“Everything Needs to be Done Now”: An Interview with R.L. Miller


As part of The Trouble’s commitment to analyzing political strategies to make progress on climate policy, we’ve set out to interview leaders in the world of climate politics. For this spotlight, we interviewed RL Miller, Political Director for Climate Hawks Vote, an organization dedicated to electing candidates who take climate policy seriously. RL is also the head of the California Democratic Party’s Environmental Caucus.

Through this conversation, you’ll see we discuss the strategy of Climate Hawks Vote and RL’s personal theory of change, as it applies to the politics of climate change. We discuss the power of a party caucus, the relationship between an outside movement and insiders lobbying legislators, climate policy, and more.

(S: Sam Zacher, interviewer. R: RL Miller.)

S: What inspired you to start Climate Hawks Vote?

R: I’ve been active for many years both online as a blogger on the Daily Kos and working in climate policy, and active in Democratic Party politics. Around the time of the failure of the Waxman-Markey bill [in 2010], I became very frustrated by well-meaning but not politically powerful non-profits trying to educate senators on the benefits of climate policy [but] running into a wall of political resistance amid brass-knuckle Democratic Party politics.

I came up with the idea of Climate Hawks Vote to bridge that gap between the two: try to have one foot in the world of politics, one foot in the world of policy. I won’t go as deep into policy as other people will, but I’ll get behind specific bills when needed. Most importantly—personnel is policy, and we get behind candidates who can make good policy.

S: You’re Chair of the California Democratic Party’s Environmental Caucus. What exactly is a caucus within a party, and what kind of influence does that position afford you?

R: [Party caucuses are] little interest groups that meet at the [state party] convention twice a year. The California Democratic Environmental Caucus was founded many years ago, in the 1980s. At caucus, a common theme is that candidates come around and pander, for lack of a better word, and ask for money. I got tired of rubber stamping. So, around the time that other people were coming up with the idea of the No Fossil Fuel Money pledge, I came up with the wording for a similar pledge and printed it on a 3x4 foam core board. I gave a marker to any candidate who wanted to speak, explaining they had to sign our board first or justify to 300 angry activists why they wouldn’t sign them. The oil-backed Dems have learned to stay away from my caucus. Everybody [else] shows up: Kevin de Leon, Tom Steyer, Dianne Feinstein -- they’ve all signed the pledge.

So that’s one thing I’ve done within the caucus. And I’ve gotten the state Democratic party itself to stop taking oil money. As a caucus, we sometimes get active in helping to elect Democrats [beyond just donations]. We also get active on policy. I see the Environmental caucus as a policy-oriented caucus. For example, I’ve tried to engage the activists on specific bills like SB 100 this year.

S: The examples you gave are examples of the leverage you have. Are there other forms of influence you have as caucus chair?

R: The single power conferred to an elected party official is that it enables you to talk to any Democrat in the state. As a citizen, I go up to Sacramento to talk to my state senator, fine, but then I want to go talk to the next one over, who says I don’t have to talk to you because you’re not my constituent. But then I whip out my business card and say, “Well, I represent all the Democrats in your state!”

So you have an improved ability to lobby elected officials. A great deal of this is naturally within the Democratic party infrastructure itself. There’s a lot of just plain shmoozing and a fair amount of scrutinizing candidate plans. If there’s someone talking about running [for office] in 2020, I tell them to start coming around Dem party circles early 2019 and let everybody know they’re interested in this seat. Let the activists see you up close and personal and get comfortable with you. Then when [activist groups] start to make their endorsements in early 2020, they will have known you for a year.

S: What do the folks active on the climate left need to work on most in building power?

R: Where do I start? There is a general view on the left that even the no chance bills being proposed are not strong enough. What we need is a bit more [policy] laboratory work to flesh out some of the hard left ideas and turn them into bills. I think Kate Aronoff in particular has been usefully vocal about needing effective ideas beyond what Democrats are proposing. There’s a lot more that could be done in the way of coming up with intelligent concrete solutions and getting the candidates to push them forward.

