Sarahana Shrestha did not want to run for office. She was working as a part-time organizer for the advocacy groups Democratic Socialists of America and the Public Power NY Coalition, trying to mobilize the public on climate issues and pass state-level renewable energy legislation. She was happy and settled in her job, but a major setback during last year’s New York legislative session forced her to rethink her plans.
Shrestha and her fellow advocates/activists had spent a year organizing around a package of bills to give a state agency the authority to provide power to energy customers — allowing it to compete against private utilities and incentivize renewable energy. But the group’s efforts ultimately failed after the bill stalled in the state assembly.
In the aftermath of the stinging defeat, Shrestha started looking for her next move. She had previously taken a lead role in helping to stop a fracked gas plant in the city of Newburgh and was a consistent voice opposing a transmission line that would run through the Hudson Valley. She realized that she was well-positioned within the political scene in the Hudson Valley to run for office.
Shrestha and campaign volunteers spent months knocking on doors throughout New York’s District 103, touting her climate, environment, and progressive values And in June, Shrestha, a first-generation Nepali American, beat 13-term incumbent Kevin Cahill to win the district’s Democratic primary. In a true-blue state like New York, a primary win most often means a general election win.
“Climate change is not just about the environment,” Shrestha told Grist. “It means economic disruption, supply chain disruptions, food disruptions, and migration that we haven’t really planned for… It permeates through everything.”
Shrestha is among the latest wave of climate and environmental organizers running for office. This midterms, they’re seeking seats in statehouses, mayorships, and city councils. Activists have long been part of the funnel for political candidates, but what makes this election different is that for the first time, many climate advocates have cleared the biggest hurdle: crowded primaries. Now, they look poised to win in several key races, affecting climate action from state to local levels.
Part of this is due to a slew of campaigns by national political organizations to push climate candidates on ballots this midterms, from Lead Locally, which has upped its efforts to elect candidates that have pledged to fight fossil fuels, to the Democratic Socialists of America, which is running an entire “climate slate” of candidates in various districts across the country.
“We focus on down ballot elections because we find that often, it is city councilors or county commissioners that have decision-making power over pipelines or power plants, or other projects that threaten communities with pollution,” Lead Locally founder Whit Jones told Grist. Since its creation in 2016, the group has significantly expanded its capacity to support candidates. This year, it is working on 50 local elections, up two-thirds what it did in 2020.
This ramp-up in climate candidate campaigns reflects the growing acceptance and prioritization of the issue among Americans in recent years. Some 60 percent of Americans now view climate change as a threat, a jump from 44 percent in 2009. The past decade has also seen exponential growth in climate activism, particularly from youth activists, which has changed the political landscape.
“It’s really been remarkable how much climate change has risen on the political agenda,” said Jeff Colgan, a political scientist at Brown University and the director of the Climate Solutions Lab. “That’s driven by a bunch of different factors: In part because of the youth movement that’s been pushing on the issue in really successful ways. Sadly, a second reason is because of how we’re seeing climate change affect our world very directly.”
In Corpus Christi, Texas, the political scene looks different than the democratic-controlled legislature of New York. The city has seen a massive buildout of huge, sprawling natural gas production and export facilities in recent years.
Armon Alex is all too familiar with the role of fossil fuel companies in Corpus Christi’s day-to-day life; the 22-year-old has been organizing to stop the expansion of oil and gas in the area, and protect the bay, for five years. He co-founded the Gulf of Mexico Youth Climate Summit to develop climate action and preservation plans for the Gulf led by the youth most impacted by development in the area. He helped build a climate action plan for the international Our Ocean Conference, an event that has secured over 400 commitments to spend $16 billion on ocean conservation and preservation. He’s also the youngest person to sit on Corpus Christi Mayor Paulette Guajardo’s environmental task force.
“On every side of Corpus Christi Bay, we’ve got some kind of heavy industry related to fossil fuels,” said Alex, who decided earlier this year to run for city council, representing District 3. “There’s a layer of environmental injustice with the demographics around these heavy industries.”
Alex is running as part of a 4-person campaign for progressive leadership on Corpus Christi’s City Council. While the outcome of his election is less certain than Shrestha’s, Alex has won key endorsements from a slew of local and national organizations, including the Texas Campaign for the Environment, the Corpus Christi American Federation of Teachers, and the Sierra Club.
The lifelong Corpus Christi resident understands that job security is an important issue and has been running on a platform of inclusion for everyone, including people who work for fossil fuel companies. “I like to speak to refinery workers,” Alex told Grist. “I wholeheartedly believe that the only way to see a just transition to renewables is to keep our workers at the forefront of those conversations.”
In Appalachia, Becky Crabtree knows what it’s like to campaign in an area deeply entrenched in the fossil fuel industry. The schoolteacher is running for West Virginia’s House of Delegates, District 40. Before becoming a candidate, she was active in the fight to stop the Mountain Valley Pipeline, a sprawling project that would have carried fracked gas 300 miles through West Virginia and Virginia. In 2018, she was arrested for chaining herself to her old car to prevent the construction of the pipeline.
Crabtree is running as a Democrat in a red state and against a Republican incumbent who has held his seat in another district since 2012 (redistricting has shuffled locations and candidates this year). Despite these odds, she’s raised nearly double, as a first time candidate, what her opponent, Roy Cooper, has.
“It seems to be my time to put up or shut up,” she told Grist.
Crabtree points to her time fighting the Mountain Valley Pipeline as critical for her decision to run for office. She watched as politicians put profit over people, such as when legislators in West Virginia passed a bill criminalizing pipeline protests in the wake of activism against the Mountain Valley Pipeline. She also found the state’s use of eminent domain to take land from people for the pipeline infuriating. Both things happened “to benefit fossil fuel corporations,” Crabtree said. “Out-of-state profiteers have had two centuries of paying a pittance for West Virginia’s resources, from furs to lumber to coal to today’s fracked gas and pipelines, and that doesn’t seem to be changing.”
Crabtree hopes her campaign can enlighten residents in her district, which borders Virginia, about fossil fuels’ true impact, and to pave a better way forward. After spending so much time fighting fossil fuel infrastructure, she now wants to help find solutions to the problems that she has protested for so long.
“I want to be part of the change I dream of,” she said.