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Steny Hoyer’s 2020 Primary Challenger Makes Climate Refugees A Campaign Centerpiece

Mckayla Wilkes, the administrative assistant and mother of two who is challenging House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), is making climate refugees the centerpiece of a platform meant to cast the political novice as a champion of the burgeoning Green New Deal movement.

In a campaign proposal shared with HuffPost, Wilkes, 28, calls for expanding the legal definition of refugees to include those displaced by extreme weather, sea-level rise and drought-fueled famine, and designs a program to accept a limitless number of climate refugees.

It’s a bold ― if vague ― one-page proposal and one that sets Wilkes apart as she embarks on a long-shot effort to not only topple the second-most powerful Democrat in the House but to also edge out fellow challenger Briana Urbina, a civil rights lawyer who also endorsed the Green New Deal. The position puts Wilkes at the vanguard of an issue barely touched on in early Green New Deal proposals, but it’s one that is gaining traction as the magnitude of the population upheaval climate change is causing becomes clearer.

Since 2008, weather-related disasters have displaced an average of 24 million people per year, according to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, the Swiss-based international organization. By 2050, that figure could climb to anywhere from 140 million to 300 million to 1 billion. Historic droughts and crop failures drove many of the thousands of Central American asylum-seekers to the United States’ border with Mexico last year. 

To stem the flow of refugees to cooler countries in the Northern Hemisphere, where the effects of climate change are projected to be less volatile, Wilkes proposes an annual fund of $100 billion in climate aid from countries in North America, Europe and northern Asia to southern nations “to fight both the causes and effects of climate change.”  

By the time the effects of climate change start to happen, he won’t be there to witness it. I have children. They’re going to have to grow up and be subject to this.
Mckayla Wilkes

“This will be our form of holding ourselves accountable for contributing to carbon emissions,” Wilkes told HuffPost. “We have the resources to do it.”  

Her campaign is in many ways an aftershock of the political earthquake Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), then a bartender in New York City, set off when she unseated former Democratic Rep. Joe Crowley in a shocking primary win last year.

But Wilkes faces a tough battle in her race against Hoyer, 79, an old-guard Democrat and centrist stalwart. In 2018, Hoyer handily trounced Dennis Fritz, a former Air Force commander, with more than 84% of the primary vote.

As the climate crisis inspires protests across the developed world, Wilkes believes her focus on the issue can give her a leg up against a 20-term incumbent whose campaign and political action committee raised a combined $9.1 million in the last cycle. (Wilkes, by contrast, swore off corporate donations and reported raising a little over $5,700 in an April campaign filing.)  

Hoyer refused to join 91 House Democrats in backing the Green New Deal resolution earlier this year, which called for a sweeping national industrial plan to zero out planet-warming emissions over the next decade and provide millions of Americans union-wage jobs in clean energy and other low-carbon sectors.

In December, he announced the House’s special panel convened on climate change would lack subpoena power, a move criticized as protecting fossil fuel executives from being held accountable.

“By the time the effects of climate change start to happen, he won’t be there to witness it,” Wilkes said of Hoyer. “I have children. They’re going to have to grow up and be subject to this.”  

Mariel Saez, a spokeswoman for Hoyer, touted the congressman’s support for the Climate Action Now Act, a bill that House Democrats approved earlier this month directing the president to devise a plan to meet the Paris Agreement’s emission targets. 

“There are already climate refugees in this country, and Mr. Hoyer supports continued efforts to provide refuge to communities facing rising sea levels, melting permafrost, and other climate-related challenges,” she said by email. “He looks forward to bringing additional legislation to the Floor this Congress to take further action.” 

Saez did not respond to questions about whether Hoyer is warming to the Green New Deal. 

The Green New Deal, as it stands, remains more of a movement than policy, as think tanks and 2020 presidential contenders work to draft legislative outlines. The movement’s goals represent a mammoth task, aiming to not only halt surging emissions but reverse and halve them by the end of the next decade. That alone requires dramatic changes to energy production, transportation and agriculture.  

But the Green New Deal goes further, staking out a vision to fortify the nation’s crumbling infrastructure to withstand already-inevitable climatic changes. Recognizing that toppling entrenched industries and reversing decades of neoliberal spendthrift government requires an unprecedented voter mandate, the Green New Deal’s proponents propose guaranteeing jobs, health care and housing.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer is a 20-term incumbent who easily beat his last primary challenger in 2018. 



House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer is a 20-term incumbent who easily beat his last primary challenger in 2018. 

The Green New Deal would be a major shift from the status quo, as would admitting more climate refugees. The U.S. is currently admitting low numbers of refugees, even as climate change and conflict drive millions from their homes. The United States resettled just 22,491 refugees in 2018, a number that increased only slightly to 24,369 this year. That’s despite the United Nations recording more than 65 million people displaced worldwide ― a record high, depending on how it’s counted.  

The 2020 election comes just as terrifying scientific projections and unprecedented natural disaster are propelling climate change to the top of voters’ concerns. In March, 81% of self-described liberals, 77% of Democrats and 53% of independents reported feeling “highly worried” about climate change, according to a Gallup poll. In April, a CNN poll found climate change was a top issue for 82% of registered Democrats planning to vote in the 2020 presidential primary.

Things look likely to accelerate fast. Records were shattered in 2017 with over $306 billion in damages from hurricanes and wildfires. In 2018, global emissions soared to a new high as California suffered its deadliest inferno in history. In May, scientists at Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii recorded carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere passing 415 parts per million for the first time in at least 800,000 years. Methane, which traps 84 times more heat in its first decade in the atmosphere than CO₂, surged to a new record level in 2018, according to new data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Roughly half the two-dozen Democrats running for the party’s presidential nomination back, at least in rhetoric, the Green New Deal. At least four candidates have released detailed climate policy plans. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee’s entire presidential campaign is centered on curbing global warming.

But enacting the most sweeping federal policy program since President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal will take more than a friendly administration in the White House. And Wilkes hopes to join those ranks.

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