The Chicago Sun Times calls the battle between challenger Sean Casten (D) and incumbent Rep. Peter Roskam (R) in Illinois’ 6th congressional district, “the Chicago area’s hottest congressional race.”
But the race — which the Cook Political Report currently labels a “toss-up” — is also one of the starkest choices voters face on global warming. Casten, a clean energy entrepreneur has made climate action and clean energy his signature issue. Just last week, he told a group of voters that global warming is “the single biggest existential threat we face as a species.”
In contrast, Roskam described climate science as “junk science” in 2006, and he had a shockingly low 3 percent rating from the League of Conservation Voters on its environmental scorecard of last year’s voting records.
Roskam joined the “Climate Solutions Caucus” in May, just two months after Casten won the Democratic primary. But the caucus has been widely criticized for admitting Republicans who are “climate peacocks” — those who just want to put on a display of caring about climate change, without actually having to follow that up with action.
Indeed, even after he joined the caucus, Roskam voted for a House Resolution stating that a tax on emissions of carbon dioxide — the primary cause of climate change — “would be detrimental to American families and businesses, and is not in the best interest of the United States.”
“Voters in Illinois’ Sixth District will have a clear choice between a climate peacock and a true climate hawk, Sean Casten,” says R.L. Miller, who co-founded Climate Hawks Vote, a grassroots-funded group supporting candidates who make climate change a top priority.
Casten has been outspoken with voters that climate change is a central issue of our time. “You gradually realize along the way that the laws of thermodynamics are not a barrier, the laws of economics are not a barrier, but the laws of the United States are a barrier,” he told workers at a local company last week (see video). “I’m going to fix that problem.”
Casten is a true “climate hawk” with a very long history working to reduce carbon pollution. He “grew up around climate and business,” as he told ThinkProgress in an interview last year. His father, Tom, is one of the country’s leading clean energy entrepreneurs and advocates for climate action, having built up a business doing cogeneration — the highly efficient combined generation of heat and power.
His father’s work “instilled a passion in me to do the same, first studying biology as an undergrad and then getting an M.S. in Biochemical Engineering, doing research to develop cellulosic biofuels,” Casten told ThinkProgress. “My first job out of graduate school was at [consulting firm] Arthur D. Little where I was in a group that did technology consulting for a host of emerging clean-tech businesses.”
(In the spirit of full disclosure, I met Casten’s father in the mid-1990s, when I was helping to run the Energy Department’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, and have since met Sean in professional circles.)
Casten explains that, after consulting, he went on to “start several businesses with missions to profitably reduce greenhouse gas emissions — in all cases, using existing technologies to identify waste in industrial facilities that we could recover and convert into useful heat and power.” Over a 10-year period, Casten’s businesses launched 70 projects and invested $200 million in improvements that lowered their customers’ energy bills and reduced carbon emissions by at least 50 percent, he said.
He also participated in crafting the bill that became the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), a nine-state program in the Northeast that caps carbon emissions and invests in efficiency and clean energy projects.
A major reason Casten is running for Congress is to make it easier for clean energy businesses to grow and thrive. “Like most in the clean energy industry, I soon came to appreciate that while there were a lot of opportunities for folks like me, the policy barriers to clean energy are massive,” he said.
Across the board, “we so desperately need to see a return to fact-based policy making in Washington,” he said. But “climate policy remains my passion.”
If elected, Casten has ambitious climate and clean energy goals, but he also understands the steep uphill climb any climate policy faces in the current Congress, so he’s identified some lower-hanging fruit. “At a smaller level there are a ton of small but massively impactful things that could be done within the context of existing climate policy,” he said. One example he gave last year would be “to make modest changes in the Major Modifications definition innate to the New Source Review rules in the Clean Air Act so as to eliminate the existing disincentives to invest in energy efficiency.”
The fact that Casten won a very competitive primary suggests voters responded positively to the message — which shouldn’t be a surprise given that polling and public opinion analysis shows support for strong action on climate change, and clean energy is a winning political issue across the board.
His candidacy may be helped by the fact that Illinois’ 6th district covers an area that includes people who work for two different national laboratories, Fermilab and Argonne National Lab.
“It’s a very highly-educated, scientifically minded set of voters,” Casten said. “They are people who value facts, and are generally pretty centrist — bipartisan — in their world view. The second-most important issue to voters in our district after healthcare is climate change.” he said. “These people get it.”
So while some politicians have been nervous to be outspoken on climate change, Casten has been doing it from the start and made this a competitive race. This is a race that bears watching.