About building political power -- Bernie Sanders, for example, is really good at diagnosing problems. I’m not sure he has much to say in the way of fixing them. The only proposals on the federal level that I’m excited about at all are the Merkeley-Sanders [100 per cent renewables by 2050] bill and Tulsi Gabbard’s “Off Fossil Fuels” bill. Those are the only two I’ve seen that are essentially equivalent to California’s SB 100 (which we passed!).

The candidates being elected on the far left -- outspoken progressive candidates -- need to be articulating more climate policies. We need to build support for those stronger climate policies. We need to get more candidates like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Bernie Sanders in office. We need to focus not just on Congress, but also on all fifty states and three thousand counties across the country. It’s a big problem. One of the many things is you don’t have much of a consensus on what the left’s solution is. Is it a carbon tax? I don’t think so. Everything needs to be done now. Climate has an urgency about it.

S: To jump more into policy: You don’t think a carbon tax is the right idea. What policies should we be pushing?

R: There are a lot of policies that need to be pushed as a suite. So far, I don’t think anyone has done a good job of collecting them. 100 per cent renewable electricity is a newer rallying cry. It’s already started to emerge. I don’t think that’s radical. I think it’s a gold standard in the same way that Medicare for All is a gold standard for healthcare, but then [its] supporters point to other countries and say, “This is not radical at all.”

Furthermore, 100 per cent only deals with the electricity sector. We don’t have a terribly good answer for the transportation sector beyond electrification -- which is a key, but not yet commercially possible as I understand it. You’ve got lots of different ideas. Nobody has ever come up with ideas that are feasible addressing super energy-intensive industries like cement and sugar. Both are fairly key to the American economy in different ways. I don’t know [if] 100 per cent renewables generation would make those industries any better.

S: How do you imagine the phasing out of production of fossil fuels (e.g., fracking and drilling bans) compared to boosting renewables?

R: That’s a good point. For politicians, talking about job growth is like eating dessert, and talking about phasing out fossil fuels is like eating broccoli: every politician would rather eat ice cream than broccoli. I’ve refused to endorse candidates in Texas, a very petrochemical-friendly state, who are perfectly willing to sign onto a great big renewable job platform but won’t talk about phasing out fossil fuels at the same time. They say, “All of the above! We can have both!” I say “Yeah, but [that’s not good enough].”

It’s hard to talk politically about phasing out industries. At Climate Hawks Vote, our tagline is “building grassroots political power for the climate movement,” and that involves showing politicians they can win elections without relying on fossil fuel money.

These hard conversations need to be had. Obama’s shtick was to push [for] demand side [policy] as much as you can, and not talk about supply side. But we [also] need to talk about the supply side—certainly in respect to new projects, and the expansion of old projects. Even if people aren’t willing to [propose] shutting down the Wyoming coal mines by federal edict, they’re willing to talk about opposing expansion, and reducing the demand for coal exports. Radical climate policy involves ending carbon supply sooner rather than later. It’s sad that this is considered radical.

S: Are there specific groups, coalitions, or organizations that excite you most?

R: I am very much a believer in the political (read: policymaking) process. We do need to build up political power through a social movement. I do sometimes ask for advice on how to do this, and I know I’m not as movement-centric as others are. They’ll talk more about the power of the movement [in society], and I’ll talk more about the power of the movement as it affects elections, legislatures and policymaking.

One of the things that excites me is the prospect of people becoming single-issue climate voters. A blue climate wave excites me. Kevin de Leon[‘s US Senate candidacy] excites me. I think he does an extraordinary job in conveying the importance of climate change to a segment of the electorate that often gets underrepresented in our politics, and I think he does so with authenticity.

S: Are there other organizations out there that excite you most? Established or new ones?

R: I love what 350.org has done. I love the Sierra Club because I started off as a Sierra Club hiker. I love Food & Water Watch’s focus on fracking. I love the Center for Biological Diversity and how they and NRDC are not afraid to sue polluters (and they often win!). I love the coalition we built for SB 100 in California, led by Dan Jacobs at Environment California. Vote Solar also did a lot.

S: How would you say that climate organizers can best make inroads into communities where they haven’t had much of a presence? (i.e., in inland California and non-coastal states)

R: Here’s the important thing.

