Acknowledged by all Democratic candidates as an existential threat to the nation, the gravity of climate change has hung over the long primary as candidates attempt to find solutions and engage in the issue with advocates, youth, scientists and members of industry, like farmers.
“The issue of the climate emergency, it’s moved in a way that’s made it a priority issue for this election in ways that have not happened before,” said Malik Russell with The Climate Mobilization, an environmental advocacy group. “The genie is out of the bottle. Candidates are realizing now that they cannot become the next president unless they have a climate emergency plan that addresses this threat that the world is facing.”
The Democrats running for president have found ways to weave the issue into their stump speeches, onto the national debate stage, and on some occasions, at campaign events dedicated specifically to the issue. Climate advocates throughout Iowa and across the country aren’t finished raising the issue, however.
“We can look at this climate emergency also as an opportunity. It’s not just an opportunity to bring the world back to a safer climate to transform it into a green economy or to a healthier world that preserves the future of our young people,” Russell said. “It’s an opportunity to create a better world. And that’s why young people are so riled up. They see the potential to transform.”
Climate Narratives During The Iowa Caucus
Russell said that solving the climate crisis would require mobilization similar to nationwide efforts during and after World War II. But he isn’t the first to make that comparison.
Former Vice President Joe Biden often brought up that point while talking about the issue at his campaign events.
“The existential threat to this country is climate change. Think about the United States of America. We’re the only country in the history of the world that’s been able to take gigantic problems and turn them into incredible opportunities,” Biden said.
“Look what our mothers, fathers, grandmothers and grandfathers did after World War II. Europe was on its back, the world was on its back. We came along with a plan that spent billions of dollars to lift the world out of poverty, and who benefited the most? The United States of America and our economy grew by leaps and bounds.”
Large scale mobilization and change surrounding climate change was discussed in a different light in Sen. Bernie Sanders’ campaign, when he laid out a “political revolution” to achieve his $16 trillion climate change plan that would transition U.S. electricity generation away from fossil fuels to renewable resources like wind, solar and hydropower by 2030.
Because of his lofty plans, Sanders received the endorsement of the national Sunrise Movement, a group that includes a number of young people aggressively trying to tackle the issue.
“Bernie Sanders is one critical part of the equation, but he won’t be everything,” Varshini Prakash, co-founder and executive director of the Sunrise Movement, said in a video announcing the endorsement.
“When Bernie Sanders says he’ll be the organizer in chief, what I hear is that he’s saying that it isn’t just about him, that we can’t enact a political revolution in this country just because of one man or one moment. This has to be the sustained effort of millions of people,” Prakash said.
Young people have taken leading roles in the fight to combat climate change, most notably Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old climate activist who leads “Friday for the Future” climate strikes around the globe. Thunberg visited Iowa City in the midst of the caucus cycle last fall.
In Iowa, young people hosted candidates to speak about climate, introduced them at events and organized for candidates around the issue, among other actions.
Russell draws another parallel between the climate movement and past mobilizations around social issues: youth striking for climate is similar to youth rallying against the Vietnam War.
“If you look back at what happened in the Vietnam War, there were movements started by younger people who were like, ‘No, we don’t want this type of imperialistic, militaristic war to represent the ideals of our country,'” Russell said. “They took to the forefront in terms of protesting because they were thinking about what type of world they wanted to live in. Today, young people are saying no, we have to take steps to restore our future.”
Iowa Climate Strike organizer Lydia Pesek began the Iowa branch of the Youth Climate Strike at the beginning of the 2019-20 school year. Pesek said she became more politically active since getting involved in climate activism.
At 14, as a freshman in high school, she recruited 18 main organizers and about 20 student ambassadors who worked on outreach at their schools around the Des Moines area. She also introduced Sanders in front of the Iowa Statehouse before the Dec. 6 climate rally.
Isha Kalia, a senior at Linn Marr High School in Marion, and a few peers organized an event hosting Democratic hopeful Julian Castro at their high school in September.
