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Demand for Environmental Purity Endangers Fight against Climate Change

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As 2021 came to an end and the Build Back Better Act was predictably torpedoed by US Senator Joe Manchin, a group of activists in Ulster County felt compelled to write an open letter to Anthony Delgado, the Democrat who represents New York’s 19th Congressional district, taking him to task for not having made the Green New Deal a centerpiece of his work in Congress.

As an environmentalist, I believe there are better ways to advocate for policies that address the threat of climate change.

For many voters in the 19th district, the Green New Deal is seen, rightly or wrongly, as an expensive, unrealistic program that would threaten their way of life. According to a May 2021 article in The River, his is the eighth-most rural district in the country. Its resident are older and less well educated than the urban constituencies represented by members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus that champion the Green New Deal.

A March 2019 poll conducted by Change Research found that 80 percent of Republicans strongly oppose the Green New Deal, while just 46 percent of Democrats strongly support it. This is an indication that proponents of the plan have done a poor job of building support for a comprehensive approach to the problems of climate change.

On the other hand, most Democrats (92 percent) and Independents (55 percent) agreed with the statement that “in the future, we should produce electricity using 100 percent renewable energy sources, such as solar and wind.” Clearly, the way the issue is presented is crucial in winning broad support for renewable energy policies. If Delgado were to endorse the entire Green New Deal package, he would risk alienating many of the voters he will need to win a third term in November.

Happily, from my point of view, Mr. Delgado has done an excellent job of balancing his support for progressive legislation with his commitment to the priorities of his largely rural and agricultural district. He successfully pushed to make sure that pandemic relief funds from the American Rescue Plan Act went directly to local jurisdictions rather than being filtered through state government bureaucracies that often overlook local priorities. He has also proposed a program of loan forgiveness for small farmers that has gained the support of Farm Aid and the National Family Farm Coalition, groups that represent the interests of some 5,000 farms in his upstate district.

And it’s not as if Delgado is ignoring the climate crisis. Soon after taking office in 2019, he introduced the Green Jobs and Opportunity Act, legislation that pairs the elimination of carbon emissions by 2050 with workforce training to address the economic concerns of his constituents. The bill is endorsed by the 19th District Citizens Climate Lobby and the Environmental Director of Hudson River Sloop Clearwater and has attracted 67 cosponsors in the House of Representatives. The Green New Deal, for all the hoopla it has generated, has just 103 House cosponsors.

If Representative Delgado is to accomplish anything on climate change (and hold on to his seat in the bargain), he must convince his constituents that reducing our national reliance on fossil fuels and promoting sustainable energy policy is in their best interest. This is hard work. According to Delgado’s office, he has held dozens of town halls and met with interest groups all over his sprawling 10-county district to make the case for clean energy policy.

The 2022 election will be a watershed for climate change; if the Republicans regain control of Congress, it’s pretty much game over for federal climate change legislation during the next two years. Advocates can best contribute to the fight against climate change if they join Representative Delgado in working to educate and persuade organizations like the Farm Bureau and their local Chamber of Commerce that climate change is the defining issue of our time. Continuing to criticize Delgado risks alienating voters and helping the campaign of a well-known opponent like Duchess County Executive Marc Molinaro to flip New York’s 19th Congressional district into the Republican column.

It is tempting to think that just believing in something so strongly should result in its becoming national policy. Not that easy, though, is it? In addition to a Senate majority that includes Joe Manchin, there’s the filibuster standing in the way of the Green New Deal. Better to recognize that lasting change requires a unified approach to building support for our position. Criticizing our allies is mostly counterproductive.

The River is a nonpartisan news organization, and the opinions of columnists and editorial writers do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the newsroom.