Big Green Bites the Wrong Hand
By: Anthony Rogers-Wright
With its 2016 National Environmental Scorecard, the League of Conservation Voters has failed to see the climate vision behind Bernie Sanders’ historic presidential campaign. That vision is the only way forward for the Democratic party.
Earlier today, the League of Conservation Voters (LCV) released its vaunted National Environmental Scorecard for 2016, measuring the green voting records of U.S. members of Congress. While there are no surprises for fringe lawmakers like Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK) and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), many were certainly befuddled to learn that Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) has received a score of 6%. To put that in perspective, 6% is only two points higher than what Alabama’s Republican Senators Jeff Sessions and Richard Shelby were awarded in last year’s edition.
This year, LCV wants to convince the public that Colorado’s two senators are stronger environmental allies than Bernie Sanders. Democrat Michael Bennet, who voted twice in favor of the Keystone XL pipeline and is known to have an affinity for fracking, received a 100% score. And Republican Corey Gardner got a 29% rating, 11 points higher than his lifetime average and 23 points higher than Sanders. The day that I concede that Bennet and Gardner are better for the environment than Bernie Sanders is the day that I concede that Jesus Christ was indeed a white man with blonde hair and blue eyes.
It’s fair to assume that LCV didn’t intend to place Sanders, who achieved a lifetime rating of 95% in the previous scorecard, in the same statistical company as his climate-denying colleagues—but that’s what their methodology accomplished. LCV selects the bills they deem significant and explains whether a “yay” or “nay” vote is the “pro-environmental” option. However, under their model, missing a vote is equivalent to voting against the environment. That of course disadvantages any senator seeking higher office, even known climate champions like Bernie Sanders.
To be clear, Sanders’ missed votes in 2016 were nothing extraordinary for a senator running for president. According to an analysis by GovTrack.us, Senators Obama and Clinton missed 65% and 56% of their votes, respectively, during the last year of the 2007-08 primary campaign. That compares to 58% for Sanders in the corresponding period of his race.
Low Score, Meet Big Picture
LCV has clearly failed to see the massive climate implications of Sanders’ historic presidential campaign.
When asked during a debate to name our biggest national security threat, Sanders without hesitation answered “climate change.” His climate platform included a national ban on fracking, an end to all fossil fuel subsidies, a call to bring climate criminals like Exxon to justice for bamboozling Americans for decades, and a plan to address disproportionate impacts on the poor and communities of color. By also addressing environmental racism in his campaign’s racial justice platform, Bernie demonstrated his comprehension of the need to view climate solutions through an intersectional lens. LCV, on the other hand, has clearly not spent much time pondering the low-carbon benefits of Bernie’s larger agenda—from cracking down on the polluting billionaires and redistributing wealth, to reshaping trade policy and expanding health care.
By some accounts, Sanders’ climate platform was the most ambitious in U.S. history, so it’s not like he compromised the environmental integrity that earned him a 95% lifetime rating. Since the election, he has fiercely opposed the Dakota Access Pipeline and helped to foster a national discussion about the atrocities experienced by Native Americans (topics that Hillary Clinton, who was endorsed by LCV, has still not addressed directly). It’s unfortunate that the League does not appear to evaluate how lawmakers address the environmental injustices afflicting marginalized communities—nor does their scorecard advisory board include a single person of color.
If LCV truly intends to “work to turn environmental values into national, state and local priorities,” as stated in their 2015 National Scorecard, then they must convey an accurate and complete picture of lawmakers’ values to the public, some of whom may depend on the scorecard to make informed voting choices. As Brad Johnson, the Executive Director of Climate Hawks Vote, puts it, “LCV’s scorecard fails to capture the actual nature of political environmental leadership in the 21st century.” Explaining why someone’s entire body of work must be considered, Johnson added, “this is why Climate Hawks Vote’s 21st-century climate leadership scorecard measures the public records of elected officials, scoring them on public engagement; bills authored; bills cosponsored; press releases, working caucuses joined and led; and websites. LCV’s scorecard measures none of these important components of environmental leadership.”
Just as standardized tests are far from definitive measures of intelligence, scorecards hardly tell the full story of a politician’s environmental record. Surely, LCV would call it unfair to judge them only by their endorsements, especially after they recently got on board with numerous candidates who support fracking and take money from the fossil fuel industry.
Their methodology also sends a bad message to climate champions in Congress who aspire to run for other offices, including governors’ mansions—positions that we need to fill with progressives to achieve climate action at the local level. After all, it’s when politicians run for higher office that we see their true convictions. Do they change their stances, or try to change American politics? Bernie Sanders demonstrated that a national election would not alter his approach to climate and racial justice. In fact, the campaign improved it.
Where Do We Go from Here?
Sanders’ low score is not unrelated to the tensions that have persisted since the end of the Democratic primary. Various Clinton insiders place some of the blame for Clinton’s loss in the general on Bernie Sanders and his supporters. And it’s no secret that one of Clinton’s top surrogates, former EPA Administrator Carol Browner, is the chairwoman of LCV’s Board of Directors. Browner was instrumental in blocking many of the environmental amendments introduced by Sanders delegates during the Democratic National Committee (DNC) party platform drafting process last June, including a national ban on fracking.
On climate change and a slew of other issues, Democratic leaders will make a revealing decision about the future of their party when they elect a new DNC chair this weekend. Keith Ellison, one of the leading candidates for the position, enjoyed an LCV score of 100% in 2015. It’s gone down to 87% this year, since he no doubt missed some votes as part of his campaign. Ellison’s platform and vision for the Democratic party most closely resembles that of Sanders. His progressive bona fides would bring the party credibility, as Bill McKibben writes, and “he’s also the bridge to the world of movements, which supply the passion and spirit and creativity that the DNC requires at least as badly as it needs credibility.”
To put in place the policies and programs we need to avert catastrophic warming, we must elevate proven climate fighters like Sanders and Ellison. LCV, which claims it “elects pro-environmental champions who will champion priority issues” in its mission statement, should make clear if it stands with them or not. It can start by endorsing Keith Ellison for DNC Chair.