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Climate hawks unite! Meet the newest members of Congress who will fight climate change.

Last week was an awful one for anyone who cares about the environment.

The new Congress and president-elect have a broad, aggressive, anti-environment agenda. Donald Trump has promised to scrap the Paris agreement, repeal all climate regulations, and approve every oil pipeline he can find. Congressional Republicans have spent years practicing for this moment by passing bills that eviscerate the government’s power to regulate pollution. And it’s sure to get worse as Trump fills his cabinet with fossil fuel magnates and climate science deniers.

But amid all the depressing news, there were a handful of election results that offer a glimmer of hope. At least five candidates with strong climate credentials won offices in Congress, and they have an impressive range of personal and political backgrounds. Here’s a quick overview of the newest congressional climate hawks.

Chris Van Hollen: Van Hollen is a progressive from the Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C., who just won election to the Senate. He served for the last 13 years in the House of Representatives, where he co-chaired the Bicameral Task Force on Climate Change and the Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Caucus. When he served in Maryland’s legislature, he helped pass a comprehensive package of tax incentives to support clean energy.

Last year, Van Hollen introduced the “Healthy Climate and Family Security Act.” The bill would cap and gradually reduce carbon pollution, set up an auction for carbon pollution permits, and hand over proceeds to Americans in the form of an annual dividend. The League of Conservation Voters gives him a near-perfect 98 percent lifetime voting score.

Ever the optimist, Van Hollen told Grist that he thinks there are some issues around energy policy in which he hopes to work with Republicans, especially in light of president-elect Donald Trump’s pitch for new infrastructure investment.

“I do think there are possible opportunities,” Van Hollen says. “One is in the focus on modernizing our infrastructure, which we should look at in an expansive way to include everything from broadband to clean energy.”

Van Hollen also thinks a “green bank,” which would lend capital to businesses, non-profits, and local governments for energy efficiency and clean energy projects, could be incorporated into a Trump administration’s infrastructure bill.

Of course, Republicans have largely resisted such proposals. (Van Hollen introduced a bill to create a green bank in 2014 that went nowhere.) But Van Hollen thinks that could change if Democrats stress the high cost of inaction.

“We need to continue to emphasize the costs of doing nothing and the opportunities for economic growth,” Van Hollen says. “We need to highlight that the United States better not fall behind our competitors.”

Kamala Harris: Sen. Barbara Boxer, the longtime climate leader from California, is retiring. Her replacement is Harris, the Golden State’s attorney general and a charismatic African-American woman. Harris excited the state’s climate activists earlier this year when she launched an investigation into whether ExxonMobil lied about climate science. Her environmental platform included calling for carbon pricing and a raft of proposals to address California’s water shortage.

“She fully understands that the drought is going to have a profound effect on California’s future and that the drought is caused in part by climate change,” says R.L. Miller, the California-based founder of Climate Hawks Vote, a political action committee that supported Harris and other pro-climate candidates.

Miller says she was underwhelmed by the details of Harris’s campaign climate policy and disappointed that the investigation of ExxonMobil hasn’t produced any results. Still, she is inclined to trust Harris’s instincts. “She has a thin record,” Miller says, “but it’s very promising.”

Nanette Barragán: Barragán ran a pro-climate congressional campaign in California’s 44th district. Barragán, a Latina lawyer and former member of the Hermosa Beach City Council, helped lead a successful campaign to stop new oil drilling in the city. She also helped pass a ban on plastic bags and backed the city’s goal of getting carbon neutral by 2020.

In an interview with Grist during the campaign, Barragán emphasized her commitment to environmental justice for her largely low-income, overwhelmingly non-white district in the Los Angeles area. Her opponent in the general election — California has nonpartisan primaries — was state senator Isadore Hall, one of California’s top recipients of fossil-fuel donations. Hall moved left on environment and energy policy in the campaign and was the state party establishment’s favorite. But Barragán appears to have pulled off a narrow upset win. (Ballots are still being counted, but she is ahead by several thousand votes.)

Salud Carbajal: Another Latino climate leader from California, Carbajal is a supervisor in Santa Barbara County. Climate Hawks Vote backed Carbajal because he stood up against fracking, fighting for a ballot measure to ban it in 2014, even as it went down to defeat.

