JAMES ISLAND, S.C. – More than a half-century ago, Millicent Brown became one of the first students to integrate South Carolina’s schools. The Charleston native has spent a lifetime as a teacher and activist, fighting for social and racial justice.
But in recent years, as she watched her beloved coastline pounded by hurricanes and saw residents displaced by crippling floods, as spring blooms arrive too early and Lowcountry fishermen face shrinking catches, Brown has been troubled by another source of injustice: climate change.
“I just don’t know that in times past people associated the environment with their day-to-day lives the way they are seeing now. That’s the tragedy that the past few years have brought,” said Brown, a 71-year-old Democrat, on a mild winter evening this week. “There’s no running away from this.”
As she surveys the electoral landscape, Brown said she pines for a leader “who has the capacity for trusting science and investing in a way we think is going to help the planet survive.”
Climate change and the environment have emerged as a front-burner issue in early Democratic primary states this presidential election cycle, in ways difficult to fathom only a few years ago.
As Democrats vie for the chance to challenge President Donald Trump in the fall, candidates are talking about the warming planet and environmental justice more than ever on the campaign trail, bemoaning Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris climate accord and bashing his relentless rollback of U.S. environmental regulations.
In Iowa, where wind energy is booming and residents have endured historic flooding, climate change ranked as the second-most important issue among voters in the recent caucuses. It was eclipsed only by health care, according to polls conducted by Edison Media Research for The Washington Post and other news outlets.
In New Hampshire, where moose populations are shrinking and winters are warming rapidly – and where exits poll four years ago didn’t even mention climate change – a quarter of primary voters this month listed it as the issue that mattered most, ranking it higher than income inequality and foreign policy.
And in Nevada, potential voters have singled out the issue as their second-most critical, behind health care but ahead of the economy, according to a Suffolk/USA Today/Reno Gazette Journal poll in January.
Less clear is whether one Democratic candidate in particular will benefit from the shift. In Iowa and New Hampshire, climate-focused voters gravitated overwhelmingly to Bernie Sanders and Pete Buttigieg. But then, voters of all stripes propelled those candidates to the top of the early contests.
Rather than focusing intensely on climate, Democratic voters appear most concerned by the central goal of kicking Trump out of the White House, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll released Wednesday. By a wide margin, 58% to 38%, Democrats say they would rather nominate a candidate who can defeat Trump than one who agrees with them on major issues.
At the same time, climate change – once an electoral afterthought – shows few signs of fading as the nominating contests move on to Nevada, South Carolina and the 14 states that will vote on March 3, Super Tuesday.
A survey from Pew Research Center released this month showed that a majority of Americans now say combating climate change should be a key focus for the president. Nearly two-thirds of Americans also say protecting the environment should be a top policy priority – ranking the issue almost as high as economic concerns.
Democrats underscored the issue during Wednesday night’s debate in Nevada, with candidates promising to rejoin the Paris climate accord, halt drilling on public lands and clean up toxic waste and pollution in minority communities.
“We’ve just got to do something now,” said former New York mayor Mike Bloomberg, whose foundation has spent hundreds of millions of collars to help close coal plants and shift to cleaner energy. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., said bold action is critical to avoid “irreparable damage” in coming years. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., said leaders can’t just talk about climate change “in big global terms,” but rather must focus on specific communities suffering because of it.
Among Latino voters in Nevada and elsewhere, climate is of particular concern. Three in four Latinos are worried about global warming, according to a 2017 survey commissioned by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication.
Alexa Aispuro, who has seen her state battered by heat waves and wildfires, is one of those voters.
“There’s no way to ignore the climate crisis,” said Aispuro, a 22-year-old student at the College of Southern Nevada and volunteer with Chispa, a Latino voter outreach effort by the League of Conservation Voters. “People are realizing this is urgent. We have to deal with it now, not later.”
Since she first worked on behalf of environmental groups during the Nevada caucus four years ago, Aispuro said she has been struck by how the climate has surged from obscurity to prominence, particularly among first-time voters.
