Chapter 15 Climate Litigation and Elections

See index to all the chapters for Putting Out the Planetary Fire

Climate Litigation and Elections

– Climate Litigation

– Children’s Climate Litigation
– Fossil Fuel Companies Sue Opponents

– The Role of Elections

– Limits on U.S. Democracy
– What is going on with the Republicans?
–  How to Influence Elections
– Climate Groups’ Electoral Activities

Chapter 15 Climate Litigation and Elections

I decided well before I graduated from law school that being an attorney was not the career I wanted to pursue. I soon realized that cases that broke new legal ground – like ending segregation in schools or reproductive freedom for women – were few and far between. Courts primarily apply existing laws to particular factual situations, and I learned from my five years with the New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG) that it’s those with the largest campaign donations normally write laws.

When asked by a law professor to explain the legal reasoning behind a U.S. Supreme Court decision siding with a railroad company against a little old lady, I observed that the court sided with rich corporation. When the professor remarked that was a rather simplistic explanation, I replied that such an analysis was invariably correct and avoided the need to read through hundreds of pages of convoluted legal reasoning. At least the professor never called on me again.

Despite all that, I have long felt that the courts might end up being what saves the world from climate collapse, since it was clear that the wealth of the fossil fuel companies dominated the legislative and executive processes. Courts in other parts of the world, particularly Europe, have a more extensive record than in the U.S. of being willing to utilize their powers to adapt to an ever-changing world and provide legal solutions that benefit humanity. The hope is that there will be a court somewhere with the courage to intervene to save life on the planet. Once a respected court opens the door to climate action, others will follow.

It was my organizing with the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) in the late 1970s that first highlighted for me the importance of elections. ACORN always focused on power and innovative ways to obtain it. Since elections are one of the main ways that power is obtained and exercised in the United State, ACORN always integrated an electoral strategy into their organizing efforts right from the beginning.

For example, in Arkansas, where ACORN started, the County Judge leads in adopting the local budget. ACORN recruited scores of its members to become Justices of the Peace – which also gave the members a little income for performing various official services. When the County Judge convened the annual budget meeting, he was stunned to be confronted by a roomful of ACORN members who had a vote in its final adoption.

ACORN decided to launch the People’s Party in the late 1970s. The new public campaign finance rules provided that presidential candidates would qualify for matching funds if they raised $5,000 in each of 20 states. ACORN decided to rapidly expand to 20 states by 1980. I volunteered to start Arizona ACORN in 1978, forgetting how conservative the state was until I crossed the state line and saw that I was on the Barry Goldwater Memorial Highway. Goldwater was the conservative Republican presidential nominee who was handily defeated by Lyndon Johnson in the 1964 election. He paved the way however, for conservatives to win power with Ronald Reagan in 1980, a watershed moment in American politics.

When ACORN was unable to move its two most critical allies – unions and black churches – out of the Democratic Party, they folded back in. I volunteered to return to Des Moines to organize the Iowa caucuses for ACORN to support Senator Ted Kennedy, who was challenging President Carter in the Democratic Party caucus. I left ACORN after Iowa to become the national organizer for the Campaign for Safe Energy, pushing to get the presidential candidates in both major parties to oppose nuclear power and embrace renewable energy.

A number of us in ACORN did not agree with its decision to rejoin the Democrats. Several of us left to help launch the Citizens Party (CiP), which ran well-known environmentalist scientist Barry Commoner for president in 1980. A former ACORN organizer, the late Bert DeLeeuw, became the Executive Director of CiP.[1]

ACORN did, however, continue to support the idea of a third party. After supporting Jesse Jackson and the Rainbow Coalition’s effort in 1984 and 1988, in the early 1990s ACORN helped launch the New Party which sought to use fusion as their principal strategy, running candidates on more than one party line.[2] They sought to replicate the efforts of the Populist Party in the late 1890s.[3] However, the success of the Populist Party had led many states to ban fusion and when the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the legality of state bans on fusion, the New Party folded. ACORN shifted its electoral staff to New York, which still allowed fusion, to launch the Working Families Party (WFP). Both the Greens and WFP first achieved official party status due to their vote totals in the 1998 gubernatorial campaigns.

