With a population of little more than 200,000, Washington’s Whatcom County has rarely been an electoral battlefield. But this year, nearly a million dollars in outside donations flooded races for four seats on the county council, which will vote on a controversial coal export facility in the coming years. All of the candidates supported by environmental groups won, marking a rare political triumph for climate hawks over the energy industry.
Such victories could become more common, as mainstream environmental groups and new political action committees (PACs) leverage millions to make climate change a key issue in political campaigns. This year, green groups targeted three races with the intention of putting climate on the ballot: June’s special election for a Massachusetts senate seat, the governor’s race in Virginia, and the Whatcom County elections. Environmentalists established a robust grassroots presence and outspent fossil fuel and industry lobbies in each race. They won all three.
“It shows the environmental community is able to play in a serious way, politically,” said Navin Nayak, vice-president for campaigns at the League of Conservation Voters. In Virginia, the League’s state organization funneled nearly $1 million to Terry McAuliffe, making the group his second-largest donor behind the Democratic Governors Association. Nayak estimated that the League ran the largest field program outside the official campaigns, knocking on 300,000 doors. McAuliffe won by just 55,000 votes.
“The fact that both sides went head to head on climate change…and the pro-climate candidate prevailed is a big deal, especially in a state like Virginia,” said Nayak. The implication for 2014 is that climate change denial can be turned into a losing issue. McAuliffe is no climate hawk, but he has been supportive of renewable energy and said in early October that he supported the EPA’s new carbon pollution rules for power plants. Ken Cuccinelli, on the other hand, is a close friend and beneficiary of the fossil fuel industry, and a climate change denier who made opposition to environmental regulation a prominent part of his platform. Energy contributed more than any other industry to his campaign, with Big Coal accounting for over half those donations.
McAuliffe attacked Cuccinelli in a TV ad for using taxpayer money to investigate a prominent climate scientist at the University of Virginia named Michael Mann, known for his “hockey stick” chart showing a sharp rise in temperatures in the last century. Similar ads were run by NextGen Climate Action Committee, a PAC founded by the San Francisco billionaire Tom Steyer who is best known for his opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline. In total, NextGen mobilized more than $2 million against Cuccinelli. “It’s a very clear signal to candidates who deny the basic science of climate change,” said Nayak.
The results in Whatcom County suggest that climate can be winning issue, too. What drew the flood of money into the council elections is a proposal to build an export terminal in the town of Cherry Point, which would transfer 48 million tons of coal carried from Montana and Wyoming by rail to cargo ships bound for Asia. While the implications of the port are global, its fate may be decided locally. Siting permits require the council’s approval, and a no vote could halt development indefinitely.