“He showed the political courage we expect,” says Miller of Climate Hawks Vote. “He stood by it even when he knew it was going down in flames.”

Miller recounts a story from late October to illustrate Carbajal’s commitment. Santa Barbara’s County Council was closely divided on a proposal to approve 96 new oil wells in the area. Kamala Harris, whose election to the Senate looked certain, was campaigning for down-ballot Democrats in tight races. She went to Santa Barbara County, because Carbajal was in a very close race. But he missed the event with Harris to attend the county council vote over the wells. In the end, Carbajal cast the decisive vote rejecting them.

“He was willing to forgo being there with one of California’s most popular politicians,” Miller says. “He did the right thing: took the vote instead of standing up on the stage. That’s the kind of dedicated public servant that we’re looking for.”

Brad Schneider: While congressional climate hawks tend to cluster on the coasts, you can find some in the Midwest. One is Illinois congressman Brad Schneider, who lost his House seat in 2014 but just reclaimed it last week. During his previous two-year term, Schneider racked up an impressive LCV score of 90 percent.

Schneider had the backing of a number of green groups in this election. He earned the endorsement of Vote Climate USA PAC, a pro-climate political action committee, after he declared his support for a nationwide carbon tax or a similar scheme to put prices on emissions.

The Sierra Club praised him for fighting for the Great Lakes Restoration Fund and for defending “environmental safeguards against Republican efforts to dismantle them.”

That last part refers to congressional Republicans constant assault on regulations of carbon and conventional pollutants, an attack sure to resume next year.

Any action to combat climate change under a Trump administration will require boundless stamina, local organizing, and dedicated climate leaders who push the boundaries of what is politically possible. And, despite all the negative news, there will be a fresh crop of such leaders coming to Washington.

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Climate hawks unite! Meet the newest members of Congress who will fight climate change.

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Is Bernie Sanders the Best Candidate on Climate Change?

Mother Jones

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This article originally appeared in Grist and is republished here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

The Democratic presidential primary race got its second major candidate recently, and its first true climate hawk: Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, self-described democratic socialist. Sanders has one of the strongest climate change records in the Senate. In fact, according to rankings released by Climate Hawks Vote, a new super PAC, Sanders was the No. 1 climate leader in the Senate for the 113th Congress that ended in January.

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Is Bernie Sanders the Best Candidate on Climate Change?

Climate Hawks Vote measures leadership, not just voting records, tabulating actions like bills introduced, speeches given, and so forth. In the 112th Congress, Sanders ranked third behind Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) and Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.). In the last Congress, he edged out Whitehouse by one point.

“Sanders is very much among the top leaders,” says R.L. Miller, founder of Climate Hawks Vote. “He has a record of really strong advocacy for solar in particular.” Miller notes that distributed solar, which enables everyone with a solar panel to create their own energy instead of relying on a monopolistic utility company, fits especially well with Sanders’ democratic socialist philosophy. It’s bad for corporations and good for regular folks who get to own the means of production.

Here are some of the highlights from Sanders’ climate and clean energy record:

In 2013, along with Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), Sanders introduced the Climate Protection Act, a fee-and-dividend bill. It would tax carbon and methane emissions and rebate three-fifths of the revenue to citizens, then invest the remainder in energy efficiency, clean energy, and climate resiliency. The bill, of course, went nowhere (even if it had advanced in the Democratic-controlled Senate, it would have been DOA in the Republican-controlled House), but it shows that Sanders supports serious solutions and wants to keep the conversation going.
Also in 2013, Sanders introduced the Residential Energy Savings Act to fund financing programs that would help residents retrofit their homes for energy efficiency. This bill didn’t become law either.
In 2012, Sanders introduced the End Polluter Welfare Act, to get rid of special tax deductions and credits for coal, oil, and gas producers. As he wrote in Grist at the time, “It is immoral that some in Congress advocate savage cuts in Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security while those same people vote to preserve billions in tax breaks for ExxonMobil, the most profitable corporation in America.” The bill didn’t pass.
In 2010, Sanders authored a bill to spread distributed solar throughout the country, the very literally named “10 Million Solar Roofs & 10 Million Gallons of Solar Hot Water Act.” As Grist’s David Roberts explained, it would “provide rebates that cover up to half the cost of new systems, along the lines of incentive programs in California and New Jersey.” The bill didn’t pass.
In 2007, he cowrote with then-Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) the Green Jobs Act, which allocated funding for clean energy and energy efficiency research and job training. This did pass, as part of a big 2007 energy bill.
Also in 2007, with Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), he cosponsored the Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grant Program, to help states and local governments pay for efficiency and clean energy programs. It was also passed as part of the 2007 energy bill, and both the block grant program and the green jobs program got a funding infusion from the 2009 stimulus package.