After the 1980 elections, I moved back to Albany, NY, to engage in community organizing and building the Citizens Party. The city of Albany is the home of arguably the strongest Democratic political machine in the U.S., even surpassing Chicago. The silver lining was that in order to challenge the Albany Democrats, one had to really sharpen your electoral skills. I used many of the organizing techniques from ACORN, starting with how to create door knocking lists of the voters on index cards (something a smartphone can handle these days). Over the next several years, I helped friends win in Democratic Party primaries and then managed campaigns for the Citizens Party in the general election.

When I moved across the Hudson River to Rensselaer County, it was much easier to win elections since the local parties did not have the organizing strength or campaign skills of the Albany Democrats. When the Citizens Party fizzled out after the 1984 presidential election, I began to organize the Green Party in New York in the late 1980s.

In the early 1990s, I was elected to the Poestenkill Town Board as a Green with the backing of the Democrats. Poestenkill is an overwhelmingly Republican community in the Hudson Valley that is a mixture of a rural Appalachia and a suburban development. Gravel mines, taxes, and garbage were the decisive issues. I won the Democratic primary for State Assembly in 1992 while also running as a Green (New York allows fusion, a strategy which the Greens later decided to reject). Over several decades I managed a series of Green Party races for Governor, U.S. Senate, and President, along with numerous campaigns for local offices.

Senator Bernie Sanders 2016 presidential campaign, with its call for a people’s revolution and semi-socialist principles, inspired a new generation of young electoral activists. Many of them gravitated to the long-standing but rather moribund Democratic Socialists of America (DSA).[4] Young people combined passion and energy with a high level of understanding of electoral mechanics they gained from Sanders’ campaign. I will talk more about DSA later in this chapter. Their big breakthrough was with the victory of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in a June 2018 Democratic congressional primary in New York City. Ocasio-Cortez, in addition to her life story, intelligence, and hard work, raised the use of social media in elections to a new level. Her decision to join the Sunrise Movement in occupying Speaker Pelosi’s office even before taking her seat elevated the Green New Deal to the stratosphere.


With legislative bodies dominated by fossil fuel campaign donations and in gridlock with partisan divisions (especially in Congress), climate advocates are increasingly turning to the courts in the effort to halt the burning of fossil fuels.[5]

Courts are often instrumental in local climate campaigns, such as denying permits for fossil fuel infrastructure such as pipelines. Environmentalists often sue government agencies for failing to comply with the environmental review process. Opponents of local renewable energy projects have also used litigation as a last resort.[6]

There are significant limitations to climate litigation. The court’s role is to enforce existing laws and constitutional provisions, not make new laws or policies. There are restrictions on who can bring litigation. Many individuals and groups lack standing, meaning that many individuals and groups are not uniquely harmed by particular actions to allow them to be plaintiffs.[7] Courts are also restrictive in the forms of remedies they are willing to order. Courts are slow and expensive, requiring attorneys and the use of outside experts, especially in a complex case involving climate change.

Broad climate litigation is usually done by larger groups with substantial funding for such efforts. Groups can try to find a free attorney to fight individual projects (for example to challenge permits), but normally will have to raise significant funds to pay an attorney (often at a discounted rate) and associated costs (filing fees, copying).

Lawsuits that seek damages for harm caused by the defendants (tort actions)[8] may be taken on by attorneys who are willing in exchange for a percentage of any damages won. Some groups pursuing a climate litigation strategy aim to get to the point where victories against fossil fuel polluters are likely enough that they convince deep-pocketed law firms that specialize in tort litigation to take on the case. Such tort law firms have played a critical role in holding chemical companies liable for the damage their products have caused.[9] Tort law was also used to fight tobacco companies.[10]

Still, courts have occasionally been willing to tackle issues that legislatures often fail to deal with due to the level of controversy. The U.S. Supreme Court, for instance, ruled against segregation in Brown vs. Topeka Board of Education, authorized same sex marriages, and for half a century protected abortion rights (until a shocking reversal by a partisan, conservative court). Courts in other countries have often been more progressive, such as recognizing the rights of animals and nature.[11]

Fossil fuel companies are also increasingly using litigation to fight back against policies that seek to restrict their operations, including seeking reimbursement for the decreased value of the fossil fuel infrastructure and reserves. As of 2021, fossil fuel companies were suing various countries for $18 billion to recover “lost profits.”[12] One reason the Obama Administration and other governments fought against mandatory emission cuts in the Paris Climate Accords was their worry that it would open the U.S. to liability from fossil fuel companies, including under the provisions of the various global trade agreements that give corporations the power to challenge regulations by national governments that impede their operations.[13]

