For the last two decades, climate scientists have been issuing increasingly grave warnings to lawmakers about greenhouse gases warming the planet. And, for just as long, Alabama senators have been brushing them off.
That changed on Tuesday night.
Doug Jones, the first Democrat elected senator in the state in 25 years, listed a “belief in science” and a will to “work to slow or reverse the impact of climate change” as the sixth of 10 platform issues on his campaign website. In October, the League of Conservation Voters named Jones one of its first Senate endorsements. As he barnstormed the state, the 63-year-old inveighed against the injustice of a befouled environment and unsafe drinking water.
Alabama is already suffering the effects of climate change. The Heart of Dixie emerged in June from more than a year of “the worst drought in memory,” affecting 98 percent of the state. Alabama dodged the worst damage of a series of devastating hurricanes that wreaked havoc throughout the region earlier this year. But while 63 percent of Alabamians believe global warming is happening, just 48 percent understand it’s caused primarily by humans, according to 2016 survey data from the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication.
Jones won by a small margin against Republican Roy Moore, a flagrant bigot and former judge whom several woman came forward during the campaign to accuse of child molestation and sexual harassment decades ago.
Kert Davies, a researcher and director of the Climate Investigations Center, said Jones’ stance on climate change likely didn’t sway many voters.
“Climate wasn’t a key factor in motivating voters of course,” he told HuffPost by email. “But you now have one more climate believer and one fewer climate denier in the Senate, and that is a very good thing.”
Anthony Leiserowitz, a senior research scientist at Yale University and the director of the climate program, warned that Jones would be unlikely to crusade on that issue in his first term.
“Doug Jones is going to be a very different vote in the Senate on climate change than Roy Moore would have been,” he told HuffPost. “But climate change was not a significant theme in this election, so I don’t expect Jones to immediately lead on the issue.”
The state’s political representation in the Senate reflected the state’s broader climate skepticism.
Jeff Sessions, who vacated his Alabama Senate seat to become attorney general, denies that global warming is a problem, and railed against efforts to help poorer countries adapt to rising seas and more extreme weather. Republican Sen. Richard Shelby, the state’s senior lawmaker in the chamber, dismisses global warming as cyclical, a popular argument among deniers.
Moore, a former Alabama chief justice, refuted the 97 percent of researchers who agree that climate change is real and caused largely by burning fossil fuels, and advocated for increased coal and oil use during his campaign.
Indeed, the state’s entire seven-person House delegation, including Democratic Rep. Terri Sewell, either deny climate change or have voted for bills predicated on rejecting or ignoring the scientific evidence behind it.
But Jones, a former federal prosecutor, campaigned on a theme of justice, which Daniel Tait, an Alabama-based researcher at the nonprofit Energy & Policy Institute, said included “really strong points on things like clean air and clean water.”
“This is a victory for the climate justice wing of the climate movement insofar as African American turnout carried the day.”
“It was never explicitly environmental justice, but these things are being used in Alabama as issues of fundamental fairness and what’s right and wrong,” Tait told HuffPost by phone on Wednesday.
In places like Butler County, a United Nations official surveying extreme poverty in Alabama found raw sewage flowing from exposed PVC pipes into open pools near homes, according to a report on AL.com. Alabama ranked second in the nation for the most sites with drinking water contaminated by a toxic, cancer-linked chemical used in Teflon, a study found in June.
“Those things are ultimately part of a climate message on a national scale,” Tait said. “But that type of message really resonates in Alabama and helps bring more people into the coalition.”
White evangelical Christians, who overwhelmingly voted for the ostentatiously religious Moore, are the least likely of any U.S. faith group to believe climate change is occurring, according to 2015 data from the Pew Research Center. Only 28 percent of white evangelicals believe the planet is warming primarily due to human activity, and about 37 percent say they don’t believe the climate is changing at all. By comparison, 77 percent of Hispanic Catholics, like 70 percent of Hispanics overall, said they believe the Earth is warming due to human activity, as did 56 percent of black Protestants.
The black voters who turned out in historic numbers to propel Jones to victory offer a hint as to whom Democrats should target their message on climate change, according to RL Miller, president of Climate Hawks Vote, a super political action committee. A jaw-dropping 98 percent of black women and 93 percent of black men cast ballots voted for Jones, according to exit polls.
“This is a victory for the climate justice wing of the climate movement insofar as African American turnout carried the day, and a loss for the traditional conservation voters (hunters and fishers) aka rural white voters,” Miller told HuffPost. “Environmentalists in general need to realize that the rural white working class is not going to vote climate no matter how much their hunting and fishing grounds are threatened, and instead focus on making inroads with climate justice-oriented voters.”
To Jeff Hauser, a veteran progressive Democratic operative, the takeaway for Democrats is clear: Don’t waver on climate change to appeal to conservative voters.
“Doug Jones ran as a principled Democrat with a mainstream progressive platform in one of America’s most conservative states and crushed expectations,” Hauser told HuffPost. “The lesson is that it’s hard to imagine a race almost anywhere in America in 2018 where a serious commitment to fighting climate change would harm a Democrat, whereas we are reminded that running on sincere substantive commitments can indeed inspire shockingly strong turnout.”