A scrappy group whose scorecard isn’t for the fainthearted

By Jeremy P. Jacobs | 03/22/2016 06:52 AM EDT

Climate change deniers be warned. There is a new environmental scorecard in town, and it’s coming for you.

Climate Hawks Vote, an activist group, is wading into the presidential race for the first time, with an endorsement of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.

Climate Hawks Vote, an activist group, is wading into the presidential race for the first time, with an endorsement of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. Photo by Gage Skidmore, courtesy of Flickr.

Climate change deniers be warned. There is a new environmental scorecard in town, and it’s coming for you.

Meet Climate Hawks Vote, a plucky California group that is seeking to make climate change a defining electoral issue.

The "small and scrappy as well as loud and squawky" group, as its founder calls it, is the brainchild of a liberal blogger who is the chairwoman of the California Democratic Party environmental caucus.


It was launched in 2013, but the group has recently ramped up its activities. In the last week, it has endorsed Vermont independent Sen. Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign and released its first scorecard on Senate Democrats — ranking members on not only their votes but also their climate change activism.

To be sure, the group is much smaller — and perhaps more liberal — than major players like the League of Conservation Voters and Sierra Club. But unlike LCV, it has a laserlike focus on climate and aims to be ideologically pure; its co-founder, R.L. Miller, says the group will not endorse moderate Democrats just because they are viewed as more environmentally friendly than their Republican opponents.

That mindset, Miller said, appeals to grass-roots activists like the small donors who have supported Sanders’ presidential bid.

It has also attracted some big names: Pennsylvania State University climatologist Michael Mann, of "hockey stick" graph fame, is an adviser, and Bill McKibben, a leading opponent of the Keystone XL pipeline and founder of 350.org, sits on the group’s board.

Miller said the group grew out of the idea Congress has failed to address one of the most pressing issues facing the country. And the only way to change that, she said, is to back candidates who make climate change a central issue of their careers.

"This is not a question of communication or the science being insufficiently clear," Miller said. "This is very much a problem of political will."

Climate Hawks Vote was founded by Miller, Hunter Cutting — a former Capitol Hill staffer and longtime political consultant — and Brad Johnson, a fellow operative.

Cutting, 53, said he became energized to work on climate issues after working on the rollout of 2004’s Arctic Climate Impact Assessment, which "woke me up."

The report chronicled how the effects of a warming climate were permanent and couldn’t be reversed. It motivated him to dedicate himself to the issue.

Cutting added that Climate Hawks Vote was born out of the mindset that it isn’t enough just to criticize Republicans.

"I realized that a lot of people are focusing on the Republicans, as they should, they are a big problem," he said. "But another part of the problem was Democrats not stepping up to be champions. That was the idea behind Climate Hawks. We need champions."

By most accounts, Miller has been the driving force behind the group.

A self-described "hockey mom" from the Los Angeles area, Miller became politically active when another hockey mom, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, was tapped as the Republican vice presidential nominee in 2008.

Miller, also 53, began blogging, mostly on the liberal Daily Kos website.

"The more I looked at climate change," she recalled, "the more alarmed I got."

She gained some notoriety in the liberal blogosphere for a systematic look at Republican positions on climate change in 2010.

"I had this idea that one good blog post could change the world," she said with a chuckle.

Ultimately, she studied the positions and statements of about 500 Republican candidates. She found that only four, including former Reps. Bob Inglis of South Carolina and Mary Bono Mack of California, acknowledged that climate change was real and caused by humans.

She called the rest "climate zombies," a term that caught fire online.

Following that 2010 work, Miller became more involved in the California Democratic Party. But she wanted to do more and was unsatisfied with the response to the climate zombies report.

"I thought it would be sufficient to just point out the fact that my congressman doesn’t believe in science, and that would be enough," she said. "That was extraordinarily naive on my part."

That led to Climate Hawks Vote, and when she asked major figures to get involved, they came running.

"I’ve been watching R.L. Miller with admiration for years," McKibben said. "Whenever she asks for help, I try to give it."

"She is a real force," he said.

Endorsement strategy

The organization began the 2014 election cycle looking to endorse a group of candidates who were active on climate change.

Ultimately, the group backed 17, some of whom were mainstream Democrats who cruised to re-election, like Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley.

