to be bolder on climate issues.
“What we saw over the last four years was a federal government that was disinterested in responding to the climate crisis with any sort of urgency, a government that engaged in taking apart our policies around environmental protection,” Raman told Truthout. “But in our local jurisdiction, we have numerous tools that can support climate justice. We can push for ambitious local goals.”
Like Bell, Raman sees how climate change disproportionately affects poorer communities. As a career advocate for homeless people, Raman is concerned about the impact of climate change on the unhoused population. During the September 2020 heat wave in Los Angeles, at least three homeless individuals died due to heat exposure.
“The number of deaths among the homeless population as a result of heat exposure is grim,” Raman said. “In Los Angeles, we have seen more deaths from exposure to extreme weather than New York.”
Cora Went, 28, is a volunteer with Sunrise Movement’s Los Angeles hub and a graduate student focusing on solar energy at the California Institute of Technology. She spent months volunteering for several local candidates, including Raman.
“Los Angeles is a major urban oil field, and there are oil refineries right near people’s homes. It is horrific to see asthma rates and cancer rates in some of those neighborhoods,” Went told Truthout. “Nithya Raman is one of the few members of the Los Angeles city council … who understands the urgency of that.”
A committee of the Los Angeles City Council voted on December 1 to phase out neighborhood oil drilling. This issue will now come to the full city council for a vote. Raman plans to support the committee’s recommendation, demonstrating an immediate intervention she can make on local climate policy.
Like the Sunrise Movement, Renew New England supports local legislative candidates in Connecticut, Maine, Rhode Island, and other New England states who commit to a broad range of progressive objectives, including fighting climate change. The group currently lists more than 100 candidates on its website who have committed to stronger climate policy, all of whom are candidates for local house or assembly races.
Approximately 64 percent of Renew New England’s endorsed candidates won their races in 2020, including Brianna Henries of Rhode Island’s 64th house district.
Henries is a 29-year-old woman of color raised by a single mother. At one point during her childhood, Henries was homeless. “True equity will only come when we recognize that the issues we face — economic, racial and environmental injustice — are systemic and interconnected, and the way we approach them reflects that,” Henries told Truthout.
Henries unseated incumbent Democrat Jose Serodio. According to a campaign mailer Renew New England shared with Truthout, Serodio criticized Henries for supporting the Green New Deal. Serodio was also a reliable supporter of Rhode Island House Speaker Nicholas Mattielo; Mattiello has stated that Rhode Island cannot do anything about climate change.
Critically, the Sunrise Movement and Renew New England do not place environmental issues in a silo, but rather intentionally prioritize a broad range of social justice issues. Renew New England’s platform is centered on its Jobs Guarantee program, which among many goals, seeks climate-resilient affordable housing and food, and health care for all.
“All of the local candidates we support committed to an ambitious platform to address interlocking crises of racial injustice, climate crisis and unemployment,” said A.J. Braverman, a 21-year-old organizer with Renew New England. “We have to prioritize racial justice every step of the way. If we don’t, we leave communities vulnerable and excluded, and that hurts all of us.”
As Henries told Truthout, “I support Renew’s platform because it’s by far the most equitable, ambitious and comprehensive plan on the table to address the collective crises my state is facing.”
Both Nithya Raman and Rayonte Bell are also people of color who, as local officeholders, can now seek to implement policies that address climate change and support low-income communities of color. Raman, who is South Asian, is aware of the historic nature of her victory, having been on the same ballot as Vice President-elect Kamala Harris.
“It is so moving that my daughter is growing up in such a time to see women of color in leadership at all levels, and for her that will be totally normal,” Raman said.
Because of the potential impact that Bell, Raman and Henries are poised to make, hyperlocal activism is becoming a preeminent strategy to address climate change. A recent United Nations study found that cities consume 78 percent of the world’s energy and produce more than 60 percent of greenhouse gas emissions. A 2018 study cited by Scientific American magazine noted that residents of just 100 cities account for 20 percent of the overall carbon footprint.
And cities seem to be taking notice of these trends; as of December 4, 2020, more than 1,800 localities throughout the world have declared a climate emergency.
“Fortunately, some states and cities were indeed working productively during the dark ages of the Trump climate policy. That story is not told loudly enough,” Daniel Moran, of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology who led the 2018 study, told Truthout. “The federal government is a player, and a powerful one, but regardless of what it does or doesn’t do, there is an enormous opportunity to make big, effective changes in the town where you live right now, the county it is part of, and the state you vote in.”
Still, even the strongest local policies cannot match the sheer weight of bold action at the federal level, which has implications across the United States and globally.
“The biggest limitation of local strategy is capacity,” Lucas Good of Sunrise Movement told Truthout. “Smaller communities take more effort to work in because there is less structure and fewer people to work with. Congress and the administration need to help set the trend for the entire country.”
Yet local policymakers are carving out important opportunities on policy, and their proximity to their communities builds potential to shift voters’ thinking. For Bell, eking out a win means his messages are resonating in a county that at times leans conservative. President Trump won Berrien County in 2016, though President-elect Biden won this year.
“If you run on ideas that center on climate change, you can persuade people locally,” he said, “It changes dialogue, to the point where presidential candidates won’t win a certain district without acknowledging that climate change is real.”