How Climate Won in the U.S. Election: Lessons for Canadians

How Climate Won in the U.S. Election: Lessons for Canadians

Kunoor Ojha, Jessy Tolkan and Matto Mildenberger joined Climate Access’ Cara Pike on April 8th to discuss why climate change surged into the U.S. election cycle and lessons for the upcoming Canadian election.

Here’s the full recording and here are some of the key insights:

  • The climate movement transformed beyond the white environmentalist silo.
  • Youth flipped the strategy of “organize to mobilize” on its head and “mobilized to organize.”
  • Combining economic justice and green investments makes policy packages more popular.

And here’s a taste of the conversation:

Q: The Green New Deal was over a decade in the making  what were some of the key interventions that elevated it during the recent 2020 US election? 

Kunoor Ojha, (Chief of Staff, Green New Deal Network)
The Sunrise Movement created media moments to help reach and mobilize climate concerned youth, which exponentially grew America’s climate base. Campaigners used that power to push climate into the Democratic Party’s agenda in a serious way, compelling candidates to compete on the best climate policy. 

  • The sunrise movement flipped the idea of “organize to mobilize” on its head with “mobilize to organize”. They used high-conflict media moments (like the infamous AOC sit-in at Pelosi’s office) to get a ton of eyes on them — their base grew exponentially. Now they have organizers all over the country and the infrastructure needed to mobilize on an ongoing basis.
  • Sunrise’ scorecard to judge candidates worked really well [during the nomination race] — they initially gave Biden an “F”, which was a huge statement. Suddenly, policy folks were really working to make sure their candidate’s score was going to be as high as humanly possible.
  • The movement campaigned to have the DNC (Democratic National Committee) host a climate debate. It didn’t happen, but the demands were so widely heard and seemed so popular that eventually one of the primetime networks hosted a series of climate town halls with each candidate digging into climate policy questions. 

Q: What has changed about how climate change is being discussed and prioritized, and what are some of the factors that led to that?

Jessy Tolkan (Founder & CEO, Drive Agency) 
For the climate movement to actually have political power it needed to expand and change and transform beyond the white environmentalist silo. People of colour and younger people have shaped a new climate conversation that addresses the issues that matter to them — equity, justice, jobs, infrastructure — and it better reflects how voters actually live in the world. 

  • We were not just talking about the environment, we realized we were going to need to talk about redesigning the economy and address issues of equity and we would need many different groups and communities at the table. 
  • The climate movement was not going to be a movement run by white environmental groups that got to decide whether or not communities of color got to play. The climate movement needed to expand and change and transform, and the politics have reflected that. 
  • Historically, huge constituencies had been ignored by campaigners because they were considered undependable voters. We now know that if you target voters and you talk about the issues they care about and you ask them to vote and participate, they will in fact participate.

Q: In terms of the changing electorate, can you give us a sketch of what that meant in terms of climate in the last election and whether or not it influenced voting?

Matto Mildenberger (Assistant Professor of Political Sciences, University of California-Santa Barbara) 
There was a real social movement around climate change for the first time in the United States, which had a big impact on shaping the debate. Part and parcel to the New Green Deal is a whole set of social issues that need to be integrated and resolved together. These new climate policies imagine a positive future that delivers benefits and good things for everyone. It is a very different paradigm than carbon pricing, which is rhetorically focused on sacrifice and loss.

  • We need to credit the Sunrise Movement, Green New Deal movement, Inslee campaign, and we need to also acknowledge that people feel the climate crisis is accelerating.
  • Natural disasters (wildfires/storms) are being understood by Democrats as climate related and increasing their commitment to costly, ambitious, serious government action. But many Republican voters are not understanding their lived, disruptive experiences as being climate-related. So there is a polarization in not just attitudes towards climate change, but also in the degree to which the issue is being prioritized and seen as central to the political agenda of the two parties.
  • Addressing climate change is a vehicle to address issues of unemployment. And I don’t think we should take that lightly because that type of rhetoric and coalition building and policymaking is categorically different than the way climate policy was debated and organized politically, even 10 years ago.

Those are just a few of the questions the panelists drilled into. You can watch a recording of the full conversation here.

You’ll also hear about:

  • Breaking down the disconnect between public and elite discourse. How advocates can help leaders understand how much broad-based support there is for climate action. 
  • The importance for Canadians of celebrating the US case within Canada and positioning really ambitious Canadian action as catching up with, or following in US footsteps.
  • And, how to present a proactive, solution-oriented vision that gives people hope in the middle of this crisis, that will be a magnet for all kinds of voters. 

Additional Resources 

What do Canadians Really Think About Climate Change?