Climate has been abandoned by the progressive movement; they assume the environmentalists will take care of it. Climate and environment are not the same thing. Climate change is an existential crisis. It touches on national security. It has massive economic implications. It’s going to affect persons of color and poor people far more than rich people. And it exacerbates income inequality. It has massive impacts for labor.

Climate affects everything. It’s not just an environmental issue. And its impacts are different in every state; if i’m in Nebraska, I’m not going to talk about sea level rise, but I am going to talk about the production of wheat, corn, and soy when it gets hot and staple yields goes down by 40 per cent. You can’t talk about polar bears—you have to talk about the people. When we talk about climate change, we’re talking about massive uprooting of American citizens.

S: When you talk about the effects of climate change everywhere, do you mean to imply we need to be talking about the effects of climate change on disparate people and locations?

R: Different things move different people. Some people respond better to talking about hope and some respond better by talking about fear. Politicians respond very strongly to the fear of job loss—specifically their own. What I’m trying to do with Climate Hawks Vote is to build a potent political force. I’ve always said that if you give me four million voters, we can call it something like the National Renewables Association. (See that acronym?) Joking aside, I’m trying to show you can win elections by being pro-climate and lose elections by being insufficiently so. That’s why we [focus on] primaries, to make sure we reward [climate hawk] Democrats and make sure ‘bad’ Democrats lose.

I’m picky about the races we take on. We don’t build political power for the climate movement by backing hopeless longshots. We generally like to know if there’s some local interest before we take [a candidate] on. But we’re trying to [build electoral sway], slowly. Unfortunately this is a long-term process, not something that jives well with the ‘We’re doomed by 2025’ memes. But I’m trying to build the durable political power needed to win elections and then get some important bills passed.

S: Your electoral strategy is to identify and train individual candidates. What steps are you taking to generate long-term political commitment? Does that involve things in addition to working for single candidates in single races?

R: Politicians are herd animals. They see running on Issue X makes you lose and running on Issue Y that makes you win. I think if we have just a few leaders who win, and a movement behind them, we demonstrate something. Once you can show that politicians are winning or losing on the basis of [climate], they will all scramble to adopt [pro-hawk positions]. We saw the Tea Party in 2010 was incredibly effective -- obnoxious, but effective. I want to see the demonstration effects become reality. I’d even want it to reach some Republicans, though it’s hard to see that happen.

S: You’re trying to develop the leaders who will get elected. Do you think we need to think about other forms of leadership, like running advocacy groups, campaigns, movements on the outside? And if so, how much, compared to work on electoral politics?

R: [It’s] absolutely critically important. A couple things [have been] going on [here]. We did our first training program in 2017 and I intend to do it again in 2019 -- training climate hawks to run for office at the state and local level. There are three separate kinds of training. The first is to take people passionate about climate but have no idea how to win an election—what is a field, what is a universe, how do we do a poll, etc.—and we train those people how to run a confident campaign. The second thing is to talk to common or “garden variety” Democrats, people who are running not just on climate but for their own reasons, and train them how to talk about climate change and win. If you go out and preach, “we’re all doomed,” you will not win. Moreover, nobody could run on climate alone and win in any district in America. You have to list it as one of your top three issues to get Climate Hawks’ endorsement, but you can’t list it as your only one.

The third thing here is getting activists in the movement comfortable with electoral politics. That one is harder for me because you have unaffiliated people, Green Party people, who just think all the parties are insane, that Democrats are just as bad as Republicans. Reaching those people is incredibly important. [It’s] frustrating when they don’t turn out or vote Green. You need to make sure those people are comfortable in a world of politics.

I think there’s a view in the movement that you can be pure in the movement and in politics you cannot be pure. You have to make compromises. You have to learn to accept a politician who’s good on 99 issues but who’s horrible on the hundredth. There are things I disagree with Kevin de Leon about. The movement tends to attract people who disdain party and partisan politics and the idea of compromise. But I need to be able to reach those people, and they need to do a better job of getting involved in partisan politics, because unfortunately it’s the only game in town. We can talk about building a better world, but our current political system is the only one we’ve got.

S: Would you say you’ve seen good examples of folks on the outside working with those like you who are working with elected folks? And if so, what does that look like?

