A small band of political strategists gathered last September in a restaurant near Dupont Circle to meet a visitor from the other side of the world. Everyone at the table was immersed in the battle against climate change; nearly all had been involved in passing the Inflation Reduction Act, the clean-energy law Democrats enacted over the summer.
Their guest was Byron Fay, an Australian operative who had arrived in Washington with an exotic political scheme in mind. Over dinner, Fay shared it: American climate campaigners should enlist independent candidates to run for Congress in conservative areas, brandishing climate action as a signature issue but shedding the label of the Democratic Party.
Polling showed a large majority of voters care about the climate, Fay said, including some right-leaning voters who view Democrats with suspicion. Perhaps by detaching their cause from partisan politics, American climate advocates could gain a foothold in areas currently closed to them.
Fay pointed to Evan McMullin, the former intelligence officer then mounting an independent campaign in Utah against Sen. Mike Lee, a Republican. McMullin’s signature issue was defending democracy against the extreme right; Democrats had made way for his candidacy by declining to field a nominee of their own. Could there not be an Evan McMullin for the cause of planetary survival?
It was a provocative idea, even an outlandish one. Nothing in recent American history suggests a plan like that would have a fair chance of working.
Australian politics tells a different story.
In Fay’s home country, that strategy has already succeeded. In Australia’s elections last May, a slate of independent candidates stepped forward to challenge the ruling conservatives in some of their electoral strongholds. Nicknamed the teals from the color of their campaign materials, these upstarts battered the sitting government for resisting climate action and helped drive Scott Morrison, then the prime minister, from power.
Aiding the teals was a heavily funded environmental group, Climate 200, which spent millions in the election. It is backed by an outspoken investor, Simon Holmes à Court, and Fay is its executive director.
The September gathering helped mark a new phase in climate politics that has arrived with too little notice. For the first time in memory, green forces in different countries have as much to learn from each others’ breakaway successes as they do from studying their noble failures. They are no longer engaged in a long, tired struggle to make voters care about global warming. They have real momentum on multiple continents, manifested in election results from Washington to Warringah. [Continue reading…]