Environmental activists, backed by a billionaire philanthropist, have launched an unprecedented campaign to push voters to elect leaders this November who are willing to confront global warming.
The project, called NextGen Climate Action Committee, is intended to bring climate change to the forefront of American politics, environmentalists say. The nonpartisan group, founded by philanthropist Tom Styer in 2013, is on track to spend more than $55 million during election season — an unparalleled amount for an environmentalist group.
“This November, it’s time for us to take a stand,” NextGen said on its website. “For far too long, special interests like Big Oil have operated with impunity, polluting our skies and our water, suppressing renewable energies like wind and solar, and contributing to a rapidly changing climate.”
To counter that influence, NextGen has funded a series of political ads focused on the climate, including one narrated by actor Woody Harrelson, who said: “They told us the world was flat and insisted it was the center of the universe. They ignored pollution, said that cigarettes were harmless, that leaded gas was safe … Now they tell us climate change is a hoax. Some powerful people want to hold us back.”
Progress has been made recently in transforming the issue into a national debate. Senate Democrats have successfully blocked efforts to scrap climate-friendly regulations. But if Republicans, some bankrolled by the fossil fuel industry, take back the Senate, they could roll back those hard-fought environmental safeguards, say activists.
Environmentalists, though, have reason for optimism, analysts say. While climate change was rarely mentioned in the 2012 presidential campaign, the 2014 elections appear poised to be the biggest yet for energy and environment-related television ads, according to Elizabeth Wilner of Kantar Media/CMAG, which tracks political advertising.
Targeting climate deniers
NextGen's campaign has supported candidates, elected officials and policy makers who have said they would take bold action on climate change. But the campaign is also designed to expose climate change deniers in television ads and on its website.
Florida Gov. Rick Scott, for example, has said, “I’ve not been convinced that there’s any man-made climate change … nothing’s convinced me that there is.”
But Florida is already seeing the effects of climate change, NextGen said, adding that 2.4 million people and 1.3 million homes are at risk from rising sea levels. The state has been called "ground zero for climate change" in America.
“With rising water already eating away at the coastline and threatening cities, Florida is largely considered ground zero for climate change in the United States,” Katherine Bagley, reporter for Inside Climate News, wrote in August. “Increased flooding in Miami and Fort Lauderdale, disappearing beaches and endangered freshwater supplies are making climate change a top issue in the governor’s race, opinion polling shows.”
The contrast between Scott and his Democratic opponent, Charlie Crist, on environmental issues could tip the scales in one of the closest races this year, Bagley added.
To help push voters toward electing leaders that will take a stand on climate change, NextGen has partnered with people working against the effects of climate change in their communities to show the reality Americans could face without bold action.
A short documentary the organization produced, entitled “Emma’s Fight,” profiles a Michigan woman working to save her community from pollution and disease she believes have been caused by a tar sands refinery adjacent to her Detroit home.
Emma Lockridge, 61, said the tight-knit community she grew up in has been decimated by the constant pollution, which has caused property prices to tank — leaving residents with little hope of relocating. Many residents have said they want out, and the community is suffering from a disproportionate occurrence of illnesses that Lockridge blames on the pollution. The zip code she lives in is widely believed to be the most polluted in the state.
“I think we’re infected with chemicals, and all of us are walking around like ticking time bombs,” Lockridge told Al Jazeera. “We’re just waiting for our cancer to come forward, our autoimmune disease or respiratory illness to present itself.”
She said what’s happening to her community could happen to anyone, as corporations take advantage of the lack of regulations and are effectively “allowed to kill people.”
“It’s really frightening that there are no guidelines to protect human health on fenceline communities … this is just the beginning, it just begins with us … at the end of the day the whole society will be polluted,” Lockridge said. A “fenceline community” refers to a residential area located near an industrial zone that emits noise, chemicals or odors deemed hazardous to human health.
Until recently, pollution has disproportionately affected poorer, urban neighborhoods — which Lockridge called “sacrifice zones” because they suffer the consequences while corporations reap profits. But now, she said, with the advent of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking — a controversial oil and gas extraction process that has been linked to pollution, earthquakes and some illnesses — wealthy and rural communities are being affected.
“They’re up in arms, they’re getting online and getting organized,” Lockridge said, adding that friends of hers, who had recently purchased a “beautiful” home in the countryside, now have a fracking site about 400 feet away.
“It’s starting to resonate now,” Lockridge said. “And we’re seeing it in the numbers, the way the races are tightening up here in Michigan.”
With wire services