Nearly a year ago, we saw the fabric of U.S. democracy crumble before our very eyes. Fourteen days before President Joe Biden was set to take over the White House, supporters of then President Donald Trump stormed the Capitol. Let’s not forget why: They believed Trump had been deceived out of a second term. And they were willing to hurt others in pursuit of that belief—even our elected officials.
If that’s not a marker for the fall of democracy, well, I don’t know what is. A year later, more than 725 individuals have been charged for their crimes, but only some 31 have been sentenced to time behind bars, per The Washington Post. The longest sentence so far? Some five years. Meanwhile, at least 19 states have passed laws to restrict access to voting, according to a recent report from the Brennan Center. Gerrymandering by the Republican Party may very well strip Black Democrats of their power across the U.S. So while a particular group of citizens attacks democracy with their bare hands, we have so-called leaders in Congress attacking democracy with the legislation they write.
Welcome to The Frontline, where we see that democracy hangs in the balance. I’m Yessenia Funes, climate director of Atmos. This new year will be a critical one for the United States’ future. Midterm elections are 10 months away, and their outcome will determine U.S. climate policy—as well as the integrity of our legislative bodies. Whom voters (those who are still able to vote, anyway) elect may very well decide what the future of our planet looks like.
When I ask Saad Amer about how he feels about 2021, all he can do is laugh. As the cofounder of Plus 1 Vote, a nonprofit dedicated to increasing youth voter turnout, Amer knows intimately the ways 2021 left voting rights in shambles. He remembers Jan. 6, 2021, as a day that went from joyous to jarring. He started the day celebrating his team’s success in Georgia, where voters managed a climate victory in a run-off election, but ended his day witnessing the Capitol insurrection unfold.
The lack of consequences that has since occurred has left him feeling disappointed and anxious about what’s to come. “We can’t have a habitable climate without a functioning democracy,” he said. “Without a functioning democracy, we won’t have a habitable planet.”
Amer isn’t exaggerating. American democracy is at risk, and the actions our leaders take to address this in 2022 will set the tone for the rest of our lives. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change set the deadline to 2030 for dramatic emissions cuts. That work should already be underway, but it’s not at the scale necessary. Meanwhile, the midterms are coming up in November, and the presidential election is two years away. In preparation, the Republican Party has been busy passing restrictions around mail-in voting, early voting, absentee ballot dropboxes—all tools that help make voting easier on the working class. They’ve also chiseled away at the administrative set-up of elections, which may encourage the manipulation of elections.
“I would love to see people electrify their relationship to Congress and decarbonize the politics so that we can get our work done.”
As a result, the Democratic Party is trying to pass a federal package to strengthen voter rights. First, it must change the filibuster, a Senate tool meant to encourage debate but that has actually resulted in delays passing laws. That’s top of the agenda for Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer. We can only hope that second on that agenda is the climate crisis.
Sure, 2021 was a shift from 2020. The U.S. is refocused on science and environmental justice. Still, communities on the ground need to actually feel these changes in their everyday lives if the Democratic Party wants their support, said Mustafa Santiago Ali, the vice president of environmental justice, climate, and community revitalization at the National Wildlife Federation. The people already living through the climate emergency or pollution crisis need to see actions that transform their lives.
“I’m very concerned because everything comes down to the vote,” Santiago Ali said. “You can’t have a winning formula for climate change without making sure there are folks in office who are going to do what’s necessary to make that become a reality.”
Tamara Toles O’Laughlin, CEO and president of the Environmental Grantmakers Association, emphasized the need for a holistic vision from the president—one that effectively includes solutions to healthcare, education, employment, and housing within climate policy. “These things are not happening separately,” she said. “They’re happening at the same time.” The Build Back Better Plan was a pretty impressive opportunity to do that, but it appears unlikely at the moment. Whether it or something like it is passed before the midterms may affect how folks vote (if at all) come November.
And the clock is ticking.
Let’s look at the midterms more closely. The conspiracy that fueled the insurrection—that the 2020 presidential election was stolen—lives on through who’s running in 2022. Some 230 Congressional candidates support Trump’s lies around the election, according to The Washington Post. This reality exists under the backdrop of voter disenfranchisement that’s keeping people out of the polls.
As stated in a report published Tuesday by the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning U.S.-based think tank: “A large segment of the American public has decided they do not trust the electoral system—at least not when their favored candidate loses. Changing those hearts and minds is a long-term challenge that is going to require thoughtful, long-term solutions. In the meantime, however, policymakers ignore the short-term problem at their peril. Election officials might refuse to certify the next election. Bad actors might try to tamper with the results of the election—or prevent their opposition from voting—under the pretense of preventing fraud. And, even when the election is over and done, members of Congress might refuse to respect the Electoral College results.”
It’s time for our elected officials to take on this challenge before it’s too late. For too long, Black, Indigenous, and other voters of color have been pushed to the margins. They’re among our most engaged on environmental issues. They’re the key to climate action. In 2022, our elected officials need to seize the opportunity.
“I appreciate decarbonizing and electrifying everything, but I would love to see people electrify their relationship to Congress and decarbonize the politics so that we can get our work done,” Toles O’Laughlin said. “If we do that in 2022, the rest will be relatively survivable on the road to a habitable planet.”