In 2022, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) recognized the role of litigation in affecting “the outcome and ambition of climate governance.”[14] The number of climate change-related cases is more than two thousand. This has doubled since 2015, with one-quarter filed between 2020 and 2022. Seventy-three are “framework” cases challenging governments’ overall responses to climate change. Many cases, especially outside of the U.S., are challenging fossil fuel companies, with other corporate targets in the food and agriculture, transport, plastics, and finance sectors. The Grantham Research Institute reports that key areas for future litigation will involve “personal responsibility; challenging commitments that over-rely on greenhouse gas removals or ‘negative emissions’ technologies; short-lived climate pollutants; the climate and biodiversity nexus; and strategies exploring legal recourse for the ‘loss and damage’ resulting from climate change.”[15]

There have been some recent victories that give hope that the courts are becoming more open to ordering climate action. In 2021, the District Court of The Hague ruled that the energy company Royal Dutch Shell must reduce its carbon emissions by 45% compared with 2019 levels over the next nine years, finding that the current high level of emissions might contribute to imminent environmental harm to Dutch citizens.

The Federal Constitutional Court in Germany, the world’s seventh largest emitter of greenhouse gas, ordered the government to adopt a clearer strategy towards achieving its climate targets after 2030. A ruling in 2020 required the Irish government to detail its climate mitigation plan, including how to meet the goal of cutting emissions by 80% by 2050. A 2015 decision ordered the Dutch government to lower domestic greenhouse-gas emissions by at least 25% by the end of 2020.[16]

An increasing number of lawsuits are being filed to hold fossil fuel companies liable for the damages caused by burning fossil fuels even though they knew it was contributing to global warming. It is difficult however for science to determine the level of damage caused by any one particular emitter and to assign damages. In the case against Royal Dutch Shell — and in climate suits against governments — plaintiffs chose to focus on getting the defendants to mitigate looming climate risks, rather than seeking compensation for harm already suffered.

A 2021 report from the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University found that recent trends in climate litigation include: “Violations of ‘climate rights’, i.e. cases are increasingly relying on fundamental human rights including the right to life, health, food, and water; Failures of governments to enforce their commitments on climate change mitigation and adaptation; and, Greenwashing and non-disclosures, when corporate messaging contains false or misleading information about climate change impacts.”

UNEP expects climate litigation to increase with respect to companies misreporting climate risks, governments failing to adapt to extreme weather events, and cases seeking to enforce previous court decisions. A rise is also expected in cases concerning persons displaced by climate change impacts.[17]

In March 2023, the UN General Assembly passed a resolution requesting the International Court of Justice to issue an advisory opinion on the legal obligations of nations with respect to climate change. It asked the Court to clarify governments’ obligations to protect the “climate system” for “present and future generations,” and what governments’ responsibilities are for “acts and omissions” that have caused harm to the climate, especially for harm to “particularly vulnerable” small island developing countries such as the Pacific Island nation Vanuatu which initiated the resolution. [18]

In August 2022, a U.S. federal appeals court ruled that a pair of lawsuits by Hoboken, New Jersey, and the State of Delaware to hold oil companies accountable for climate change should be heard in state courts, striking down efforts by the fossil fuel industry to move the cases to federal judges. More than 20 similar lawsuits seeking damages have been filed in the last five years, mainly using state level tort laws. In addition to fighting lawsuits on jurisdictional grounds, the fossil fuel industry is pushing for states to pass laws that would block municipalities from suing companies for damages related to climate change.[19]

In November 2022, more than 60 Puerto Rican municipalities, which were decimated by Hurricanes Irma and Maria in 2017, filed suit against Shell and other fossil fuel producers in a first-of-its-kind, class action climate liability lawsuit under RICO, the criminal racketeering act. Desmog reported that the lawsuit “alleges that the fossil fuel defendants engaged in a coordinated, multi-front effort to promote climate denial and defraud consumers by concealing the climate consequences of fossil fuel products in order to inflate profits.” RICO has been successfully used to hold tobacco companies liable for lying about the health hazards of smoking.[20]