Kalia is active in the Cedar Rapids hub of the Sunrise Movement, which had its hand in a number of candidate events this election cycle.
A number of Pete Buttigieg youth organizers based in the state have backgrounds in climate activism, and one even helped start what is now the Sunrise Movement.
The Buttigieg organizers said they were drawn to his climate strategy because of his emphasis on including the rural community in finding climate solutions.
Toby Cain, the regional political director who oversaw rural and agricultural outreach for Buttigieg’s campaign in Iowa, said they often held small listening sessions in rural communities, where one of the most frequent issues brought up is climate change, and the ability of farmers in rural communities to support themselves.
“I’m hearing a lot of farmers and folks on the ground worried about the impacts of climate change,” Cain said.
Paying Farmers To Combat Climate Change
One of the largest successes to come out of the 2020 Iowa Caucus cycle was the idea of paying farmers to utilize environmentally-friendly practices. A now widely adopted aspect of most candidates’ climate/rural policies, the idea focuses on how farmers could be financially incentivized to utilize practices like carbon sequestration.
The idea was originally conceived by a few Iowans who pitched the concept to former presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke. After the Texas congressman included the idea in some of his policy proposals, competitors also caught on. Now, at nearly any Democratic campaign event, the idea is brought up on the issue of climate.
Matt Russell, executive director of Interfaith Power and Light — a group that pushes for faith-based solutions to climate change — was one of the Iowans to make this message a widely accepted climate strategy.
He has led statewide discussions in church basements with farmers across the political spectrum to mobilize the state, and now the country, on the issue.
“That work had a profound impact on the climate change discussion in Iowa and in the candidates and therefore in a national effort,” Matt Russell said. “I was at the debate in Iowa at Drake. I was sitting not far from Secretary Vilsack, and at the end of the night I turned to him and I said, ‘Secretary Vilsack, you realize that farmers solving climate change got more mention than ethanol tonight.’”
Matt Russell’s message is that farmers and rural Americans are capable of bringing solutions to the environmental impacts of climate change. But in order to do that, farmers need to lead and need a change in agricultural economics to reward their leadership. Making this message clear wouldn’t have been achievable outside of the caucus cycle, he said. IPL has also connected around 30 national and international media outlets with participating farmers to elevate the issue.
“What we can say, with excitement, is that coming out of this caucus cycle, there’s an opportunity to do that work. And there’s hope. We’ve got Republican farmers, Democratic farmers, really looking to find ways to come to solutions on our farms that have a positive climate impact,” Matt Russell said. “That was very much our strategy. The surprise was how effective it was. We knew that all of that was possible in a way that wouldn’t have been if we weren’t in the middle of a caucus cycle.”
Iowans’ Contributions To Climate Debate
Iowans involved in climate discussions have been in the state for a while, and are here to stay.
Dianne Dillon-Ridgley moved to Burlington 40 years ago from Massachusetts. During her career, she’s domestically and internationally worked on environmental issues, including being appointed by the White House to the U.S. delegation for the Earth Summit in Rio, the UN General Assembly’s special session in 1997, and the World Summit on Sustainable Development in South Africa, making her the only person to serve on all three U.S. delegations.
Dillon-Ridgley said she has insisted on continuing to live in Iowa because of her allies and the partnerships here.
“There are a large number of people in Iowa who understand these issues, who are ready to be allies and to work with the resources if we could just get our political officials to officially put those forward,” she said. “We’ve had far more progressive proposals made.”
Another Iowan who understands and works on climate issues is state Sen. Rob Hogg of Cedar Rapids who held “climate conversations” with presidential candidates ahead of the Feb. 3 caucuses.
On the Iowa campaign trail, Hogg said Democratic candidates have offered positive solutions to climate change, most often within the framework of the Green New Deal. Setting the tone for the climate change conversation in the Democratic primary, ideas from the legislation were adopted by most of the top-tier candidates.
“The bottom line is that all of the Democratic candidates who I’ve met with and who are left in the race have a deep commitment to acting on climate,” Hogg said.
By Isabella Murray