The issues of climate change and renewable energy will be key issues during the presidential primaries and the general election, promised NextGen Climate leader Tom Steyer at a press conference at Drake University earlier this week. The man financing the climate action organization plans a robust operation during the Iowa Caucus to force candidates to explain their positions on the climate issues and clean energy and hold them accountable for their views. On Wednesday he warned that many Republicans candidates have already placed themselves in the science denying camp.
“If you get pushed to the right in the Republican primary on energy and climate, what does that do to your general election prospects?” Steyer cautioned when asked about Republican positions discussed so far. “If you’re going to be the candidate, you don’t want to disqualify yourself by the time you’re running. Both sides of the aisle are going to be paying attention to what people say here in the primary debates.”
Steyer joined Drake students and the NextGen Iowa team on Earth Day to encourage presidential candidates to support renewable energy. They placed special emphasis on extending the wind production tax credit, which has proven helpful to Iowa’s recovering economy. Steyer said he felt wind energy shouldn’t be a partisan issue at all. Laine Shipman, an engineer at TPI in Newton, a wind turbine manufacturer, explained how he’s seen co-workers laid off when the government hasn’t supported wind energy industry assistance.
NextGen sees the Iowa Caucus as a key opportunity for climate issues to be brought to the forefront of American politics. “There’s one specific political time that’s very present right now, it’s very present in this state at this moment – that nine months until the Iowa Caucuses in 2016,” Steyer said. “During that time, Iowa has the great fortune of hosting America’s political conversation … we want [climate] to be an important part of the conversation. We want every candidate to have a chance to be on the record so that voters can have a chance to see if what they’re saying makes sense or not.”
Steyer called Iowa “a paradigm for what’s supposed to happen” when it comes to renewable energy, noting Iowa has the highest percentage of wind energy of any state in the country at 28%. “This is not something where we’re hoping to create jobs, we’re hoping to have clean energy, we have ideas that might work,” he said. “This is something that is here, we know how to do, we can expand… What we’re talking about is not can we do this, but do we want to do this.”
Steyer didn’t rule out engaging the Democratic field, but suggested their main focus right now was the Republican candidates, considering how many of them are actively campaigning right now. So far on the Republican side, Steyer called their statements mixed. He noted Jeb Bush recently said we need to address climate issues, but that plenty of others, like Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, have denied the basic science of climate change to begin with. Chris Christie has said there’s no proof that Hurricane Sandy, which devastated his state, had anything to do with climate changes. He also closed his state’s Office of Climate Change.
Rochelle Younan-Montgomery of the Alliance for Climate Education explained some of the real-world impacts people are already seeing from climate change. “Iowa’s been in the news for extreme and hazardous weather,” she said. “In just the two year period between 2010 and 2012, extreme weather cost the state $3.4 billion, mostly in damage to crops. From farms to families, Iowans are feeling the effects of climate change on their land and in their wallets.” She also related a story of a Los Angeles high school student she worked with who, while running track on an extremely hot day, literally had her shoes start to melt off her feet and nearly passed out, only to discover later that it had been the hottest day on record in Los Angeles.
NextGen is concentrating many of their efforts on young people, who they remind will be most impacted by a changing climate over the years. They organized heavily on college campuses in 2014, and look to do even more with young people this time around. “Students really do hold power,” said Drake student Shereen Hunitie at the press conference. “We’ll be enacting this power at the polls this election. Young people make up about 1/3 of the voting electorate for 2016, so candidates really do need to take a stance on climate change and act on renewable issues.”
It’s notable that of all places Steyer could spend Earth Day on, he chose Drake University and Des Moines, Iowa to promote his organization’s message. Iowa will likely be ground zero for climate change messaging efforts. Plenty of independent issue organizations have mobilized voters during past caucuses to sway candidates on their issues, but none have been as well-financed or well-organized as NextGen likely will be. Their field team and volunteer structure remains from the 2014 cycle, so they’re already better organized than even some presidential campaigns. They’ll be an interesting organization to watch during 2016 as they ensure climate issues are a part of the presidential debate.
by Pat Rynard