Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Climate activists are turning out Pa. voters to flip the state House — and boost Biden

Even in a pandemic, advocates say climate change has never gotten so much attention during an election.

Troy Turner, Pennsylvania field coordinator for the Sunrise Movement, in Reading on Oct. 29.
Troy Turner, Pennsylvania field coordinator for the Sunrise Movement, in Reading on Oct. 29.Read moreBradley C. Bower

Edna Patterson can list the reasons she spends 15 to 20 hours a week calling Pennsylvania voters to talk about climate change:

She’s a former high school science teacher. Before that, she worked for a federal climate assessment program as a meteorologist. And she has kids and grandkids.

“Time’s running out,” said Patterson.

Patterson, 68, of West Chester, volunteers for Conservation Voters of PA as it works to reach more than two million voters before Tuesday. And she’s one of many advocates pushing the issue during an election year that has seen Americans roiled by natural disasters extreme enough to capture public attention, even amid the chaos of the coronavirus pandemic.

“I can’t remember a time where the climate was so front-and-center in an election year,” said David Masur, executive director of PennEnvironment. “We’re going into an election season with the West Coast on fire; the Gulf Coast is underwater, hit by hurricane after hurricane; we’re coming off [one of] our hottest summer[s] in the Philly region.”

The pandemic, the resultant economic wreckage, protests against systemic racism, accompanying civil unrest, and President Donald Trump’s handling of it all have dominated the 2020 election. But climate change remains high on voters' minds, especially for Democrats.

In a September poll by Climate Nexus, Yale University, and George Mason University, 76% of Pennsylvania voters said they consider climate change to be a serious problem, with 45% calling it very serious. Democrats were more likely to cite it as their No. 1 issue, ahead of the economy and the coronavirus, in a national September NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll.

A 2020 survey by Stanford University showed the number of Americans likely to cast their votes based on candidates' climate-policy platforms was up to 25% — an all-time high.

“It definitely has gained some interest ... but I will admit I still don’t think it’s enough,” said Jess Cadorette, field director for Conservation Voters of PA. “I don’t know what it will take to get the globe to rally behind this in the way that we need to really mitigate this crisis.”

Pennsylvania could play a key role. It’s one of just four battleground states being targeted by the national youth-led Sunrise Movement. The progressive environmental group helped Sen. Ed Markey (D., Mass.) weather a primary challenge from Rep. Joseph P. Kennedy III as thanks for Markey’s introduction of the Green New Deal resolution.

In Pennsylvania, Sunrise and other groups are focused on flipping control of the Republican-held state legislature, which strategists in both parties see as within Democrats' reach.

“We see the best pathway forward on the environment would be flipping the statehouse leadership,” said Cadorette. “Pennsylvania alone is the third-largest emitter of fossil fuel [pollution] in the nation. Just by Pennsylvania voters turning out, we could have a drastic effect on how America contributes to this crisis.”

And even in a state where the most devastating impacts of climate change are so far more remote, voters are beginning to notice changes, advocates said.

“Flooding is probably the most-mentioned local issue in climate change,” Patterson said. Environmental concerns also vary by region, she said: Bucks County residents often mention water contamination from PFAS chemicals, while those in Chester County cite concerns about the Mariner East pipelines.

» READ MORE: The Divided States of Pennsylvania: How one state embodies America's political discord

Almost three-quarters of voters in eight battleground states, including Pennsylvania, are concerned about extreme weather events, according to a recent Public Policy Polling survey. Almost 40% said addressing climate change should be a top priority for the next president.

“Climate is a huge driver, particularly for young people,” said Troy Turner, 28, the Pennsylvania field director for Sunrise.

The urgency surrounding climate change has accelerated since the 2016 election, including since the seminal Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report in 2018, which warned that humanity had only about 12 years to stop global warming from exceeding 1.5 degrees Celsius. The Trump era has seen high-profile activism by the Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg, the Global Climate Strike that last year brought millions into streets and students out of school in protests worldwide, and three of the top five warmest years on record.

Turning out climate-focused voters could mean groups help boost turnout for Joe Biden, who has laid out a detailed climate plan. His campaign released two ads focused on climate change, targeting younger voters in the final days before polls open.

Trump continues to deny the overwhelming scientific consensus around human-made climate change. He has called climate change a hoax, pulled the Unitef States out of the Paris Agreement to reduce carbon emissions, and rolled back environmental regulations — all while touting his support for “crystal-clean water and air,” as he put it during the first presidential debate.

Still, Biden is hardly a climate activist’s dream candidate, particularly for younger progressives. While the former vice president has gone out of his way to emphasize climate change on the campaign trail, he’s also insisted he won’t ban fracking or implement the progressive Green New Deal. But activists mobilizing to turn out voters see him as the best choice — and the first step.

“The really basic ask is not to place all your confidence in this politician," Turner said. "It’s just to help us create a landscape where winning is possible.”

Biden’s climate plan doesn’t go as far as the Green New Deal, the progressive framework introduced by Markey and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D., N.Y.) and championed by Sunrise and other activists. In the ClimateNexus poll, 32% of Pennsylvania voters surveyed said they strongly support the Green New Deal, and 30% said they somewhat support it.

Turner cited the Biden campaign’s work with Sen. Bernie Sanders (I., Vt.) to develop its climate plan as evidence climate activists can influence a Biden administration — the same work Trump has cited to paint Biden as radical on energy and climate issues.

Turner said the most compelling argument for many environmental voters, particularly young ones, is not to vote for Biden because his climate plan is good. Rather, he said, “Look at how social movements have pushed Biden. Think about what we can accomplish if we get him in.”

Philly Thrive, the environmental justice group that campaigned for permanent closure of the former Philadelphia Energy Solutions refinery — which long caused concerns among South Philadelphia residents about toxic pollution, heightened after the 2019 refinery explosion — started a get-out-the-vote effort this year.

“A lot of members were like, ‘Listen, sure, we’ve never worked on an election before, but this one is different,’” said Jonathan Leibovic, 30, a Philly Thrive member coordinating the effort. “For so many reasons, climate being one of the huge ones.”

» READ MORE: Pennsylvania’s attorney general releases scathing grand jury report on fracking industry, state regulators

Concerns about air pollution, urban heat islands, and flash flooding are among the issues that disproportionately affect communities of color. Biden has said part of his plan to address racial justice is to take “on climate change with jobs.” He has cited higher air pollution, deteriorating infrastructure, and a lack of clean water or fresh food in some communities of color.

The candidates' stark differences on energy and the environment took center stage after their second debate, when Biden said he would “transition away from the oil industry.” Trump’s campaign has since tried to hammer Biden with those comments in states including Pennsylvania, where he has also repeatedly and falsely said Biden plans to ban fracking. (Biden has said he would block the federal government from issuing new permits for drilling on public land but would allow existing fracking operations to continue.)

Masur, of Penn Environment, said climate activism — and how the issue resonates with mainstream voters — has reached a new level and will only grow in the years ahead.

“We would expect that concern by the public to certainly continue to be a louder and louder drumbeat,” he said, “not just this election, but I think going forward.”