By Lauren Robinson
HIGHLAND PARK, Ill. — Calling for a stronger focus on renewable energy and protection of the Great Lakes, the Illinois chapter of the Sierra Club hosted a day of action on a recent Saturday in support of two pro-environment Democrats campaigning for the state legislature.
The Democrats – Sen. Julie Morrison and House hopeful Bob Morgan – spoke of specific ways to safeguard the environment in the Midwest, where temperatures are forecast to increase as a result of climate change. But, facing a polarized electorate, they avoided invoking the issue of climate change.
“Unfortunately, I think the phrase ‘climate change’ has been politicized too much by the right,” said Anthony Vega, a Sierra Club Illinois organizer. “What we’ve seen is candidates from across Lake County and the state of Illinois say that they are 100 percent for clean energy or sustainable transportation. It’s talking about climate change in another way, so it doesn’t trigger the partisan clique.”
Climate change is still an abstract concept for many people in Illinois, Vega said. By talking about climate change in terms that are concrete and relatable, candidates and activists aim to reach voters on both sides of the aisle.
The Sierra Club’s day of action in Highland Park on Oct. 13 capped a week in which an international coalition of scientists released a report that predicted a human calamity caused by climate change and Florida reeled from a Category 4 hurricane believed by scientists to be a symptom of warming ocean temperatures.
In the Midwest, temperatures stand to rise substantially over the course of the next several decades, resulting in increased flooding, heat waves and warmer, less snowy winters, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists. Yale University data show that while nearly three-quarters of Illinoisans believe climate change is occurring, much fewer — 42 percent — believe it will harm them personally.
While Morrison and Morgan were open to talking about climate change on the sidelines of the Sierra Club event, they did not emphasize the issue by name in their speeches to volunteers at Morrison’s campaign headquarters. Instead, they spoke of specific environmental policies.
Morrison, who serves on the Environment and Conservation Committee, said there is bipartisan interest in such issues as water quality in Senate District 29.
But when asked if she got the sense that climate change was on her constituents’ minds, she hesitated before saying, “to an extent.” She said voters in her district are more likely to talk about issues that are impacting them now and directly, she said.
Morgan takes a similar stance. A health care attorney running for House District 58, he lists the environment — but not explicitly climate change — as a top priority on his campaign website.
“We talk about it, I think, in ways that are actually more accessible and real to people than just saying, ‘We’re fighting climate change,’” said Allie McRaith, Morgan’s campaign manager.
The campaign considers the environment a “top-three” issue, along with schools and property taxes, McRaith said. She said this is because of the district’s proximity to Lake Michigan.
“But climate change is, oh, my gosh, it’s not something that we pretend isn’t going to affect us in any way shape or form here,” McRaith said.
Sam Salustro, a spokesman for the Democratic Party of Illinois, said it’s mainly Democratic candidates who are trying to tackle climate change. Yet he disputed the idea that the party is avoiding calling it by its name.
“We’re not shying away from it at all,” Salustro said. He added that he hopes climate change becomes a bipartisan issue.
The Illinois Republican Party did not respond to an emailed request for comment.
Doug Ower, a Sierra Club volunteer who attended the day of action with his wife, Diane, said journalists need to hold political leaders accountable on the subject.
“How many questions were asked in the last presidential debate about climate change?” asked Ower. “I don’t think there was even one.”
In fact, President Donald Trump was not asked about climate change until 21 months into his presidency, in an interview with CBS journalist Lesley Stahl. He has repeatedly cast climate change as a “hoax” and once said it was a fake issue invented by China.
Asked if he thought Illinois politicians were adequately addressing the issue, Ower said, “That could probably be better.”
Elsewhere in Illinois, some Democrats running for U.S. Congress, including scientist Sean Casten and registered nurse Lauren Underwood, are adamant about including climate change in their platforms.
Other Illinois candidates, such as Republican Tom Hanson, running to replace Democratic Rep. Mike Quigley in the 5th District, have rejected the scientific consensus on climate change and, in a Chicago Sun-Times interview, denied that it poses a threat to posterity.
Back in Highland Park, Vega and Luke Charter, a 21-year-old Sierra Club political apprentice, climbed out of Charter’s car to canvass a neighborhood near Northmoor Country Club.
Andrew Eisenberg, a father of two, came to the door and said he plans to vote for Morgan and Morrison. He said later that he does not care whether his local representatives take a stand on climate change as long as they support policies to preserve the environment.
Leadership on climate change, he said, “has to come from higher up.”