Alabama’s newest senator isn’t afraid to take a strong stance on science and clean energy

Alabama environmental advocates see great hope in election outcome.

Doug Jones did not shy away from making climate change and environmental protection an issue during his victorious campaign for Alabama's vacant seat in the U.S. Senate.  CREDIT: AP Photo/Brynn Anderson
Doug Jones did not shy away from making climate change and environmental protection an issue during his victorious campaign for Alabama's vacant seat in the U.S. Senate. CREDIT: AP Photo/Brynn Anderson

Alabama will be sending a new senator to Washington who believes in science, opposes President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement, and supports future investments in renewable energy over fossil fuels.

While environmental issues weren’t at the forefront of Doug Jones’ victorious Senate campaign, the former federal prosecutor ran on a decidedly progressive platform in a deep red state — including clear stances on climate action and clean energy. And after his surprise win on Tuesday, Jones will be in a position to deliver greater federal funding to protect Alabama’s environment. At the national level, Jones’ election to the Senate gives the Democrats another weapon to fight Trump’s anti-environment agenda.

Advertisement

“Jones ran a campaign that highlighted environmental issues. He wasn’t at all guarded about talking about the environment,” Matthew Gravatt, associate director of federal and administrative advocacy for the Sierra Club, told ThinkProgress. “He said he believes in science. He put that front and center. He talked about his support for the Paris agreement.”

The fact that Jones felt obligated to express his belief in science demonstrates the times we live in. The Trump administration is filled with officials who deny the science behind climate change and other environmental and public health hazards. Among congressional Republicans, climate science denial has increasingly become party doctrine over the past decade.

If he had won, Roy Moore, the heavy favorite heading into Tuesday’s election, would have felt at home among his fellow Republicans in Congress. The Washington Post laid out how anti-science the Republican Party has become over the past decade in a recent headline: “Roy Moore is seen as extreme by many Republicans. But not on climate change.”

While Republicans will have a 51-49 majority, Jones’ election victory “makes the calculus in the Senate harder for the Republicans and for [Senate Majority Leader] Mitch McConnell [R-KY] to advance Trump’s agenda and the priorities that the Trump administration has, which have been bad environmentally speaking,” Gravatt said.

Advertisement

The Post highlighted a column Moore, a former chief justice on the Alabama Supreme Court, wrote in 2009 for WorldNetDaily, a far right news site, in which he stated: “Not only do scientists disagree on ‘global warming,’ but there is little hard evidence that carbon emissions cause changes to the global climate. But it appears that Obama and his liberal administration are not really interested in what the Constitution or the scientific community have to say when it interferes with their radical agenda.”

In his column, Moore got the facts wrong on the science of climate change. Ninety-seven percent of publishing climate scientists agree that climate change is both happening and a product of human activity.

Jones’ position on climate change stands in stark contrast to the Trump administration. In September, AL.com, an Alabama-based news site, asked Jones to name a specific policy where he disagrees with Trump. Jones responded: “Because I actually believe in science, I disagree with the administration’s positions on climate change and the president’s unilateral decision to withdraw from the Paris Climate Accord.”

Jones’ election to the Senate shows that candidates can accept the science of climate change and support renewable energy and the voters will reward them for that, said Craig Auster, director of PAC and advocacy partnerships for the League of Conservation Voters. “We know most people believe climate change is real and most people support the transition to a clean energy future,” he said. “Having someone from a state like Alabama being a voice on that is going to be really impactful in the Senate.”

Advertisement

The League of Conservation Voters Action Fund, which works to elect candidates who support “common-sense environmental policies,” endorsed Jones’ candidacy in October, citing his history of supporting clean air and clean water for communities across Alabama. “We looked at the totality of Jones’ record and what he was standing for — the fact that he had spoken out on the campaign already about the importance of science, the importance of staying in the Paris climate agreement,” Auster said in an interview.

Prior to winning election to the U.S. Senate, Jones was best known for his work as a federal prosecutor in securing a conviction of two members of the Ku Klux Klan for their roles in the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, that killed for four girls and injured dozens more.

Jones also made a name for himself in the case of a chemical plant in the town of Anniston, Alabama, that released poisonous toxins for decades. From 1929 to 1971, Monsanto Corp. produced PCBs at a manufacturing plant in the town, the vast majority of which were released in the area. Jones made regular appearances in Anniston, where he was the court-appointed authority to oversee the settlement between Monsanto and local residents poisoned by PCBs.

Moore also played a role in the PCB issue as chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court. In 2001, Anniston residents sued Monsanto in hopes of getting the company to pay for health testing for local residents who were likely exposed to PCBs, even if they had not shown signs of disease. The state supreme court, including Moore as chief justice, rejected the claim, arguing that plaintiffs must be able to show injury before seeking any type of redress.

Stefanie Francisco, communications director for Conservation Alabama, said her group is hopeful that having a senator like Jones who prioritizes environmental and conservation issues will have a positive impact on the state. Alabama relies heavily on federal programs to take care of some of its basic environmental protections. The Alabama Department of Environmental Management receives grants from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which were threatened in Trump’s proposed fiscal year 2018 budget.

“Having an advocate like Doug Jones in the Senate is something we’re really hopeful can translate into some on-the-ground protections for the state,” Francisco said.

Talking Points Memo’s Cameron Joseph observed that Jones did something surprising in his underdog Senate campaign: he ran like an actual Democrat. Jones proclaimed “liberal positions in a way that’s almost unheard of for Democrats running statewide in the Deep South,” Joseph wrote.

Advertisement

On his campaign website, Jones stated “the consequences of our unchecked use of fossil fuels for our planet and our health have been clear for decades. Period.” No one would expect a candidate in a heavily Republican region, let alone the Deep South, to make such definitive statements on the dangers of fossil fuels. Jones also emphasized that U.S. policymakers “should be encouraging investment in renewable energy and conservation.”

During the campaign, most of the focus was on jobs and health care — and on accusations by several women that Moore behaved inappropriately toward them — and in some cases, assaulted them — when most of them were minors and Moore was in his 30s.

For his part, Jones did not dismiss the plight of the working class, especially workers in the state’s coal industry. “I have enormous sympathy with the families in our state that have seen their incomes decline or their jobs vanish as coal prices have dropped,” his campaign website said. “Rather than promise that miners can return for generations to dangerous, scarcely regulated jobs, I believe America must step up to provide a safety net of health care and job retraining for these workers and prepare all children in Alabama for a 21st century economy.”

Cindy Lowry, executive director of the Alabama Rivers Alliance, emphasized that Jones did not run on the environment. “That’s not going to get you elected in Alabama,” she told ThinkProgress. “But he cares about people and he cares about justice and equality. That kind of ethic is important on environmental issues because so many of our environmental problems are most held on the backs of people of low income and people of color and communities that can’t afford to address the major threats to our waterways.”