Others were in more hotly contested House primary campaigns, including now-Rep. Ruben Gallego (D) in Arizona.

For each candidate the group endorses, Miller said, it independently conducts social media outreach and puts its own field staffers on the ground.

In Gallego’s race, for example, the group highlighted that his Democratic primary opponent, Mary Rose Wilcox, had received contributions from coal interests.

"We made coal an issue in that campaign," Miller said.

Eleven of the 17 endorsed candidates won.

Mann, the Penn State climatologist, said Miller’s social media prowess has been effective.

"The group has a solid track record so far," Mann said, "with most if not all of the candidates that the group has endorsed having prevailed in their elections."

It is important to note that the size of Climate Hawks Vote is tiny compared to other major players in the environmental political world.

In the 2014 cycle, the group raised about $28,000. The League of Conservation Voters, in contrast, spent $30 million — $19 million on federal races and another $10 million on state-level races. The Sierra Club similarly spent several million dollars on 2014 campaigns.

Miller said the group has raised more money this cycle, but it has yet to file disclosure reports with the Federal Election Commission. Climate Hawks Vote seeks to punch above its weight, using its email list of 25,000 supporters to mobilize support for its candidates.

This year, Climate Hawks Vote has endorsed Sanders for president and California Attorney General Kamala Harris (D) to fill retiring Sen. Barbara Boxer’s seat. It has also backed a few House candidates so far, including Maryland state Sen. Jamie Raskin (D), who is seeking to succeed Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), who is running for the Senate.


Much of the group’s recent effort has been directed at compiling its first scorecard.

The criteria are somewhat amorphous. It ranks members on a scale of +100 to -100 based on votes and their outspokenness on climate change. That can include op-eds in local newspapers, speeches on the House or Senate floor, campaign platforms, bills authored or co-sponsored, and press releases. The goal, Miller said, it is to provide a metric for "public engagement" on the issue.

In particular, the group looks for support for pricing carbon, backing renewables like wind and solar, and phasing out coal-fired electricity.

Rhode Island Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, who routinely takes to the Senate floor to speak on climate change, scored best for the current session of Congress, with a +71. (Miller said the scores are cumulative, so leading scores are expected to increase as the year goes on.) Hawaii Democratic Sen. Brian Schatz and Massachusetts Democratic Sen. Ed Markey followed with +65. Sanders was next with +63.

Among the worst-performing Democrats were Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia (-26) and Claire McCaskill (-29).

The scorecard differs greatly from the leading congressional environmental scorecard from the League of Conservation Voters, which for four decades has served as an almanac of lawmakers’ environmental records.

LCV typically only tallies votes and includes a variety of environmental issues that its board considers indicative of a member’s environmentalism.

Sara Chieffo, LCV’s vice president of government affairs, welcomed Climate Hawks Vote’s efforts but also questioned its methodologies. She noted that LCV gives members a heads-up if it is considering scoring an upcoming vote. That doesn’t appear to be part of Climate Hawks Vote’s modus operandi.

"We’re very transparent with members," Chieffo said.

Miller and Climate Hawks Vote, while complimentary of LCV and other groups, contend it isn’t enough to only measure Senate and House votes in the current gridlocked, Republican-controlled Congress.

Particularly in the House, Republicans have been unified in passing political bills disapproving of the Obama administration’s actions on climate change as well as Clean Water Act and Clean Air Act regulations.

That makes it easy for Republicans to cast anti-environmental votes, and for Democrats to oppose those bills.

"On the House side, you have very polarized votes where the Republicans all end up with 10 percent or below LCV scores and Democrats all end up with 90 percent or above LCV scores," Miller said.

That, she added, doesn’t give an accurate picture of how active a member, and especially a Democrat, is on climate change.

Chieffo of LCV contended that it is still important to highlight those anti-environmental Republican efforts.

"To say that votes don’t matter anymore, I think, misses a big part of the story," she said. "It’s incumbent to tell the stories of those attacks."

Miller also pointed out that LCV’s endorsement of former Secretary of State and New York Sen. Hillary Clinton early in the presidential race illustrated the differences between the two groups.

"We are happy to fly on the left wing of the climate movement," she said. "We will be very picky in our endorsements."