It’s rare for environmental organizations to lead outside spending in an election. Even the largest don't have that much cash to burn. But in last month's Senate primary in Massachusetts, no other interest group spent more. 350.org Action Fund, the young political arm of the climate campaign group 350.org, picked this as its first race and dropped just over $50,000 during the primary. Hedge-funder Tom Steyer's NextGen Committee spent more than $500,000, according to the Federal Election Commission—almost half of which went to the League of Conservation Voters (LCV). The LCV contributed a fair bit of its own money on the race, too, with its total spending ringing in around $850,000.
All of this money went to support Representative Edward J. Markey or to oppose Representative Stephen Lynch, the two main candidates in the primary to choose which Democrat would vie for John Kerry’s old Senate seat. When climate change was on Congress’s radar, Markey was a leader in the House's efforts. He also opposes Keystone XL, the pipeline that, on its way from Alberta to the Gulf of Mexico, will bring tar-sands oil through six states, none of which is Massachusetts. Lynch supported the pipeline, voting twice to force the president's decision on it (a tactic the House is trying again today).
Keystone XL is the primary reason 350 Action chose this primary, which Markey won, as its first foray into electoral politics. “We had an election that was so clear,” says Ben Wessel, who helped manage 350 Action's campaign in Massachusetts. “Markey was so on the right side of history. Lynch voted twice to rush the president into a decision.”
But what does that have to do with Massachusetts? Ever since climate campaigners chose Keystone XL as their leading issues, there have been politically-minded environmentalists quietly second-guessing that strategy and the Massachusetts race makes that critique easy: Why should anyone in this Eastern state care about an oil-bearing pipeline thousands of miles away? Why should Massachusetts's would-be junior senators be held accountable for a decision being made (or delayed) by the executive branch?
There's the argument that groups like 350.org have been making all along: Keystone XL means tar-sands development, and tar-sands development means, in the words of former NASA climate scientist James Hansen, “game over for the climate.” Keystone XL supporters have been working for the past two years to wedge cracks into that metonymic argument. But if you accept that Keystone XL stands in for climate change, then there's a long list of reasons the voters of a coastal state might care—sea-level rise, weird weather, warming winters. The most poignant one that 350's Bill McKibben came up with is “because it’s hard to play pond hockey anymore.”
There's also the political argument: Being on the right side of climate change wins elections. Whether or not voters in an Eastern state get riled up about the pipeline, they do care about climate change, and the pipeline helps differentiate between the two liberal candidates. That's why these groups doled out as much cash as they did in the primary: They're trying to prove voters are willing to make a choice based on this issue and show up at the polls to back it up.
“This is a political winner,” Wessel says. “It's a political winner to say no to the pipeline.”
The Massachusetts primary was a test of both traditional environmental groups' and newer climate groups' current challenge—building a broad political case for climate issues. After the climate bill's failure in 2010, as carbon concentrations have crept up, reaching 400 parts per million two weeks ago, these groups are burning to figure how to pull Washington's attention back toward rising global temperatures and the ocean of problems they'll cause. “The debate on climate change went underground. Worse than that, the only people who were aggressively talking about it were deniers,” says Navin Nayak, the League of Conservation Voters’ (LCV) senior vice president for campaigns. “You had all the Tea Party candidates elected in 2010. They were proud of the fact that they didn't believe in science. People on our side of these issue sort of went quiet.”
The LCV's campaign focuses on climate heroes and climate deniers, rather than on the pipeline. In the 2012 cycle, the group announced that it would work to toss five climate-change–denying incumbent candidates out of office. Three million dollars later, four of them—Ann Marie Buerkle, Dan Lungren, Francisco Canseco, and Joe Walsh—were gone.
Supporting Markey is the inverse of that “Flat-Earth Five” campaign, an example of how “we really want to reward the people who are leaders on this,” Nayak says. Lynch isn't an enemy of the traditional environmental movement: He has a lifetime score of 94 percent on LCV's national environmental scorecard. Markey has the same score.
Zero in on climate issues, though, and the two candidates start to look more distinct. “It made my blood boil a little bit to think that someone thought they could represent our state and support the expansion of fossil fuels,” says Craig Altemose, a climate youth leader in Massachusetts who worked to bring the hedge-fund activist Tom Steyer (and his money, via the NextGen Committee) into the race. It made little sense to Altemose that “a state as progressive as Massachusetts, which has taken the leadership on this issue, would send someone to Congress who had this position.”
