Carl DeMaio in 2011.

AP Photo/ Gregory Bull

What Happens When Climate Change Becomes An Unignorable Part Of An Election

Typically, American elections go one of two ways.

The first features one candidate who accepts the scientific consensus that human activity is driving climate change, while his or her opponent denies it. And in the other, climate change is a non-issue: either both candidates question the science behind it or it barely garners a mention.

But there’s at least one election where a strong environmental record and commitment to taking action to address climate change has become something to defend, not avoid or suppress — a race that could give us a glimpse into the future of elections in America, as climate change becomes increasingly impossible to ignore: California’s 52nd Congressional district.

The contest to represent downtown San Diego and part of Southern California pits incumbent Democrat Scott Peters against GOP challenger and self-described “new generation Republican” Carl DeMaio. Peters has a slim lead in the latest polls, with DeMaio’s more moderate views, including his acknowledgment of humanity’s role in climate change, appealing to the district.

Climate change is already being acutely felt by San Diegans: In May, more than 20,000 residents had to be evacuated when wildfires spread through San Diego County, aided by high heat and strong Santa Ana winds. San Diego, like the rest of California, is also enduring an extreme drought, which fuels wildfire conditions and intensifies the area’s water woes.

While the race stands apart as one in which both candidates accept climate science, conversations with some San Diego residents and environmental groups revealed doubts about DeMaio’s commitment to acting on climate change. “It’s quite shocking to see on the national level these reports of Carl and Scott having the same environmental views and records,” said Livia Borack, President of San Diego’s chapter of the League of Conservation Voters, “because Carl’s always been really bad on environmental issues across the board.”

A Pro-Climate Conservative?

DeMaio has branded himself as a socially-progressive Republican. He’s openly gay and pro-choice, and has run on a campaign that includes promises to make it easier for homeowners to install solar panels. He’s also said that while he believes climate change is happening and that humans have an impact, he thinks more research needs to be done to “determine what is happening, why, and what we can do to mitigate it.”

Once more is known about climate change, DeMaio said he thinks the U.S. needs to take “immediate action.”

Jeff Buchanan waters the ground where a fire burned down a neighbor's house in San Diego County in May.

Jeff Buchanan waters the ground where a fire burned down a neighbor’s house in San Diego County in May.

CREDIT: AP Photo/Gregory Bull

DeMaio is also unafraid to take on his party on the issue. “I’m frustrated that the Republican Party has not offered more positive solutions-oriented proposals on the environment,” he told ThinkProgress in an email. “My hope is to change that and become a leading voice within the Party on these important environmental issues.”

DeMaio did get involved in environmental initiatives while on the San Diego City Council. In 2013, he committed acres of California canyons for preservation. He was also a proponent of Property Assisted Clean Energy (PACE) programs — which makes it easier for residents to finance things like solar panels or water conservation systems — working on a city commission that created a PACE program in San Diego.

Despite these efforts, however, the San Diego League of Conservation Voters says DeMaio has a “terrible record on environmental issues.” From 2008 to 2012, he served on the San Diego City Council and in that time, earned grades of F, F, D+, and F on the organization’s environmental report card.

“By a significant margin, his cumulative score was the worst of any councilmember during that time, and he has managed to be a reliable opponent of responsible environmental policy across the board,” LCV said in a statement.

In 2010, DeMaio was the only member of the City Council to vote “no” on a measure that opposed California’s Proposition 23, legislation that would have frozen California’s Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006. Dave McCulloch, spokesperson for the DeMaio campaign, said this vote does not represent DeMaio’s environmental views; rather, the candidate “doesn’t believe that the City Council should be passing resolutions as a whole telling voters how to vote on statewide issues, environmental or otherwise,” which is why he opposed the measure, McCulloch said. His spokesperson also said that he thinks part of the reason why LCV repeatedly gave DeMaio such low environmental marks is due to the fact that he didn’t appoint certain special interests to his boards and commissions.

Nicole Capretz, Director of Policy for the San Diego City Council’s second district and 15-year resident of the city, said based on what she’s seen of DeMaio during his time in the city council and his run for mayor, she doesn’t think he’s serious about his concerns for the environment.

“Environment, public health, clean air — those kind of issues are not really his top priorities,” she said. “Giving lip service to an issue is way different than actually doing something about it.”

Capretz was part of the team that put together the draft of San Diego’s Climate Action Plan, a document that will be voted on next year after the environmental review process is complete. She calls it one of the most ambitious in the state, and said having a representative from one of the districts encompassing San Diego that supports that plan is “critically important.”

‘He Thinks People Will Believe Him’

LCV’s Borak told ThinkProgress that while DeMaio has acknowledged the science behind climate change, she thinks he’s only said it “because he thinks people will believe him.” In San Diego, she said, belief in climate change is common, and many voters don’t want to hear candidates deny the science. Last year, a survey of San Diego residents by Climate Education Partners found that 84 percent of respondents thought climate change was happening.

“Especially in the district that Carl’s running in … people like our clean beaches, clean water, [and] sea level rise is really an issue,” Borak said. “Most people, whether they are voting on a local level or a national level, they think that the environment in general is a big issue, and especially on climate change, they want someone to protect them and protect the environment they’re used to living in.”

