You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation
Boiling Point

The Rise of the No-Compromise Climate Candidate

From New York to Texas, a new crop of candidates rejecting fossil fuel donations are calling for legislative action.

Jessica Cisneros holds a microphone while talking.
Brandon Bell/Getty Images
Democratic candidate Jessica Cisneros speaks during the “Get Out the Vote” rally on February 12, in San Antonio, Texas.

When the New York state legislature approved the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act, or CLCPA, in 2019, The New York Times called it “one of the world’s most ambitious climate plans.” It seemed as if the state was finally going to tackle climate change, sparing New Yorkers a future filled with the kind of devastation they experienced during Hurricanes Irene and Sandy.

Compared to that of other states, New York’s climate policy is relatively ambitious. But organizers say even New York isn’t moving fast enough. And in a time when voters across the country are experiencing the catastrophic effects of climate change firsthand, many are running out of patience with elected officials who fail to grasp the enormity of the crisis. Unsatisfied with three-year-old targets the state is not on track to meet, a new crop of candidates in New York say passing climate legislation that matches the scale of the crisis is their top priority. And they’re joining a larger wave of climate candidates, stretching all the way to states like Kentucky and  Florida, who believe their communities deserve leaders who will treat climate like the life-and-death issue it is—even in places as hostile to climate action as the Kentucky state legislature.

In New York, a coalition of climate justice organizations known as Climate Can’t Wait is urging the legislature to pass 12 climate bills before the legislative session ends in early June. (As of this writing, only the Cumulative Impacts Act, which requires environmental impact statements to address the effects of certain facilities on disadvantaged communities, has passed both houses and is awaiting the governor’s signature.) Organizers are still pushing for the All-Electric Building Act, which would allow permits for the construction of new buildings to be issued only if they’ll be all-electric after 2023; the Clean Futures Act, which would prohibit the development of any major new electric generating facilities that would be powered by fossil fuels; and the Build Public Renewables Act, or BPRA, which would enable the New York Power Authority to build affordable renewable energy to meet New York’s climate targets.

Aaron Eisenberg, an activist with Public Power New York, a coalition of environmental groups devoted to passing the BPRA, said “the entire climate movement” is united behind the Climate Can’t Wait package. “Yet [the state legislature] is at most thinking of trying to move one or two of these bills, because they think that’s the level of necessity they need to show at this time.”

David Alexis, 33, a climate organizer from Flatbush, Brooklyn, who is challenging New York State Senator and Energy Committee Chair Kevin Parker, has attributed the urgency he feels to the blackouts and flooding his community experienced in the wake of Hurricane Ida, high rates of respiratory illnesses, and his own daughters’ asthma. (I spent an afternoon collecting signatures to get Alexis on the ballot.)

Sarahana Shrestha, 41, is a first-generation immigrant from Nepal running for a New York State Assembly seat in the mid-Hudson Valley. An intense ice storm hit her district in February, leaving more than 60,000 households and businesses without power for days amid freezing temperatures. Initially an activist, she was so frustrated with her elected officials that she decided to run for office herself. Her opponent, Kevin Cahill, has held his seat since 1998. While organizing with Public Power New York, Shrestha met with a number of legislators who, she said, “appeared to have a tough time” seeing the democratization of the state’s energy system as an urgent priority. Legislators like Cahill, she said, present themselves as climate champions while taking money from the fossil fuel industry and refusing to back bills like the BPRA. “I decided to run because time is running out,” she said, and “we need organizers in office, especially climate organizers, who really understand the scale of the issue.”

The rise of these candidates is often attributed to a generational shift: Younger people supposedly care more about these issues because the crisis will affect a larger portion of their lives. (We often hear about those driven by climate despair to forgo parenthood entirely.) And some examples do seem to support that thesis: At 28, Jessica Cisneros, an immigration lawyer running on a climate-focused platform for a congressional seat in South Texas, is young, especially compared to her 66-year-old opponent and most of Congress.

But many of these candidates are, like Alexis and Shrestha, in their thirties and forties: old enough to remember Al Gore connecting global warming to the heat waves, droughts, flash floods, and forest fires already ravaging the United States in the 1990s and desperate to protect their own and other families from the disasters we’re already experiencing and those yet to come.

Support for these candidates is partly driven by frustration with the fossil fuel industry’s grip on many incumbents. Cisneros’s opponent, Henry Cuellar, took $157,000 from the oil and gas industry in the 2021–22 election cycle. As of November 2021, he was the fourth-biggest recipient of oil and gas campaign contributions in the House of Representatives in that cycle.