In February 2023, ClientEarth filed a lawsuit in England against the 11 directors of Shell Oil Company. According to The Guardian, it was the first case where the plaintiffs “are seeking to hold corporate directors liable for failing to properly prepare their company for the net zero transition. A global transition to low-carbon energy is inevitable as world governments act to end the climate crisis and Shell’s failure to move fast enough threatens the company’s success and would waste its investors’ money on unneeded fossil fuel projects.”[21]

One recent development is that non-fossil fuel companies are increasingly worried about facing litigation over their potential failure to adequately respond to the climate crisis. This is partially a result of the Securities and Exchange Commission and regulators in other countries developing rules to  require large companies to disclose their climate-related risks.[22]

Children’s Climate Litigation

In 2015, several dozen youth working with Our Children’s Trust filed a climate lawsuit, Juliana v. United States, asserting that since the federal government’s actions in permitting fossil fuels are a cause of climate change, it has violated the youngest generation’s constitutional rights to life, liberty, and property, as well as failed to protect essential public trust resources. That lawsuit is still seeking to be heard, having survived various court rulings.[23]

Our Children’s Trust has launched youth-led climate legal actions in all 50 states over the past decade, with legal actions pending in seven states.[24] In August 2023, in a groundbreaking decision, a state judge ruled that Montana had violated the children’s state constitutional right to “a clean and healthful environment” by promoting fossil fuel development without considering how those projects contribute to climate change.[25]

These lawsuits were inspired by a successful class-action suit in the 1990s by 43 students against the Philippine government to protect a forest surrounding their village. It was based on the Public Trust Doctrine, which is based on common law arising out of the Romans in the sixth century. It holds that air, water, and beaches are common property which is not owned by anyone and instead belongs to people as a whole, requiring states to manage certain natural resources for the benefit of the public. While the concept has traditionally been used to manage water resources, recent lawsuits have sought to expand the doctrine to include natural resources that have been impacted by climate change.[26]

Fossil Fuel Companies Sue Opponents

Fossil fuel companies have used the legal system in both the United States and abroad to suppress the rights of those who speak out against what such companies have done and are doing.

In the U.S., Earth Rights has identified more than 150 cases in the last decade where the fossil fuel industry filed strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPPs) and other judicial harassment tactics such as subpoenas in attempts to intimidate its critics in the U.S. This is part of a broader global trend of trying to restrict public debate, retaliating against those who seek to publicly speak in favor of the public interest, like Steven Donziger who was subjected to nearly 1,000 days of house arrest as part of a years-long legal ordeal that began after he successfully sued Chevron on behalf of 30,000 Ecuadorian Amazonian Indigenous people.[27]

One case involved Energy Transfer Partners who were seeking to build the Dakota Access pipeline (DAPL) in North Dakota. They sued Greenpeace, various other climate groups, and Indigenous water protectors for the Standing Rock protests. Contending the defendants were part of a “network of putative not-for-profits and rogue eco-terrorist groups,” the company sought $900 million in damages under the RICO Act, a law created to fight the mafia.

In 2016, Exxon retaliated against investigations into its alleged fraudulent climate change practices by the attorneys general of New York, Massachusetts, and the U.S. Virgin Islands by suing their attorney generals, slapping various nonprofit organizations and climate change experts with broad subpoenas, and threatening to depose 17 other state attorney generals. The industry hopes to use such harassment to force groups to divert their limited resources into responding while making groups fearful of working together.[28]

The Role of Elections

Elections are how democracies are supposed to decide who gets to make decisions for the rest of us.

Globally, elections have been critical to climate action. The U.S. pulled out of the Paris Climate Accords after Donald Trump was elected President. In Australia in May 2022, following massive wildfires, voters ousted the conservative coalition that had championed coal and gas and made Australia one of the climate laggards of the world. Within weeks, a new government updated the country’s international climate targets under the Paris Accord. The fate of the Amazon – and democracy – hung in the balance in the November 2022 elections in Brazil, as progressive challenger and former Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva defeated conservative incumbent Jair Bolsonaro.[29]

Climate has been a key factor in a number of recent European countries such as Switzerland[30] and Sweden[31] (the latter in the 2018 elections facing the smoke from fires in the arctic). Globally, the Green Party has been able to use their presence in a number of coalition governments to advance climate matters. Support for the Greens has surged as many voters make climate more of a priority.[32]

While there are numerous problems with America’s electoral systems, elections are still the generally agreed upon way to decide how we will be governed. A change in a few seats in Congress, a state legislature, or local government can be critical in determining which party is in control and willing to advance climate initiatives. Electing a few more committed climate activists can also be instrumental in prodding the Democratic Party to be bolder.