Borak also criticized DeMaio for his comments about needing more research into climate change to determine why it’s happening and what should be done. More research into issues as basic as these isn’t needed, she said, not when 97 percent of climate scientists think that climate change is “very likely” caused by human activity.

“There’s not really a debate on that anymore — we know it’s man-made contribution,” Borak said.

Laura Hunter, a community activist in San Diego who used to work at the Environmental Health Coalition, said that while it’s encouraging to see both candidates agree that climate change is occurring, what really matters is what each will do about it. Due to DeMaio’s low scores from LCV, she doesn’t think he’ll make climate change a priority if elected to Congress.

A San Diego resident works with drought-resistant plants after new watering restrictions  were announced in July.

A San Diego resident works with drought-resistant plants after new watering restrictions were announced in July.

CREDIT: AP Photo/Gregory Bull

“I think I think the next question is what are you doing about it and what have you done about it?” Hunter said.

The Koch Connection

DeMaio has also been criticized for his work as a senior fellow and director of government redesign at the conservative Reason Foundation, which has received funding from the David H. Koch Charitable Foundation and Exxon Mobil.

Peters’ campaign has highlighted DeMaio’s time at the Reason Foundation, saying in a fundraising email in March that while DeMaio “talks a good game on the environment … his background working for climate-denying financiers, Charles and David Koch, proves his words are all empty rhetoric.”

DeMaio defended his work to ThinkProgress as “focused on government efficiency and accountability,” and said the attacks on his work there were “just yet another example of Scott Peters’ gross misrepresentations of my work.”

DeMaio said he knew that the environment was an important issue for most San Deigans, and said he was “proud San Diego is on the leading edge of developing sustainable solutions.”

“There are many concerns that San Diegans have, including holding Congress accountable, fixing the national fiscal crisis — as well as the very important issue of environment,” he said. “My campaign is about bringing solutions-oriented fixes to many of these problems that affect San Diegans on a daily basis.”

Peters’ Response

Peters, a former environmental lawyer and EPA economist, has made environmental issues a key component of his first term in Congress. Last October, he founded the Congressional Algae Caucus with Rep. Matt Salmon (R-AZ), a group that focuses on algae’s potential as an energy and food source. He’s also co-sponsored multiple environmental bills, including H.R. 764, which was designed to help coastal states prepare for the effects sea level rise, and H.R. 1154, which sought to eliminate loopholes for oil and gas companies in the Clean Air Act.

“Many of the left can castigate me as a moderate on econ issues and tax issues, but I think they can see I’m not wilting on this issue,” Peters said of his commitment to environmental protection. “I think it’s important.”

Peters is also a member of the Armed Services Committee and has repeatedly touted the importance of renewable energy to national security, along with the opportunity clean energy offers the military as it looks to diversify its energy sources. The military is already making significant investments in renewable energy, he said, and pointing that out to his Republican colleagues is a good way to find rare bipartisan agreement in clean energy discussions.

“I think the Navy’s interest in biofuels is a national security issue — they’re not pursuing that because they’re treehuggers,” Peters said. “There are huge benefits in the commercial center.”

Peters has won the endorsement of the Sierra Club and the League of Conservation Voters, which gave him a 100 percent score on its environmental scorecard for his first term in Congress.

The Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity, on the other hand, has spent more than $140,000 on ads against Peters, focusing on his position on healthcare.

No Other Option

Peters said he thinks San Diego voters are worried about climate change because they’ve experienced its impacts first-hand. Borak agreed, saying residents are struggling particularly with California’s extreme drought. San Diego is at the “bottom of the line when it comes to water supply,” she said, and the region doesn’t have large supplies of groundwater. Their proximity to the coast also makes sea level rise a major concern for residents, and recent wildfires have raised fears of longer, more intense wildfire seasons.

“If you’re a homeowner in a lot of those communities and you’re used to seeing wildfires every four years in October, and all of a sudden you see them in May, that’s a huge concern,” Peters said. “Fire season could potentially be months, if not year-round.”

Robert Holland, Political Chair of the San Diego Sierra Club, said warmer summers are also something that San Diegans are noticing, and that the importance of the ocean to the region means that ocean acidification, often referred to as global warming’s “evil twin,” is yet another impact that has residents concerned. Those issues, coupled with dwindling water supply and wildfires, converge to make acting on climate change essential in San Diego.

“We don’t have any options here,” Holland said. “We have to send Peters back to Congress; we have to send individuals back to D.C. who really understand the science and really understand the level of concern that needs to be raised to really push the policies.”

Quality of life for many San Diego residents is intricately tied to the natural beauty of the region — something both candidates appear to apprehend. On his campaign website, DeMaio praises San Diego’s natural environment as “key to our quality of life, but our regional economy as well.”

Peters said he realized long ago that because of San Diego’s high cost of living, its natural beauty is something that’s central to its economic future as an incentive for people to move their businesses to the city. “We know that San Diegans don’t see a conflict between economic prosperity and environmental quality,” he said. “And in San Diego we need both — we’re never going to be the cheapest place to live but we can be the best.”

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