“Young people are talking about this,” Aispuro said. “We want changes. We want to see how we can make this a better planet, a healthier planet.”
In South Carolina, climate is a concern for some voters, but the economy and education have been more prominent historically, said Scott Huffmon, a political science professor and executive director of the Center for Public Opinion & Policy Research at Winthrop University.
That could change as candidates descend on South Carolina ahead of its Feb. 29 primary, said Gibbs Knotts, who chairs the political science department at the College of Charleston. “It’s on people’s minds,” he said. “People realize how vulnerable we are in this coastal environment.”
In Spartanburg on Monday, Democratic presidential hopeful Tom Steyer was flanked by local black leaders as he reminded a crowd of nearly 200 that climate change remains his top priority. In part, he said, that’s because the consequences of a warming world fall disproportionately on communities of color, which historically have faced more threats from polluted air and water.
“Environmental justice and racial justice and economic justice are inseparable. They are one thing,” Steyer told the applauding crowd in a state where the majority of Democratic voters are African American. “I’ve always looked at this as a human issue. And there’s a gigantic racial undertone to that human issue.”
The next day, Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg drove through the rain-soaked, puddle-pocked streets of his city, pointing out public works projects underway to deal with rising sea levels and increased flooding. In 2019, the city experienced more frequent flooding than any year on record.
In his reelection campaign last year, Tecklenburg made addressing the problem his top issue. The city, which has an annual budget of roughly $200 million, has estimated that it would take $2 billion to make all the necessary infrastructure improvements.
Tecklenburg acknowledges that it is a monumental task, one that will require time, creativity and help from state and federal officials. In his office on Broad Street hangs a poster of his priorities. At the top of the list: Protect this fragile place from rising seas and flooding.
“It’s the challenge of our time,” he said, as he eyed storm drains, looking for problems.
As many voters worry about increasing global temperatures and the flooding, fires and extreme weather in their own backyards, environmental groups have seized on the moment to try to drive climate-conscious voters to the polls.
Former vice president Al Gore announced a national campaign this week to register voters, boost turnout and bolster support for climate action during the 2020 election.
The League of Conservation Voters is running a $3 million effort aimed at ensuring that the 2020 Democratic nominee is committed to aggressive climate policy. The group dispatched organizers to Nevada, South Carolina and other states to press candidates on their policies and track what promises they make – and don’t make.
“Since we launched the program, every leading Democratic candidate has released a comprehensive plan to combat the climate crisis that is based on science, rooted in equity, and prioritizes justice,” spokeswoman Emily Samsel said in an email.
Nevada is one of a dozen states where Nathaniel Stinnett’s Boston-based group, Environmental Voter Project, is using data analytics to identify people who care deeply about environmental issues but have not voted in the past. The group doesn’t endorse candidates; it just tries to persuade people to go to the polls. The rest, Stinnett believes, will take care of itself.
“Politicians care about what voters think, not what non-voters think,” said Stinnett, whose group has thousands of volunteers. “Politicians go where the votes are.”
Stinnett says the number of environment-first voters is rising, and they don’t necessarily fit the stereotype.
“It is a less white, less wealthy group than most people imagine,” Stinnett said. “People who are on the front lines of climate change, people who are feeling the impacts of environmental injustice – these are the people who list climate change and environmental justice as their top priority.”
Back in South Carolina, at her home on James Island, Brown thinks any of the Democratic candidates would provide a welcome change from a president who has dismissed the warnings of scientists and scaled back environmental protections.
“If I have any optimism left in me, I believe we will have some return to decency and common sense,” she said.
Her family has been in South Carolina for six generations, and she has a son and grandson who will face the environmental changes that come long after she is gone. She’ll think of them as she heads to the polls this year, she said.
“I’m certainly concerned about this world we are abusing, that they are going to have to deal with. I have no idea what it’s going to look like for them,” Brown said. “We better care and raise our voices now. We can’t just say we’ll let another generation deal with it. We have got to call that clarion call.”
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The Washington Post’s Scott Clement and Emily Guskin contributed to this report.