It used to be that the Chesapeake Bay was all Maryland candidates needed to talk about when it came to the environment. But that has changed as voters look to a future — and even a present — of uneven and severe impacts from climate change.
Candidates of both parties who are running to succeed outgoing Republican Gov. Larry Hogan are stressing their commitments to dramatically reduce the state’s dependence on fossil fuels in the coming decade, something Democratic lawmakers in Annapolis recently mandated and Hogan allowed to become law. The candidates have laid out plans to accelerate clean energy generation, increase resilience to extreme weather and promote job creation in “green” fields.
But as critical a role the next state leader will play in confronting climate change and a looming Chesapeake Bay cleanup deadline, those issues still remain a tier below seemingly more pressing matters. In a recent Baltimore Sun Media/University of Baltimore poll, Democratic voters, who outnumber Republicans 2-to-1 in Maryland, ranked the environment behind crime, the economy, gun control and school safety and education as the most important issue for the next governor to tackle.
“You cannot be without a strong environmental platform,” Mileah Kromer, director of the Sarah T. Hughes Center for Politics at Goucher College, said of Maryland candidates. “But you can’t win just with one.”
That means a difficult choice could be ahead for voters with their minds on environment and climate change.
Even Donald Boesch, who served as president of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science from 1990 to 2017, said he remains undecided on his vote.
He said he has fielded calls from several gubernatorial candidates seeking advice, including former U.S. Labor Secretary Tom Perez, who asked about his experience guiding an often dysfunctional Chesapeake cleanup effort, and author and nonprofit CEO Wes Moore. Frustrated by the Hogan administration’s approach to climate and environment, Boesch said he is still weighing which of the Democrats is best, and which has the best chance to win both the July 19 primary and the Nov. 8 general election.
“All of them are professing, anyway, to take this seriously and be aggressive,” Boesch said. “If you want your vote to count, you have to decide among the people who have a chance.”
In the Democratic field of nine candidates for governor, journalists and activists only got a couple of chances to probe candidates on environmental issues. One came at a forum held over two nights in March sponsored by Maryland Matters and the Maryland League of Conservation Voters.
At those events, former Obama administration official John King said every state agency must respond to the “climate emergency,” while Perez stressed a need to look at climate issues through “a lens of equity and inclusion.” Moore emphasized that climate change is already affecting society. Former state Attorney General Doug Gansler stressed his background pursuing enforcement of environmental laws, and pledged to hire a climate czar.
State Comptroller Peter Franchot, the front-runner in the race for the Democratic nomination, according to the recent Sun/UB poll, did not attend either forum. Nor did Republicans Kelly Schulz, a former Hogan cabinet secretary, and Del. Dan Cox, who represents parts of Carroll and Frederick counties in the state House.
Leaders of some of the state’s biggest environmental groups said they are left wanting more detail on candidates environmental policies and platforms in the final weeks of the campaign.
Whoever is elected will have to establish and carry out a plan to drastically reduce the state’s reliance on fossil fuels. The General Assembly passed a law this year requiring the state to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 60% percent below 2006 levels by 2031, and virtually eliminate the state’s carbon footprint by 2045.
That is expected to be a difficult task, given that modeling suggests the goal will be hard reach even if the state embraces strategies that have proved unpopular so far, such as proposals to heat new buildings and homes using only electricity, instead of fossil fuels.
And the next governor will oversee the culmination of a 2010 multistate agreement to restore the health of the Chesapeake Bay by 2025, a target that is expected to be missed. It’s not clear how bay cleanup efforts would continue after that deadline passes, meaning the next governor carries significant responsibility in maintaining them.
On top of those concerns could come the unpredictable consequences of climate change, whether floods, droughts or heat waves. According to the Sun/UB poll, more than two-thirds of Democrats believe climate change is an immediate crisis and that strong action is needed before it’s too late. Voters choosing Perez and King were the most likely to feel that way, with more than three in four of them stressing the urgency of climate change.