/  Free Pick of the Week: Homeland Security’s New Disinformation Board Is a Bad Idea, Just Not for the Reason Tucker Carlson Says It Is.

Activists’ emphasis on fossil fuel donations represents a shift from other metrics environmental groups have used to evaluate candidates. Cuellar, for example, received a score of 91 percent on the League of Conservation Voters’ 2021 scorecard, which assesses how members of Congress have voted on environmental issues. But “if you want to know where somebody’s going to go,” Leah Greenberg, co-executive director of the progressive organization Indivisible told me, “look at where their money is coming from.” Indivisible has endorsed Cisneros. “The first and most obvious contrast” between Cisneros and Cuellar, Greenberg said, is Cisneros’s refusal to take fossil fuel money.

Even in states where environmentalists have been fighting an uphill battle for decades, there are signs of change. In 2021, teacher and organizer Richie Floyd won an election for an open seat on the City Council of St. Petersburg, the fifth most populous city in Florida. He became the first open socialist elected in the state in a century, in part by emphasizing St. Petersburg’s need to be better prepared for climate change; in addition to pledging to “aggressively” transition the city to 100 percent renewable energy, he vowed to upgrade its sewage system to curb the pollution contributing to the area’s infamous red tides. 

Robert LeVertis Bell, a 42-year-old public school teacher and father of three running to represent a district that includes the city of Louisville in the Kentucky House of Representatives, told me most politicians don’t bother talking to his community about climate change. But when he brings it up, he sees a lot of heads nodding in agreement. “People fear for their lives,” he said.  “People fear for their children’s lives.… I’ve talked to some of the voters in some of the not-wealthy neighborhoods in the city of Louisville, and they get it.… They saw the tornadoes in Kentucky last year. They see these ‘hundred-year’ floods that happen every few years; many of them live right by the river. They’re concerned. They’re not stupid. They just haven’t been engaged in any way.” 

Part of the problem, Bell added, is the way some progressives approach the issue. “When I talk to [voters in my district] about climate, I don’t say, ‘The solution to this issue is that everybody is going to need to buy a $60,000 electric vehicle’ … or, ‘Give your money to the Sierra Club, and they’ll figure it out for us.’ I say, ‘This is something that we all have to work together to fight, not as consumers, but as people in the community, as workers, as voters, etc.’” Especially in the summer, temperatures in his district are soaring. Some of his constituents are older people afraid of what will happen if their air conditioner goes out when it’s over 100 degrees. “We’re expecting these 110-degree summers for the foreseeable future,” he said. “People are legitimately afraid that this is going to kill them.” 

Bell knows what he’s up against in a state like Kentucky. “Getting ambitious legislation passed or even defending mainline Democratic national priorities is a tall, tall climb,” he said. “We’re still having to struggle to defend basic abortion rights. We’re still having to struggle to protect our ability to teach Black history in schools; these are things that my friends and colleagues and comrades in New York City are not having to deal with when they go to Albany.” Still, he added, “we’re playing defense, but we also have to play some offense too.”

Even in the promised land of an Andrew Cuomo–free Albany with a veto-proof Democratic supermajority, Bell’s New York colleagues are fighting battles of their own. Some hoped Governor Kathy Hochul would be a better climate ally after Governor Cuomo, who said in 2014 that he didn’t want to get into “a political debate” about the causes of climate change, resigned in disgrace. But Hochul’s 2022 budget excluded crucial climate legislation, including the BPRA. Pete Sikora, climate and inequality campaigns director at New York Communities for Change, told me he considers it a plus that Hochul is “not a psycho” and her staff are “not the threatening, bullying crazoids that were Team Cuomo.” But in terms of “actual policy and substantive differences,” he added, “so far the same problem obtains, where there’s a ton of rhetoric about the vital nature of climate action—‘It’s an existential threat, we can’t ignore this problem’—and then they don’t back that up with requirements or money at the scale of the crisis.”

Under its own law, New York only has until 2030 to increase the share of its electricity that is generated from wind, sun, and water to 70 percent. As of November 2021, that figure was less than 30 percent. Aside from the 55 state legislators who signed a letter in December calling on Hochul to include the BPRA in her budget, Albany hasn’t seemed too worried about this discrepancy.

As the climate crisis worsens, not just veteran environmental activists but scores of new demonstrators and voters are tired of waiting for their representatives to act. People of all ages—from the 80-year-old climate activist arrested weeks ago in Queens to the septuagenarians and nonagenarians arrested at climate protests in recent years, to the twenty-, thirty-, and fortysomething candidates running for office nationwide and the kids who walked out of school en masse in 2019—understand what’s at stake. Time may be up for the government officials who don’t.