Ecology + Justice + Culture in the American South

Elections, ‘energy independence,’ & false claims about climate, coal

In elections across the South this week, Democrats swept up significant wins as part of a nationwide pushback against the Trump administration. Many of the newly elected officials are young, diverse, and progressive, and they ran on issues ranging from environmental justice to climate change, LGBTQ rights to criminal justice reform.

Vi Lyles, a Democratic councilwoman, was elected mayor of Charlotte, N.C., becoming the first black woman to ever win the office. While working for three decades in city hall, Lyles led initiatives on community policing and affordable housing and transportation. Access to renewable energy and environmental justice are also critical issues for the city of Charlotte, which is the second-fastest growing large city in the U.S., according to the Center for American Progress.

In Atlanta, Keisha Lance Bottoms and Mary Norwood won the most votes, meaning they’ll go head-to-head in December in a runoff for city mayor. The election has focused on race because Atlanta has had black mayors since 1974, and many voters want to keep it that way; the city is becoming more gentrified, whiter, and wealthier. The winner will also have a huge impact on Atlanta’s climate goals: Mayor Kasim Reed vowed to stick with the Paris climate agreement in June, and the Atlanta City Council plans to have all city operations using 100 percent clean energy by 2025, with the whole city powered by renewables by 2035. Statewide, Democrats picked up three seats in the Georgia legislature. Deborah Gonzalez, who will represent Athens, ran on a platform that discussed climate change as an economic and public health issue.

Miami City Commissioner Francis Suarez was elected mayor of Miami, and immediately started talking about the importance of sea level rise and climate change. “Miami should be and must be the most resilient city in the world,” he said.

In a tense showdown in St. Petersburg, Florida, the incumbent mayor, Democrat Rick Kriseman, narrowly defeated the city’s former mayor, Republican Rick Baker. Baker has previously doubted the facts of climate science, and after Hurricane Irma, Kriseman capitalized on that.

In the nation’s most anticipated race, Democrat Ralph Northam was elected governor of Virginia. His win is key for climate policy, as the state has been pushing for a carbon cap-and-trade system. Northam has voiced his support for the offshore wind industry and said he will take action to address sea level rise along the state’s coast, which is sinking at an unprecedented rate.

In a surprising upset, Democrats gained at least 15 seats in the Virginia state legislature. Kathy Tran is the first Vietnamese-American elected to the House of Delegates in Virginia, where she gained a seat that Republicans held. Thirteen of the newly-elected House of Delegates members pledged not to accept campaign contributions from Dominion Energy or Appalachian Power. On top of that, Democrat Danica Roem beat Bob Marshall, a longtime Republican lawmaker well-known for unsuccessfully sponsoring the “bathroom bill,” which tried to prevent transgender people from using whichever bathroom they identify with. Roem is now the country’s first openly transgender state lawmaker; three othertransgender people were elected across the U.S.

The results illustrated several important trends that could continue into the 2018 elections. Suburban voters rebelled, sounding the alarm for Republicans who have typically had strongholds in these areas, and have often gerrymandered districts to maintain control. Voter turnout dramatically increased in Virginia, though it remained low in many other regions. Voters in rural areas tended to stay with Republican candidates, showing that the urban-rural divide remains strong. However, the South also saw a surge in voters supporting the progressive left, including progressive Democrats and socialists. City council members, mayors, and state legislators are running on platforms like raising the minimum wage to $15, building affordable housing, police reform, and education. “In the era of Trump and right wing control of state legislatures… the local government is all the more important,” Vincent Fort, who was running for Atlanta mayor, recently told Scalawag.

One year after President Trump was elected, America feels even more divided, but the 2016 election obviously impacted, angered, and inspired voters. The antipathy towards Trump mobilized people who may have never considered politics to run for office and campaign against his rhetoric ― and in many cases, it worked. Dedicated Trump supporters still haven’t changed their minds, but Republicans are already expressing concern about how to unify their party, lest the Democrats could gain control of the House and Senate in 2018. However the next year in politics plays out, one thing is certain: the South is not as predictable as America thought it was.

Stories worth your time

An investigative documentary series called “The Divided,” out of the Center for Investigative Reporting, is being created and produced by a diverse group of women filmmakers. Watch “Fought for, Forgotten,” about Louisiana’s dying shrimping industry, and “Refuge in the Mountain State,” about the fight to bring refugees to West Virginia, both directed and produced by Emily Harger.

I wrote a story for InsideClimate News about solar companies in the South that are driving utility-scale and rooftop solar energy growth in the region by talking economics and energy independence instead of climate change. It’s having results: Mississippi and Alabama have the fastest-growing solar markets in the country.

Bloomberg reports that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell may have undercut the coal industry when he rushed the confirmation of two Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) leaders. The two newly confirmed FERC members ― Kevin McIntyre, an energy lawyer, and Richard Glick, a Democratic Senate staffer ― have vowed not to tilt electricity-market rules in favor of any particular fuel.

News flying under the radar

The North Carolina General Assembly has moved a step closer to a controversial suite of maps to chart areas of the state where lawmakers say wind turbines could interfere with military bases. The study is part of an 18-month moratorium on wind farms in the state.

PolitiFact fact-checked a recent claim by Trump that he was ending the war on coal because coal production went up 7.8 percent in the past year. The stat is mostly accurate, but PolitiFact noted that shifts in the price of natural gas and foreign demand are the primary drivers of coal’s decline ― not government regulation, as Trump says.

“Louisiana’s coastal problem has nothing to do with climate change,” Louisiana’s Attorney General Jeff Landry falsely claimed this week. Instead, he attributed coastal erosion to the Army Corps of Engineers and the design of the Mississippi River.