R: On the DNC fossil fuel money resolution: Christine Pelosi had written a resolution getting the Democratic National Committee to say no to private prison money. I took her private prison resolution and wrote in climate and she got that through the DNC. She’s more of a Democratic party insider than I am; she’s chair of the California Democratic Women’s Caucus. She’s also got that famous last name -- but she’s a powerhouse in her own right [as well].

Then there was a backlash. I was strategizing with the No Fossil Fuel Money people. We had Christine on the calls. There was a great deal of Christine explaining the DNC to them, and they had to explain movement stuff to her. The Sunrise folk disrupted the DNC and even the resolution meeting. I’m not sure if Christine was happy with that, but I’m proud of them. Sometimes you need to get into the good kind of trouble.

S: Why have you chosen to devote your time to electoral politics, as opposed to other ways?

R: Anyone who looks at climate change quickly realizes the problem is politics. Is climate a physics problem? Yes. Is it an economics problem? Yes. Is the solution in the physics or economics world? Maybe. But the way you fix it is [legislating] how we get from A to B. it’s obvious that the obstacle preventing climate change from being solved is the American political system, the Republican Party, and the money that goes into it. You can say the problem is even deeper; the problem is capitalism itself. But the American political system and the Republicans are the immediate problem that needs to be solved by sweeping them out of power.

S: On policy, Climate Hawks Vote trains and supports folks running for office. What would you say goes into the calculation about what is necessary for a given race and candidate?

R: I tell everyone Climate Hawks Vote is policy agnostic between cap-and-trade, carbon dividend, and other stuff. As a Californian, I’ve seen that cap-and-trade has more political benefits than outsiders give it credit. I don’t have a pretty way of putting this, but cap-and-trade creates earmarks, giving every legislator the chance to put money into their district. So it garners far more support from politicians benefiting from it, those already elected who can go to their constituents and say, “I’m funding this project with cap-and-trade money.” It has more political strength than a carbon-fee-and-dividend does. But if fee-and-dividend were implemented, I think it would develop its own political constituency. If you look at the Alaskan Permanent Fund Dividend, as I understand it, it causes Alaskan politicians to rise and fall.

So, we are policy agnostic. This cycle I’ve been looking at three kinds of people to endorse. The first kind is people in the clean tech world—people who can talk business realities. We look for activist types: people active in things like opposing local pipelines. We look for state legislators looking to move up to the federal level.

We also look for policy ideas. I have to say there aren’t that many people coming up with that many intelligent policy ideas. Abdul el-Sayed was probably the best example of someone with a well thought-out, wonky idea for a Green New Deal. I’d like to see more of that. I’d like to see the idea of a Green New Deal fleshed out a little more.

S: You’re active on twitter and you use it as a political tool. What strategies do you find most impactful to influence candidates and elected leaders?

R: Twitter is better than Facebook because it’s a public communications tool, whereas Facebook is more of a local community organizing tool. But the true way to build that power is to show [elected officials] you have power over their ability to keep their job. Yeah, there’s also lots of fun we can have with hashtags in the meantime. One example is when Exxon came up with a hashtag and we mocked them to the point that they stopped using it.

S: What does getting involved in campaigns really mean?

R: [Climate Hawks] first issue[s] an endorsement. We back up that endorsement with tandem fundraising by emailing our list asking them to donate to the candidate we just endorsed. Then people respond with small-dollar donations. It’s not big money; no one's going to be able to make a TV ad. Most super PACs do large-scale TV ads, but I don’t believe in them. Instead we aim for small-dollar fundraising, which helps a candidate financially and also builds her national profile. The second tactic is we almost always do Facebook digital advertising toward the end of a campaign. Sometimes it’s very favorable toward just one candidate in a primary: Rashida Tlaib, for example. I didn’t dislike anyone she was running against [in that primary], but I thought she was the best climate choice, so I didn’t do any compare and contrast advertising. I just said, “Vote for Rashida!” Then sometimes we’ll do polls, where we’re able to get national attention on a poll. Our polls from 2018 are still in the works. Sometimes we still do phone banking—hiring people to make calls for candidates. In 2016 we hired phone bankers for a candidate in all languages except English—and she won her race!