One study found that the Democrats’ endorsement of the Green New Deal provided a two-percentage point increase in their vote share in the 2020 Congressional elections.[33]

Limits on U.S. Democracy

Election districts in many states and communities are heavily gerrymandered, drawn so that in most cases you know which of the major parties will win. One exception is for races that cover the entire jurisdiction, such as statewide races for the U.S. Senate. Thus, for climate activists, running climate activists in Democratic primaries can be an effective way to prod the Democratic Party leadership to be stronger on climate action. Many climate activists also focus on the limited number of seats nationwide that will determine which party controls the Senate and House.

The U.S. is one of only three democracies in the world which use a winner-take-all system (the one with the most votes win), rather than the more standard system of proportional representation, where legislative bodies are determined by the percentage of votes each party gets. Proportional representation creates legislative bodies that are more reflective of the ideological makeup of the citizenry.

The U.S. is unique in that it shoehorns all political positions into two main parties, the Democrats and Republicans. The United States also enables an outsized role for campaign donations which enables the wealthy and corporate interests to dominate the electoral process.[34]

The problem is even worse at the federal level, as the wealthy male landowners who devised the constitution sought to balance the interests of small states and large states, which included protecting the powers of the slave states. This led to the Electoral College, which in recent decades has resulted in Republicans who won the White House with a minority of votes nationwide. The founding fathers – who excluded women, slaves, nonlandowners and Indigenous people – were also worried about the power of the “common man” to rapidly change political leaders, so they created the U.S. Senate, which is not only inherently undemocratic (two members per state regardless of the number of residents) but has six-year terms to guard against the more mercurial House of Representatives, which is elected every two years.

In recent decades Congress has been so dominated by partisan gridlock that it seems unable to function, particularly when the Democrats are in charge, since they are both more politically diverse than Republicans and more restrained in exercising power when they have slim majorities.

The design of America’s electoral system promotes the creation of two centrist parties and then the role of the money shifts it further to the right. The lack of third parties in the U.S. means that there are less avenues for innovative ideas and alternatives to be raised, a major problem for any democracy but particularly on climate action.[35]

Still, throughout American history it has often been third parties that raised issues that proved popular enough with voters that eventually the mainstream parties came to accept them. This includes issues such as abolishing slavery, giving women the right to vote, social security, establishing a minimum wage, authorizing same sex marriage, and creating unemployment compensation.[36]

What is Going on with the Republicans?

While the GOP has long been dominated by climate deniers, in the 2022 midterm elections they sought to project a more even-handed approach. Few bought their spin. Politico responded to a climate plan released by Congressional Republicans by noting that they “continue to resist setting a specific emissions reduction target. They oppose policies to reduce fossil fuel use, including regulations, taxes, or mandates. And Graves said House Republicans, unlike at least some GOP counterparts in the Senate, are skeptical of the government extending and expanding clean energy tax credits that the renewable industry says are critical to helping them deploy zero-carbon power at the scale needed to address climate change.” The Washington Post added, “It is unclear whether the GOP plans would, in fact, reduce carbon emissions, or if they instead largely amount to an attempt to deflect political blame over Republicans’ long-standing opposition to addressing catastrophic global warming.”[37]

However, a February 2023 report found that so-called red states had done a better job at adding electricity from solar and wind than the blue states, with Iowa, Oklahoma, Florida, and Texas leading the way.[38]

Roger Karapin, a political scientist at Hunter College and the Graduate Center at CUNY, provided some interesting insights into the Republican Party growing opposition to climate action.[39] One hopeful point he made is that the parties will shift their positions if enough voters have moved in a particular direction. He noted that majorities of Republican voters support various climate proposals, including tougher carbon emissions limits and a carbon tax to be paid by fossil fuel companies. More than 70% of voters support expanding wind and solar energy, and only 10-35% favor using more coal or natural gas.

