For 18-year-old Artemisio Romero y Carver, a single piece of legislation changed his outlook on participating in democracy.
Romero y Carver, a steering committee member of Youth United for Climate Crisis Action (YUCCA), said that before 2019, he was not engaged with the politics of a government that he felt didn’t represent him or address his concerns.
“Then I read the Green New Deal. For the first time I saw a document, a piece of legislation, something that was part of the U.S. government that didn’t seem antithetical to my own life, that seemed like a genuine representation of my interests, in policy,” he said.
Romero y Carver was not alone. The Green New Deal, introduced by U.S. Rep. for New York Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, a Democrat from New York, and Democratic U.S. Sen. Ed Markey of Massachusetts, galvanized a sector of the electorate, even if it didn’t get very far in Congress.
The legislation, a set of goals which outlined an aggressive transition to renewables that included support for fossil fuel-dependent communities and the electrification of the U.S. transportation sector, was quickly written off by many moderate Democrats and the entire Republican Party at the national level as being unrealistic.
But for Romero y Carver, and other young voters who are deeply concerned about climate change, the plan was an example of exactly the type of policies that are needed to address the climate crisis head on.
“In general, I find that people my age recognize climate change and recognize the immediate need for bold action. But we also don’t feel that that is ever possible when it comes to voting. Very rarely are we getting candidates who represent that,” he said. “Right now is not a time for incrementalism. We’re dealing with issues that are growing exponentially. Incrementalist politics will fail.”
Support for oil and gas is bipartisan
When the state legislature passed the Energy Transition Act in 2019, New Mexico adopted one of the most ambitious clean energy mandates in the country. That same year, record energy production in the Permian Basin made New Mexico one of the nation’s top energy producing states, boosting the state’s budget.
The oil and gas industry has a heavy hand in campaign financing to members of both parties. Oil and gas lobbyists have spent a total of $11.5 million in the state’s political sphere, ranging from campaign contributions to lobbying for legislation, between 2017 and 2020, according to a March 2020 report released by New Mexico Ethics Watch and Common Cause New Mexico.
Oil and gas lobbyists reported roughly $2 million in contributions to politicians and political organizations in the state over the previous five months. While state Republicans received 60 percent of that, Democrats received money from the industry, too. State Speaker of the House Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, received the most money from oil and gas lobbyists, according to NM Ethics Watch.
Climate-concerned voters in the state see both Democrats and Republicans as obstacles to getting more aggressive about climate change and winding down oil and gas production in the state.
“People on both sides need to be taking this a lot more seriously,” said Seneca Johnson, 18, who is a steering committee member for YUCCA and started her first semester at Yale this fall. She said politicians get caught up in political issues like taking money from corporations, but fail to keep the bigger picture in mind.
“They just kind of forget why they’re there: to serve their constituents—and, you know, pave the way for a livable future,” Johnson said. “Leaving us a livable future really is the bare minimum.”
‘The largest ethical issue of our time’
This year has given New Mexicans another glimpse of what the future holds for the state as the climate continues to warm. Despite average snowpack last winter, hotter than average temperatures and below average precipitation thrust most of the state into drought. And as the Northern Hemisphere moves into a La Niña weather pattern, which typically results in warmer and drier winters for New Mexico, next year might not be any better and could possibly be even drier.
Joan Brown, executive director of the New Mexico chapter of the faith-based nonprofit Interfaith Light and Power, said people in New Mexico are starting to take notice of climate change and voters are concerned about the state’s future.
“We’re in this enormous drought—that’s really affected the farmers and land-based people this year. It affects our total water use, we’re having more and more water challenges. We’ve had very, very bad air quality this summer with all of the fires in the West, that’s affected a lot of people’s health that added to COVID. Plus in the oil and gas regions, methane pollution, which has already caused some underlying health effects. All of these things are intersecting,” Brown said. “Those are all interrelated concerns that are in people’s minds, I believe.”
Interfaith Power and Light is a nonpartisan group that focuses on climate change, which Brown described as “the largest ethical, moral issue of our time.”
“We are trying to educate people about some of the foundations of human dignity in earth dignity, and having people have conversations and dialogues that maybe they would not have had leading up to the election,” Brown said.
Those dialogues are happening across the state, including in the Permian Basin. Communities in the Permian Basin are reaping the financial rewards of oil and gas production, but they’re also suffering the environmental and health impacts of the extractive industries, according to Denton McCullough, a Carlsbad resident who’s involved in the group Citizens Caring for the Future, another faith-led organization working with community members.
“We’re basically concerned about the environment that we live in, the air we breathe, and what the oil and gas industry is doing to the environment and to the quality of life and career prospects,” McCullough said.
The group has only been around for about a year, and its membership is less than a hundred. But McCullough noted that oil and gas is the top economic driver in the area, and residents aren’t eager to speak out against the industry that’s brought jobs and economic development to the area. Neither are politicians, he said, especially during an election year.
“I haven’t heard one politician around here saying anything negative about the oil and gas industry,” McCullough said. “It’s all great, let the good times roll.”
“A good portion of our legislators from down here are involved in the oil and gas industry,” he added. “So they’re certainly not going to speak out against it.”
Rowboats and yachts
In Brown’s opinion, it’s time for the state to wean its budget off oil and gas, which Brown sees as both a threat to the state’s economic future as well as a threat to the planet.
“We know we have to move into new areas of sustainable economy that respect the traditional kinds of [economic drivers], like ranching, farming, tourism and the creativity of people at the local level, as we move away from the boom and bust cycle,” Brown said. “If that cycle served us well, we would not be one of the poorest states in the country.”
Romero y Carver agreed that ending oil and gas production is paramount to addressing climate change and protecting future generations in New Mexico.
“When you refuse to take action on climate change, the people who will be most hurt are the people who are already in marginalized, oppressed communities,” he said. “When there are food shortages, it’ll be the people who are already struggling to eat who are going to die first. And those are going to be people of color, those are going to be people from my community.”
YUCCA’s advocacy arm, YUCCA Action, compiled climate change-focused questionnaires from many candidates in local and state elections, so that voters can see where candidates stand on climate change. The group has also endorsed candidates.
Romero y Carver seemed optimistic about the local elections this year.
“I have a lot of hope for the people we’ve endorsed and the people who are coming in as a kind of new guard, especially to the state [level],” he said. “In this election, there are candidates who are more than corporate surrogates, and their election will be necessary to secure a livable future for all peoples.”
Meanwhile, there are communities in New Mexico who are disproportionately impacted by the effects of climate change that have already occurred, Johnson said.
“Many people have been feeling the effects for years now, and especially in marginalized communities,” she said. “They know it’s only going to get worse, it’s only going to bring more destruction, not only to our lives, but to our wildlife and our cultures and our environment. There’s not really any way to tone it down.”
“I heard a really good metaphor the other day. Instead of, ‘we’re all in the same boat,’ it’s more like we’re all in the same storm,” Johnson added. “Some people have rowboats and other people might have yachts.”