Also among Democrats, there is be a push to reverse a declining trend in enforcement of the state’s environmental laws. Under Hogan, fines and enforcement actions taken against polluters have dropped dramatically, as has staffing of inspectors. Turning that around could be a tall task, especially in the first year of any new administration, suggested Josh Tulkin, director of the Maryland chapter of the Sierra Club.
“They have big goals, and, at least currently, underresourced agencies,” Tulkin said.
On the Republican side, Schulz has promised to carry out the greenhouse gas reduction goals while largely continuing the approach of the Hogan administration to environmental protection, balancing it with a priority to help businesses. Cox has no mention of environmental or climate change issues on his campaign website, which is focused on opposing vaccine mandates and critical race theory.
Parties diverge over climate change
Nearly one in five Republican respondents to the Sun/UB poll said climate change must be addressed immediately, while twice as many said that either there is plenty of time to deal with climate change, or that it doesn’t exist.
For Democrats adamant that climate change be an urgent priority for the next governor, there remains division over which candidate to support with just over a month of campaigning to go.
Earlier this month, the Sierra Club Maryland Chapter endorsed King, whose environmental policy briefs are the most extensive in the Democratic field. He details plans for five areas of environmental and climate policies: eliminating the state’s carbon footprint by 2035, a decade earlier than the goal set in state law; creating new “green” jobs; improving extreme weather resilience; restoring the bay, and addressing the racial and economic disparities tied to pollution and climate change impacts.
That focus on climate issues has Eli Vogel among King’s supporters, at least tentatively. Vogel, a 23-year-old recent graduate of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, said he appreciates that King “recognizes the urgency of climate change,” adding, ”it’s definitely something that needs to be dealt with now, if not yesterday.”
Yet Vogel said his vote will ultimately depend on electability, too. He said he voted for President Joe Biden in the 2020 primary, even though Biden wasn’t his first choice. King polled among the lower tier of candidates with 4% of the vote in the Sun/UB poll, which was taken May 27 to June 2.
The League of Conservation Voters on Tuesday, meanwhile, endorsed Moore, who, along with Perez, is one of the top challengers to Franchot, according to the Sun/UB poll. Moore’s environmental pledges include meeting the greenhouse gas reduction goals adopted by the General Assembly, achieving “100% clean energy” by 2035, maintaining bay cleanup efforts and prioritizing environmental justice for low-income communities and communities of color.
Plea for a plan ‘grounded in action’
The Chesapeake Bay Foundation does not make endorsements, but Maryland Executive Director Josh Kurtz said he is eager to see voters support “candidates that have plans that are grounded in action.”
The Chesapeake Climate Action Network, another group active on environmental issues, has not made an endorsement. Victoria Venable, that group’s Maryland director, said that while the differences between candidates can seem nuanced, that can be meaningful given the enormity of environmental challenges.
“In the game of trying to reduce emissions, that nuance can really matter a lot,” she said.
Still, it can be difficult for voters to parse.
Maryland Policy & Politics
Danetta Fofanah, a 74-year-old retired federal worker who lives in Chevy Chase, said she faced a hard decision in evaluating the Democratic field. She landed on Perez because of his climate agenda, but also because of interactions she had with him more than a decade ago — her daughter has autism, and Perez worked to support groups focused on helping people with intellectual disabilities in Montgomery County, she recalled.
Fofanah questioned why climate policy isn’t a deciding factor for more voters, who are instead once again mostly focused on pocketbook issues.
“I’m surprised because the economy is affected by climate change,” she said. “I guess a lot of people don’t connect the dots how much climate change affects them on every level.”
Those connections are nonetheless becoming more apparent, with climate change even entering the conversation in races down the ballot that haven’t typically received significant attention from environmentalists, Venable said.
Kim Coble, executive director of the Maryland League of Conservation Voters, suggested that indicates a shift from past elections, when support for the Chesapeake Bay was a given among candidates and the environment wasn’t a deciding issue for voters.
More Marylanders are wondering what they can do to combat climate change — a recent Goucher poll found a majority are seeing its impacts before their eyes. Coble said they will have a chance to make an impact soon: “One of the biggest environmental actions anyone can take now is to vote.”
This is the third in a series of articles about issues of vital importance to Maryland voters and facing the state’s next governor starting in 2023.