Despite deep red roots, climate activists are energized by Georgia special election

With shifting political winds, climate activists make inroads in Atlanta suburbs.

Republican candidate Karen Handel is trying to keep Georgia’s 6th congressional district in GOP hands. CREDIT: AP Photo/David Goldman
Republican candidate Karen Handel is trying to keep Georgia’s 6th congressional district in GOP hands. CREDIT: AP Photo/David Goldman

Three-quarters of voters in Georgia’s 6th congressional district believe climate change is real, a statistic cited by activists who think climate change should be a key electoral issue in the final stretch of their hotly contested congressional race.

After almost a 10-year absence from political discussion in the district, the top two candidates for the district’s open seat — Jon Ossoff (D), a documentary filmmaker and former political aide, and Karen Handel (R), a former Georgia secretary of state — are now addressing climate change and what, if anything, they would do about it.

Ossoff has not shied away from emphasizing that he accepts the scientific consensus on climate change. Handel, on the other hand, has tried to hide her position, according to Terry Schiff, who lives in the 6th district and volunteers with the Roswell, Georgia, chapter of the Citizens’ Climate Lobby (CCL), a nonprofit group that works to bring Democrats together with Republicans to tackle climate change.

However, Handel has been forced to comment on the issue in candidate debates, recently resorting to the tired “I am not a scientist” dodge when asked what’s driving climate change. Handel feared that if she took a position, it could hurt her chances to get elected, Schiff contended. “We needed to make it an issue by having the 75 percent of the people who believe climate change is real speak up,” she said Sunday at CCL’s annual conference in Washington, D.C. The percentage of voters in the district who believe climate change is real is based on recent Yale climate public opinion poll data.

Ossoff and Handel are in the final stretch of the special election, with voters heading back to the polls on June 20. Although the district has historically voted Republican, President Donald Trump’s relative unpopularity has made the seat a potential Democratic pickup. As a result, the special election has turned into the most expensive House race in history. An Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll released Friday showed Ossoff with a 7-point lead over Handel.


Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R), who represented the district for 20 years, surprised political observers in 2008 when he appeared in a television advertisement with Nancy Pelosi to urge Americans to take action on climate change.

Gingrich and Pelosi were invited by Al Gore’s Alliance for Climate Protection to appear in the ad, titled, “We Can Solve It.” In it, Gingrich stated that he agreed with Pelosi, who was House speaker at the time, that “our country must take action to address climate change” and that the public “must demand action” from its leaders.

Since Gingrich, who left the House in 1999, appeared in the ad, climate change has not been a key electoral issue for the Georgia congressional district. After the Republicans regained control of the House in 2010, Gingrich expressed regret for appearing in the ad. Over the past eight years, climate change has become a deeply partisan issue, with Republicans in Washington blocking any legislative proposal that addresses the crisis.

The congressional seat opened up when Tom Price, a Republican who won reelection by more than 23 points last November, was chosen by Trump to head the Department of Health and Human Services. Trump won the district by only 1.5 points.


Jeff Joslin, a volunteer with CCL’s North Atlanta chapter, said Trump’s slim victory in the staunchly Republican district gave him and fellow activists hope that climate could resonate with voters. Trump repeatedly called climate change a hoax during his presidential campaign and has since followed through on his pledge to withdraw the United States from the historic Paris climate agreement.

Roughly 59 percent of voters oppose Trump’s decision to exit the Paris agreement, compared to 28 percent who support it, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll. In a recent Quinnipiac poll, Trump’s poorest marks on any issue came on the environment, with 31 percent approving and 61 percent disapproving of the president’s environmental policies.

CCL traditionally has met with members of Congress on the “back side of the equation — going to the congressman after they are in place and talking to them about supporting carbon fee and dividend,” Joslin said at the conference. But for the Georgia special election, the group’s volunteers chose to be more proactive.

“Why aren’t we working on the front side of the equation, which is trying to influence people that are going into office so that we can bring in some climate-friendly people?” Joslin told the audience.

The 6th congressional district consists of many of the northern suburbs of Atlanta and includes portions of eastern Cobb County, northern Fulton County, and northern DeKalb County. But the political leanings of a segment of the district’s residents are changing. “The progressiveness and diversity of Atlanta is moving outward and northward,” Joslin said.

At the conference, Schiff suggested activists could do more to reach out to the residents in the district who accept the scientific consensus on climate change. “My motivation is people always tell me I’m preaching to the choir. And that’s because the choir needs to be preached to,” she said. “Seventy-five percent of the voters in my district believe that climate change is real and we should do something about it.”


Handel has not posted any climate or energy positions on her campaign website. The CCL volunteers said she did not respond to their requests for additional information on her climate positions.

On his website, Ossoff states: “There is a clear scientific consensus that climate change is driven by human activity and that it threatens global prosperity, health, and security. This is not just the opinion of activists; it is the studied conclusion of our country’s distinguished scientists.”

Handel said she agrees with Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris climate agreement, stating the United States should seek a new agreement “that doesn’t start with the assumption that American jobs should be sacrificed to the developing world in order to address the impacts of climate change.”

Ossoff, on the other hand, said “history will condemn us” for withdrawing from the landmark accord. Rather than engage in partisanship on this issue, policymakers should come together in a bipartisan manner because recognizing the need to address climate change provides a “tremendous economic opportunity for Georgia’s 6th district to lead the way in clean energy technology,” he said in an April candidate forum.