So we know Sanders is dedicated to climate action and clean energy. Looking forward, though, it’s unclear how Sanders will differentiate his climate and energy proposals from Clinton’s. Clinton, like President Obama, firmly supports regulating carbon emissions domestically and getting strong international agreements to reduce emissions globally. While it is certainly true that Sanders has made more of an issue of his support for the same, it is not necessarily an issue on which Clinton needs to be pushed leftward. Many climate hawks love the fee-and-dividend approach that Sanders supports, but the truth is that no big climate-pricing bill will pass in the next few years, no matter who’s president, because the Republicans will continue to control the House. And Clinton already supports the kind of strong executive action that Obama is taking to curb CO2 emissions from power plants.

One way Sanders could set himself apart as the greenest candidate would be to propose clamping down on domestic fossil fuel extraction, especially on federal lands and waters—something a president could move on without congressional approval. Sanders has not spoken up about the extraction issue in general, but he could call for a moratorium on fossil fuel leasing offshore or on federal land. That would please climate activists, who are already expressing concern that Clinton isn’t committed to keeping dirty fuel sources in the ground. “What we really need,” says Miller, “is someone to advocate for closing down the Powder River Basin”—an area in Montana and Wyoming that’s a huge source of coal mined from federal land—”but no one is really willing to come out and say that, so instead they come out for higher prices on coal leases. Sanders has not.”

In an interview with the Washington Post‘s Greg Sargent, Sanders called for a progressive climate agenda that includes a carbon tax and investments in renewables, energy efficiency, and alternative transportation—but he made no mention of restricting fossil fuel development. Here is what he offered:

A tax on carbon; a massive investment in solar, wind, geothermal; it would be making sure that every home and building in this country is properly winterized; it would be putting substantial money into rail, both passenger and cargo, so we can move towards breaking our dependency on automobiles. And it would be leading other countries around the world.

Bill McKibben, who founded 350.org and has led the fight to stop the Keystone XL pipeline, says he is confident Sanders understands the need to keep fossil fuels in the ground. Sanders has opposed Keystone, while Clinton has avoided taking a position on it. “He’s been the most consistent and proactive voice in the entire Keystone fight,” writes McKibben in an email. “Everything that’s been needed—from speeches on the floor to legislation to demands that the State Department change its absurd review process—he and his staff have done immediately and with a high degree of professionalism…On climate stuff he’s been the most aggressive voice in the Senate, rivaled only by Sheldon Whitehouse. He understands it for the deep, simple problem it is: that we can’t keep burning this stuff.” (Full disclosure: McKibben is a member of Grist’s board of directors.)

One area where Sanders indisputably differs from Clinton is trade. Clinton, like her husband and Obama, has been an ardent supporter of free trade agreements. Some environmentalists worry that these agreements—like NAFTA, CAFTA, and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) that is currently under consideration—give polluting companies too much power to undermine environmental regulations in signatory nations. As secretary of state, Clinton supported the TPP, although as a candidate her campaign advisors say she hasn’t made up her mind on it. Sanders is one of the most skeptical members of the Senate on trade agreements and he is currently helping to lead the charge against the TPP.

To describe Sanders’ challenge against Clinton as uphill would be too generous. It’s more like climbing Mt. Everest—without oxygen or a guide. But by bringing attention to some of these issues, he may raise awareness and draw Clinton out. Sanders’ office declined to comment for this story, citing an overwhelming number of interview requests following announcement of his candidacy. That speaks to the megaphone a presidential campaign can grant a candidate, especially in a nearly empty field. Sanders is sure to use it for worthy causes. Will keeping fossil fuels in the ground be one of them?

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Is Bernie Sanders the Best Candidate on Climate Change?

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Eye to Eye With Eagles Hawks and Falcons


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