WORDS BY Yessenia Funes
All eyes are on Georgia, where climate most definitely won. This year’s runoff election was nothing short of historic, and its impacts will be felt deeply within and outside the state. Mobilization by climate groups and Black voters helped contribute to the massive voter turnout the state witnessed.
Georgia is home to both the largest coal plant in the U.S. and the only nuclear plant being built in the U.S. You’d think these historic feats would translate to something similar in the renewable energy sector, but only 9 percent of its energy comes from renewables, half of which comes from burning wood that, in turn, harms human health by polluting the air. Needless to say, the state is as much a clean energy leader as it is peaches—which is to say not at all.
State voters decided on their energy future—and the entire country’s climate future, really—in Georgia’s runoff elections Tuesday. In a tight race, voters elected Raphael Warnock as the state’s first Black senator. The race between incumbent David Perdue and Jon Ossoff has not yet been called, but it’s looking like Democrat Ossoff will win. If he does, Democrats will be tied 50-50 with Republicans in the Senate, but incoming Vice President Kamala Harris is projected to give the majority to Democrats. Voters re-elected Lauren McDonald for the Public Service Commission, a state regulating body with power over Georgia utilities. The race for commissioner got less national attention than the Senate races, but it’s an equally important office when it comes to climate because we should know by now that local actions lead to global change.
Welcome to The Frontline, your daily reminder that climate is connected to everything, especially politics. I’m Yessenia Funes, climate editor of Atmos. With these Democrats entering the Senate, President-elect Joe Biden will have a much easier time passing climate legislation. At the state level, however, Georgians can expect the same old antics with McDonald remaining on the Public Service Commission.
According to a 2019 poll from the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, nearly two-thirds of Georgia voters support developing more renewable energy. And a majority of these voters are already feeling the impacts of the climate crisis today. Remember Hurricane Michael in 2018? It was the first major hurricane to directly strike the state since the 1890s. Rural farmers are still reeling from that loss, says Brionté McCorkle, the director of Georgia Conservation Voters. “We want leaders in office who are taking these threats seriously—who are going to be champions for the legislation needed to address those things,” she says.
The way to do that is to mobilize voters who already care about climate change—often younger people and people of color, according to McCorkle—and show others why they should vote with the environment in mind. For those who may not live on the coast, they may live close to one of the state’s dozens of coal ash ponds—ponds often filled with toxic byproducts of coal burning, such as arsenic and lead. In July 2020, residents of Juliette, Georgia, filed a lawsuit against utility Georgia Power for alleged pollution of their drinking water.
This is the environmental injustice that currently exists in Georgia. It’s why organizations like the Georgia Conservation Voters rallied with a clear focus on the environment for Tuesday’s runoff election. Runoffs in the state have historically seen low voter turnout, but this race was far from the usual: More than 3 million voters showed up early, and over 1.3 million voted on Tuesday. Much of the electorate growth in the state has come from Black voters, whose votes carry immense weight in a state that’s 32 percent Black.
Local groups like McCorkle’s—which have been knocking on doors, calling, texting, running digital ads, and doing everything in their power to educate voters—helped contribute to the incredible turnout. While Georgia Conservation Voters mobilized around climate change, another group had an even narrower focus: energy.
“My sense is that national environmental groups are paying close attention and are showing up, but they also recognize the need for the message and the advocacy on the ground to be led by local groups and local leaders.”
Chandra Farley, the just energy director with the Partnership for Southern Equity, was talking to voters about the Public Service Commission race. The commission determines what monthly energy bills look like and can prevent utility shut-offs. Plus, it has the power to push energy companies to supply more renewable energy. That nuclear plant, for instance? The commission approved its expansion back in 2009. Now, ratepayers help pay for it despite being delayed and overbudget.
Five Republicans currently sit on the commission, but Farley is hoping Democratic leaders can slowly take it over seat by seat. Building an equitable energy future where poor rural communities no longer bear the brunt of energy pollution and where consumers don’t foot the bill for dirty utilities starts with the commission, says Farley.
“Here are five people who are elected that you have a decision to make on whether they keep their job or not. Every single day, they make decisions that directly impact your pocketbook, your wallet, your household economic stability, your ability to make energy choices,” Farley says she tells voters. “That is where our message comes from. This race is important.”
With McDonald winning, very little will change in the near future, but that doesn’t mean the work is over for folks like Farley. What most eyes have been focused on, however, is the Senate race, which more directly affects federal legislation. That’s why more than $830 million has collectively been spent on these races. The Georgia Senate races have proven the most expensive Senate races ever. Climate groups such as Sunrise Movement have invested in this election because they know that the outcome will determine whether Biden can fully realize his $2 trillion climate plan. Now, he can.
“My sense is that national environmental groups are paying close attention and are showing up, but they also recognize the need for the message and the advocacy on the ground to be led by local groups and local leaders,” says Cathleen Kelly, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.
Local leaders—especially those in the Black community—made this happen. A new Black South is rising, and it is absolutely beautiful.