As the nine Democrats who have so far declared themselves candidates to be Maryland’s next governor assemble their teams, announce their picks for lieutenant governor and stake out their policy positions, at least one pattern is emerging: They are leaning in to climate change. Not half-heartedly, like politicians who feel obligated to say something about environmental protection to satisfy progressives; instead, they appear to be jockeying for position to determine which of them wants to lower greenhouse gas emissions more. Former Democratic National Committee chair Tom Perez recently complained to Maryland Matters that the state has “punched below our weight” on offshore wind. Comptroller Peter Franchot has called climate change “one of the greatest existential threats to our way of life.” And former Maryland Attorney General Doug Gansler has touted his gubernatorial candidacy by observing that, unlike his opponents, he has taken climate polluters to court. It’s not the only issue on the table, of course. Criminal justice reform, civil rights, post-pandemic economic opportunity are rightly there, too. Yet, climate seems to be commanding the most attention.
Why? Most likely because the candidates are reflecting public opinion. Various polls have suggested climate change has become an even higher high priority for Marylanders. A survey conducted for the Maryland League of Conservation Voters found seven out of 10 Maryland residents would vote for a candidate who supported upgrading the electric grid, investing in renewable energy and taxing fossil fuel companies for their carbon emissions. The same poll found broad support for electric vehicles, bike lanes, and expanded bus and train service. And from at least the days of Harry Hughes, candidates for governor have trumpeted their Save-the-Bay bona fides, including Gov. Larry Hogan at times.
Thus far, climate change appears to be an issue that distinguishes Democratic candidates from Republican candidates in this gubernatorial race, however. The top GOP contender, state Commerce Secretary Kelly M. Schulz appears intent on running a pro-business campaign, with the latest message on the her website mentioning lowering taxes, getting “tough” on violent crime and holding school systems “accountable,” but not one word on climate. Her chief rival at this point, Del. Dan Cox, a Donald Trump loyalist, also makes no mention of climate on his website, which still finds space for quite a few of his thoughts on gun rights, opposing government “lockdowns” and backing the “Blue Line.”
But surely part of what has made climate so prominent for so many in the race to succeed term-limited Mr. Hogan as governor is the recognition of how serious the threat is to residents of this state. Maryland has more than 3,000 miles of shoreline. Just the potential flooding caused by rising sea levels (and by the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries), along with more severe storms, ought to be of great concern. States such as Florida, Louisiana and Mississippi may be more vulnerable, but much of Maryland, beginning with the Eastern Shore, faces strikingly similar circumstances. Even in communities built on higher ground, residents are rightly concerned about more extreme weather, rising temperatures, lost farm land, collapse of ecosystems and the harm done to human health and drinking water supplies. The recent COP26 climate change summit in Glasgow showed nations, large and small, are willing to ratchet up climate change ambitions. But it won’t be enough unless there are local efforts to push not just from the top down, but from the grassroots up to hold polluters accountable.
Maryland has made some progress in this area but not enough. The League of Conservation Voters on Nov. 18 announced it is giving Governor Hogan lackluster grades for environmental issues over his seven years in office (“B-,” “C” and two “Ds”). And while there are limits to what Marylanders can do alone to save an entire planet from a threat that does not respect political boundaries, to fail to act now is to most assuredly doom the next generation to a disaster whose severity might have been, if not prevented, significantly lessened.
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