Karapin notes that at the turn of the century, Republican leaders were willing to take up the climate issue: “President George W. Bush initially favored carbon dioxide regulation, and moderate Republican leaders supported a national emissions trading system. But the national GOP turned hard against climate policy once Barack Obama was elected President, committing to the fossil fuel industries, and promoting an economy based on low-cost, fossil fuel energy. On this and other issues (same-sex marriage, guns, abortion bans), Republicans committed to a base mobilization strategy even though its positions were unpopular with a majority of the public. They combined this base mobilization strategy for winning elections with the pursuit of a minority-rule strategy within constitutional rules (e.g., electoral college, voting rules in U.S. Senate). And under Donald Trump’s leadership, they began overturning traditional rules for deciding elections in order to take power.”

While the Democrats now publicly acknowledge the realities of climate change and the reasons for it, they have remained reluctant to directly confront the fossil fuel industry.[40] They have failed to call for a halt to new fossil fuel infrastructure and their leaders have continued to promote an “all-of-the-above” energy strategy even while ramping up support for renewable energy. They have been quick to embrace speculative solutions supported by the fossil fuel industry, such as carbon capture and sequestration.

How to Influence Elections

There are various handbooks showing how groups can impact elections.[41]

One electoral activity that climate groups can do, even those which must be nonpartisan, is voter registration. One strategy is to target constituencies more likely to support climate action.

Groups can also use elections to raise the visibility of climate issues (for example, asking a climate question at a candidate debate or campaign event.) In 1980, I helped coordinate the national Campaign for Safe Energy to get the presidential primary candidates in both parties to address the issue of nuclear power and renewable energy, often handing out a list of possible questions to attendees at campaign events. We got the Democratic Party to put our positions into their national platform, the only platform issue President Jimmy Carter lost before the convention itself. In hindsight, a platform fight at the convention would have generated more publicity.[42]

Most climate groups that engage in electoral politics do so by endorsing candidates. The Sierra Club and the League of Conservation Voters are among the best known for their electoral work, but others such as the Sunrise Movement, Food & Water Watch, and have also increasingly become active in elections. While IRS rules seek to prohibit 501c3 tax exempt nonprofits from directly impacting elections,[43] the big groups have resources that enable them to easily set up additional organizational structures that enable electoral work.

Most political analysts would advise climate groups to maximize their impact by focusing on races that are likely to be close and where the groups’ involvement can make a major difference. Especially critical would be races where the results could determine which party controls a legislative body.

Spirited challenges to incumbents can also have an impact. Politicians can become stronger on climate after a strong protest vote, to foreclose similar challenges in the future. While it was the intense organizing by grassroots groups that moved the New York Governor to ban fracking, the higher-than-expected election results by relatively unknown law professor Zephyr Teachout in the Democratic primary, followed by the 5% vote in the general election by the Green Party’s Howie Hawkins (the best result in the state by a progressive third party in a century), were contributing factors.

In recent years, with the Republican Party’s growing opposition to climate action, most climate groups almost exclusively endorse Democrats. Some environmental groups, especially the more moderate ones worry that with so many environmental groups being seen as appendages to the Democrats that it undercuts any potential of winning support for environmental measures from Republicans. The League of Conservation Voters, a more corporate-oriented group, has pursued a strategy of trying to move moderate Democrats and Republicans to support environmental causes for many years.[44]

Other groups put out voting guides which rank candidates on their environmental performances.[45] Such rankings are a way to signal to voters who to support, and many candidates will publicize a positive ranking from well-known groups in their campaign materials. The media also pay attention to such rankings. One challenge in compiling an accurate scorecard is that in many legislatures almost all votes are done along party lines, so it is more of a ranking of the party than individual legislators.

While money remains the main fuel of elections, the second most important aspect is get-out-the-vote efforts such as door knocking, voter identification, phone banking, and organizing election day turnout. With the grassroots infrastructure of the national political parties largely eroding away in recent decades, even a minimal amount of such efforts by a climate group is greatly appreciated by politicians, and often rewarded by them being willing to embrace the group’s legislative agenda.