The 350.org Action Fund believed that it could use that point to galvanize young voters and get them to the polls on Election Day. 350.org, the (c)3 side of the organization, was already working with activists on more than 100 campuses across the country to convince their schools to divest from fossil fuels. Only a handful of smaller, environmentally active colleges, like Green Mountain and Hampshire, have agreed to any form of divestment so far, but the push for divestment has helped build and grow groups of young climate advocates. The Massachusetts race was a test case for how the student networks built on a diverse group of campuses might be used in an election. “We already knew the right people to talk to on campus,” Wessel says. “We're not showing up on the quad with free T-shirts.” These students were campaigning on climate issues but might not have had experience working on elections. 350 Action's campaign leaders knew they had access to this network; they wanted to see if they could mobilize it, with Keystone XL as the lever.
It worked, more or less. 350 Action recruited organizers from the divestment campaign and sent them out onto their campuses to canvass, register voters, talk up Ed Markey, and convince students to go to the polls, even though the election fell within end-of-term crunch time. Wessel felt that Keystone worked as an organizing issue. “I was surprised to see the level of recognition people had about the pipeline,” he says. “There were kids who had no idea that there was an election going on, no idea who [350’s] Bill McKibben was, but knew they were opposed to Keystone XL.”
When Alli Welton—a member of the Divest Harvard campaign who worked with 350 Action as a campaign fellow—talked to other students, she found that “sometimes they'd know what KXL was, and if they recognized the issue, they were with us.” The pipeline provided a simple, concrete way to start a conversation. “It's a thing you can visualize and explain: It's a tar-sands pipeline going from Alberta, to oil refineries in Texas,” says Evan Bell, the campaign coordinator at Tufts. “It brought a focus to the early conversations, where I had a talking point that people could agree with or disagree with and then go from there.”
By the end of the race, campaigners broadened their message. “At that point, it's just getting people to vote,” Bell says. Conversations with potential voters started covering a wider range of issues: "If you support environmental sustainability—not the disastrous Keystone XL pipeline—and marriage equality and women's right to choose,” then Ed Markey is the candidate for you. “The script became a little more diluted,” Bell says.
The lesson here seems to be that Keystone XL works as a beacon—it attracts and gathers organizers and voters who feel strongly about climate issues. It's a sorting mechanism. “In a broader context, you're talking about an issue that most people don't know about,” says the LCV's Nayak. Republicans like Mitt Romney bet they could get voters riled up about the administration's slow-footing of this issue, but those appeals largely fell flat. It's more of a marker on the left, an issue that can help voters quickly sort out their preferences between two candidates.
“It makes sense for young people: It's become a moral call whether you support Keystone or not,” Wessel says. “I knew we'd be able to activate young people around that.”
In that context, it matters less that Keystone XL is far from Massachusetts. Young voters don't have as strong a geographic identity as their parents: Part of the work that organizers like Welton and Bell did was convincing students to switch their registration to their college town. The environmental movement has been criticized lately for floating away from the local work on the pollution of air, water, and land that made it strong to begin with. But these younger organizers are building a movement that's in some ways independent of that past. Both Bell and Altemose mentioned that they see climate change not only as an environmental problem but as a social-justice issue.
That new movement was just testing out its electoral muscle in the Massachusetts race for the first time. “The scrappy youth climate movement is growing up a little bit,” Wessel says, proving that “we get politics.” 350 Action is keeping an eye on the general election in Massachusetts: Republican Gabriel Gomez believes in climate change, at least, but says that the president is “wrong in stopping the Keystone pipeline.” But, with summer coming and campuses emptying out, the organizational strength of environmental groups is diminished. The work Wessel's group did in Massachusetts will more likely inform how 350 Action thinks about and gets involved in the 2014 midterms.
“The Massachusetts Senate race was a preview of what I imagine a lot of politicians will see in 2014 and after,” Welton says. “We're training a lot of young organizers this way. College students organized in this movement will be looking to hold their politicians accountable. It's a force to be reckoned with. The movement's been growing really fast, and we have a lot of time before 2014. And I can only imagine it'll be stronger by the time that next election rolls around.”
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