People hold the Earth

Justice Wins


Throughout all the local wins and losses, one thing was clear: Candidates can’t talk about climate change without centering justice. Welcome to The Frontline, where we’re breaking it down.

Photograph by Giuseppe Ciccia / Pacific Press / LightRocket via Getty Images

This election made one thing crystal clear: Justice wins.


Joe Biden is far from perfect, but he ran on a campaign that embraced climate science and believed in Black Lives Matter. That’s plenty more than we can say about his competitor. Now, Biden will be our next president.


So, yeah, justice fucking wins—especially climate justice. The heating of our world was the final rallying cry, but Biden wasn’t the only one who won with justice in mind. Climate and environmental justice played central roles in elections across the nation: city councils, county boards, state legislatures, and everything in between. Their victories offered me some solace last week when the presidential race was looking uncertain.


“There are a number of candidates that are now focusing on environmental justice as part of their platforms, and they understand that if they’re gonna win on climate change, then you gotta win on environmental justice,” Mustafa Santiago Ali, the vice president of environmental justice at the National Wildlife Federation, tells me. “That’s powerful. It shows the evolution that has happened around the issue—that’s it no longer seen as a boutique issue or an add-on but a central component


Welcome to The Frontline, here to celebrate the power of justice. I’m Yessenia Funes, climate editor at Atmos. Today, I’m assessing local elections in pockets of the U.S. where pollution and health inequity are concentrated. There were wins; there were losses. However, we’ll focus more on the wins this week. I’m feeling celebratory.



Local elections can bring immediate change that communities demand. When it comes to polluters, air pollution, and climate-fueled disasters, the people in charge locally carry serious weight in addressing all that sooner than any president will. They’re in the very communities they’re representing, so they know what’s up.


That’s why local elections are so crucial to environmental and climate justice. For progressive candidates who made promises on climate change, a racial justice framework was fundamental to their platforms.


“Since the beginning, folks have said environmental justice are local issues, local impacts, and local opportunities,” Santiago Ali says. “It’s good to see that is now being honored.”


We saw wins in North Carolina, Minnesota, Florida, and New Mexico. I’m sure there are plenty more I’m missing, too. Data for Progress featured some races as part of its Green New Deal Slate, and it gives you a great idea of what’s at stake locally.


Whit Jones, the founder of Lead Locally, a group that worked with Data for Progress on that Green New Deal Slate, was most excited about the wins coming out of California. Voters up and down the state elected candidates who promised to hold the fossil fuel industry accountable. I’m talking about the all-women Los Angeles Board of Supervisors, which is responsible for the county’s $35 billion budget. I’m talking about the Latinas joining city councils. There’s so much to unpack here, but I’ll leave that for a later edition this week. 😉

“Since the beginning, folks have said environmental justice are local issues, local impacts, and local opportunities.”


“People often see it as a blue state so not significant politically, but California is still one of the biggest oil-producing states,” Jones tells me. “All that oil drilling and infrastructure does have real impact on communities and people’s health.”


The same goes for families out in Texas. If California is where we’d expect to see victories, Texas is where we’d expect some losses. The Texas Railroad Commission is the industry regulator, so climate advocates set their sight there. Unfortunately, they failed. The commission remains in Republican control, as Alexander Kaufman reports at HuffPost. Elsewhere in Corpus Christi, candidates that opposed desalination plants and oil refineries didn’t win a spot on the city council. That offers little comfort for families on the frontline.


“That was a pretty hard defeat,” Jones said.


Still, this year’s campaigns saw an unprecedented outpouring of support for climate policy that puts communities of color and low-income communities first. The deaths and heartbreaks of 2020—from COVID-19 to regional wildfires and flooding to police killings—made it so that candidates could no longer ignore what sits at the root of all this: systemic racism. So much work lies ahead of us—both within these next four years and beyond—but we’re in a better place than we were yesterday.


That must count for something, right?

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