Groups that endorse candidates for office usually have some form of questionnaire and interview process where they ask candidates where they stand on issues. Climate groups can ask their allies (including unions and other environmental groups) to include some specific questions related to climate. This also helps educate the candidates about the issue. Climate groups can also do their own survey of candidates on various climate issues and release the results to the public. However, groups that are not supposed to endorse candidates according to IRS rules need to be careful not to design the survey in such a way that it sends a clear message to support particular candidates. One way to do this is to include questions about other issues.

Groups can also share their policy positions with candidates, urging them to adopt them as their own (groups, especially 501c3 organizations, should probably send them to all candidates). Groups can also hold a forum on climate and invite candidates to speak on climate (unless you are endorsing specific candidates, invite them all).

Climate Groups’ Electoral Activities

While a number of climate groups endorse candidates, in recent elections Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) has focused on running their own candidates in Democratic primaries to provide leadership on their agenda rather than endorsing incumbents or other traditional challengers. They do intensive analysis of the candidates and the demographics of the districts before selecting only a few campaigns to devote all their resources to with the hope of winning.[46] DSA is a long-standing organization that was revitalized by an influx of young organizers following the presidential campaigns of Bernie Sanders.

Their impact has been most noticeable in NYC, where they helped elect Congressmember Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who defeated a powerful and generally well-liked incumbent in the primary. They have a passionate, committed volunteer base and a high level of mastery of electoral campaign techniques. They have elected a number of federal and state officials in New York, but their number of candidates remains relatively low. DSA has an ecosocialist working group[47] to help build local power for climate and environmental justice, including the Green New Deal and public power.[48]

The Sunrise Movement has made a major commitment to electoral politics. While they devote considerable resources nationally to getting out the vote in support of Democrats in key close elections, they have also been willing to publicly confront and push Democratic Party leaders on climate change. In 2020, Sunrise contacted over 6.5 million voters in the primaries and general election, contributing to what it says was the largest youth turnout in history. The group has played a critical role in a string of recent progressive primary victories, leading texting and phone banking operations for candidates like Jamaal Bowman, the middle school principal who defeated 31-year incumbent Eliot Engel in New York, and Cori Bush, who knocked off 10-term incumbent Lacy Clay in Missouri.

Sunrise also does considerable organizing campaigns outside of electoral politics and has shown an ability to mobilize a substantial number of young activists and to do creative direct actions, including against elected officials. Case in point: when newly elected Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez joined Sunrise activists sitting in Speaker Pelosi’s office to demand action for a Green New Deal.[49]

For the 2022 midterm federal elections, a half dozen climate groups formed the Climate Votes project to invest $100 million for multiple ad campaigns, as well as in-person field organizing in battleground states including Arizona, Nevada, Pennsylvania, Georgia, and others. The groups included Climate Power Action PAC, Climate Reality Action Fund, EDF Action Votes, League of Conservation Voters Victory Fund, NRDC Action Votes, and NextGen PAC.[50] (A PAC, a political action committee, is organized for the purpose of raising and spending money to elect and defeat candidates.)

The Next Generation PAC has registered 1.3 million voters since its founding in 2013. Its founder, billionaire Tom Steyer, spent more money in the 2014 and 2016 elections than any other donor, supporting candidates with strong climate agendas. Besides running for President in the 2020 democratic primary, Steyer donated more than $55 million to Democratic candidates and liberal causes in the 2020 campaign cycle — more than any other donor. NextGen Climate Action Committee spent $40 million in the 2020 cycle, including more than $8.5 million to support Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden and oppose Donald Trump.[51] Many climate activists, however, question how effective Steyer’s spending has been, particularly the more than $70 million he spent in 2014.[52]

Climate Hawks Vote, founded in 2013, is another political operation (a Super PAC) which supports candidates and elected officials that make climate action a top priority. It was co-founded by blogger and activist R.L. Miller, who as California Democratic Party’s environmental caucus leader was frustrated that significant parts of the Democratic Party support fossil fuel. It also gives scores to elected officials based on their climate positions. It has a relatively small budget, however.[53]

As discussed earlier, fossil fuel companies invest heavily in campaign contributions. In the 2018 midterm elections, they made more than $350 million in campaign contributions and lobbying expenditures – 13 times greater than renewable energy companies.[54] The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is the largest dark money, pro-fossil fuel trade association in the United States with an extensive history of supporting climate deniers and spreading misinformation about climate change. It spent nearly $160 million on congressional lobbying in 2019-20.[55]



























[27] Democracy Now,






















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