This article is part of Prism's Election 2020: What's at Stake coverage.
The last few years have seen Americans’ views on climate change and environmental issues evolve rapidly. The 2020 election season comes amidst a string of natural disasters affecting almost every part of the country, and growing public support for stronger restrictions on fracking and moving away from fossil fuels to cleaner and more renewable forms of energy. By contrast, the Trump administration’s record on environmental protections has been spotty at best. In 2019, President Donald Trump withdrew the U.S. from the Paris Climate Accord, a multilateral agreement among nations to tackle global warming. The administration took nearly three years to render a fraction of aid to Puerto Rico after the devastation wrought by Hurricane Maria in 2017, and has regularly threatened to withhold federal relief funds from California despite the immense amount of damage caused by successive waves of wildfires. Since taking office in 2017, Trump has clearly prioritized and supported the coal, oil, and natural gas industries, reversing plans to halt construction of the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines while also pushing to open federal areas for drilling. In both cases, Trump’s plans were slowed or halted by the courts. Echoing his 2016 campaign’s enthusiastic embrace of the coal industry, in 2020 Trump has attempted to make fracking an issue, despite both former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Kamala Harris asserting that their platform doesn’t include a ban on fracking.
Environmental issues weren’t substantially addressed during the presidential debates until the final one, but they’re still an area of concern for many in the American public. According to a Yale study of Americans’ views about climate change, while in 2014 11% of respondents said they were “alarmed” by climate change, that percentage jumped to 31% in 2019. That rise among the American electorate may be late to the game, but it’s well-founded. On a global scale, the five warmest years on record between 1880 and 2019 were all after 2015, and 2019 was the second warmest year ever. On a national scale, the U.S. has seen wider extremes of weather, from intense heat waves and draughts to flooding, heavier snowfall, and polar vortexes. The wildfires plaguing the west coast have grown at an alarming rate with 2020 being the worst on record, while hurricane season is starting earlier, and for only the second time ever, the U.S. Weather Bureau ran through all 21 pre-determined names for 2020’s hurricane season, with just under two months left to go.
More to the point, climate change and environmental justice are not separate from issues that have been the subject of more public focus by the presidential campaigns and mainstream media. Environmental justice is in fact deeply tied to racial justice, economic injustice, and even the pandemic, particularly as BIPOC, disabled, and low-income communities often bear the brunt of harm when environmental and climate issues are poorly addressed or ignored. Many Native and Indigenous communities nationwide have been harmed by fracking operations on or nearby their lands, and even ostensibly progressive states such as California still put BIPOC communities on the front lines of their own fracking initiatives.
It’s hardly surprising when towns with a history of racial segregation also become sites of environmental racism. There are thousands of superfund sites—areas that need long-term responses to decontaminate and clean up hazardous waste and contamination—across the country, located primarily in low-income areas often heavily populated by BIPOC. Access to clean and abundant outdoor green spaces and public parks with fresh air and open areas have been essential for people’s ability to spend time outside of their homes more safely during the pandemic, yet that same access is heavily affected by race and class (nevermind how unsafe public parks may be for BIPOC, especially Black people, due to racial profiling and police violence). And it’s not just the Trump administration’s dedication to rolling back protections for public lands that is distressing. Often ostensibly left-leaning local governments and scientists aren’t immune from ignoring protected land when it suits them, as evidenced by the continual disregard of Native Hawaiians’ protests to protect sacred sites from construction of more scientific facilities.
During this election period, there are a few notable ballot initiatives on the state level related to environmental issues:
Amendment 2 on the Louisiana ballot would allow the value of oil and gas coming from given wells on a property to be considered by local tax assessors in determining a property’s market value and appropriate taxes. Essentially, the bill would mean that wells providing less output would pay lower local taxes, while wells with higher output would pay more. The bill has no major opposition and has bipartisan support.
There hasn’t been a viable population of grey wolves in Colorado since the 1940s, and the general scientific consensus is that the remaining wolves won’t be able to create a self-sustaining population on their own. If Proposition 114 passes by a simple majority, it would direct Colorado Parks and Wildlife to reintroduce grey wolves to the Western Slope in a program similar to the one used to reintroduce the wolves to Yellowstone. Proponents point to the success of Yellowstone and the wolves’ ostensibly positive effect on controlling herd populations like elk, who had been overgrazing the land, although other experts point to additional factors such as drought and other predators having an effect as well. Unsurprisingly, some opponents of the proposition expressed concerns about the threat the wolves would pose to livestock, but others oppose the proposition on the grounds that biologists, not voters, should be making decisions affecting Colorado’s wildlife. Additionally, as the Colorado Wildlife Commission is made up primarily of political appointees rather than biologists, some supporters of the proposition have noted that the vote is as much about wrestling control of the commission, which has historically favored ranchers and hunters.
Michigan voters will have the ability to change how their state uses royalties and earnings from gas and oil extraction in their state with Michigan Proposal 1, Use of State and Local Park Funds Amendment. The amendment would remove the $500 million cap on the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund and allow unlimited growth as long as oil and gas royalties continue. However, that cap removal won’t be triggered until the State Parks Endowment Fund reaches a designated cap of $800 million, which isn’t projected to happen for another 30 years. Additionally, at least 20% of annual interest and earnings from the SPEF would have to be spent on state park improvements, and the 25% limit on MNRTF spending on local parks, recreation areas, and conservation would be changed to a 25% minimum spent on development. The proposal has a broad coalition of support including several local and national environmental groups, although notably the Sierra Club and Green Party of Michigan oppose it, on the grounds that the state legislature should find other ongoing sources of funding for park maintenance. The Green Party in particular opposes tying funding for the state’s operating budget to “continued oil and gas drilling – including fracking.”
While the Trump administration’s lack of concern for the environment and impact of poor environmental practices and climate change on marginalized communities is clear, there are clear signs that should Biden and Harris win, environmental justice advocates will have to keep pushing them on these issues, too. In particular, at the first presidential debate, Biden stated that he doesn’t support the Green New Deal (despite his climate plan having similarities to the GND, if not fully matching it in scope) and Harris has repeatedly insisted that a Biden administration won’t ban fracking (despite supporting a ban herself during her own presidential campaign). However, their history indicates that they can be moved leftward on environmental issues, and a number of Black women competitively running for office at state and local levels on environmental justice platforms in both red and blue states are showing that contrary to conventional wisdom, environmental justice can be appealing to voters, particularly when candidates organize and approach environmental issues on a more local level.
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