After the trauma of the 2020 election cycle, the American people would be forgiven for seeking a brief break from politics. We lived through a bitter presidential campaign, two runoff elections in Georgia to determine control of the U.S. Senate, and an armed insurrection at the Capitol, all amidst a global pandemic. It should come as no surprise that this has left voters, volunteers and donors with a serious case of election fatigue.
Yet as much as we all deserve a rest, those of us who care about the climate crisis simply can’t afford to take 2021 off. Our atmosphere and oceans don’t care how fatigued we are, and climate change certainly isn’t going to slow down and wait for us all to catch our breath. More importantly, though, the mayoral elections of 2021 actually present an extraordinary opportunity for the climate movement — a rare chance for millions of Americans to elect a new generation of climate leaders in city halls across the country.
Often forgotten or ignored, local elections are actually the low-hanging fruit of climate politics, where a small uptick in turnout of environmental voters can swing election results and have an enormous impact on policy-making. And with more than 500 mayoral elections from Anchorage to Miami to New York City this year, 2021 may just be the climate movement’s brass ring.
Mayors may not always get the big climate headlines, but if given a mandate to lead, they have a powerful policy toolbox that can bring us a long way toward saving the planet. Federal policy-making is obviously important, but (fortunately) it’s not everything, particularly when it comes to climate-relevant sectors like transportation, buildings and even electricity generation.
Transportation is currently the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States — responsible for 29% of our emissions — but climate-forward mayors can quickly slash these emissions with policies like congestion-pricing, parking maximums, bus rapid transit and robust bike and pedestrian infrastructure.
Similarly, commercial and residential buildings are responsible for 12% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, and it is mayors who hold the power to make real change in this sector too: small tweaks to municipal zoning and building codes can dramatically reduce the carbon footprint of our nation’s building stock, while delivering energy savings to millions.
In the energy sector, America’s mayors are both powerful consumers and suppliers. City Halls' enormous purchasing power can super-charge demand for clean energy and electric vehicles, while over 2,000 local communities also run their own utilities, thereby giving local governments the power to decide between supplying clean or dirty energy to one in seven Americans.
In 2021, millions of Americans will choose new mayors and city councilors to make these transportation, building and energy policy decisions in every corner of the country. We will elect mayors in charge of coal country’s future in places like Pittsburgh, as well as those on the front lines of rising sea levels in Anchorage, New Orleans, Boston and Miami. We will elect small town utility commissioners with control over municipally-owned power plants in states like Colorado and Wisconsin, and we will elect the mayor of New York City, one of the most important climate policy-makers in the entire world.
These local elections won’t get 2020-sized headlines with breathless coverage on CNN, but their winners will ultimately help write the history of the climate crisis.
Yet in even the biggest of these mayoral elections, a shockingly small handful of voters will likely decide the outcome. In 2013, when New York City last held an open mayoral election, fewer than 700,000 New Yorkers voted in the crowded Democratic primary which Bill DiBlasio ultimately won by 100,000 votes. This might sound like a large number at first, but New York is home to 8.2 million people. Moreover, there are a stunning 1.1 million New Yorkers who care deeply about climate change but have never before voted in a municipal election, according to our data at the Environmental Voter Project. This represents a huge pool of latent political power for New York City’s climate movement.
Similarly, when Boston last had an open mayoral election (also in 2013), only 142,000 people cast ballots and Marty Walsh was elected by a margin of less than 5,000 votes. As in New York, though, Environmental Voter Project research shows the enormous potential power of Boston’s climate movement: more than 110,000 of Boston's presidential election voters name climate as one of their top priorities, yet are currently unlikely to cast a ballot in this November’s open mayoral race (based on their previous voting histories). If even 10% of these infrequent environmental voters show up this fall, they could easily decide Boston’s next mayor.
These seldom-voting environmentalists in cities across America present a tremendously high-leverage opportunity for the climate movement: with a small investment of time and resources from donors and volunteers, environmental voters could overwhelm local elections in 2021 and spur the next wave of robust climate leadership. Indeed, the climate movement could end up achieving more in 2021 than we have in most national elections.
Finally, it’s worth noting that most mayors are already primed to support climate-friendly policies — we’re not pushing against a brick wall here, but rather an unlocked door. Urban politicians are almost uniformly progressive and inclined to follow science, but these same mayors will never spend their precious political capital on something that voters aren’t demanding. If, however, even a small portion of the climate activists who flooded the polls in 2020 decide to show up again in 2021, we’ll give thousands of climate-curious mayors all the support (or pressure) they need to become true climate leaders.
Put it all together and the message to environmentalists in 2021 is clear: break’s over — it’s time to mobilize voters again.
Nathaniel Stinnett is the founder and executive director of the Environmental Voter Project, a non-partisan nonprofit that uses big data and behavioral science to turn environmentalists into better voters. He lives in Boston, Massachusetts, with his wife and two children.