Do 2020 Democrats share S.C. voters' values on the environment?


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Primary Concerns

The worse our politics have become, the more time I've spent outside. The beaches, marshes, and rivers of the Lowcountry ground me. The coastal forest clears my mind. All of it centers me in a greater story and puts the politics in perspective.

I know I'm not alone. My friends from every place along the political spectrum seem to find common ground in our love for, and appreciation of, our natural home. We see it every day in the runners on the bridge, fishers on the pier, and birders on the boardwalk. On my way to work, I pass paddleboarders on the creek and watch ospreys wheel overhead. I am still astonished by how beautiful it all is.

It should come as no surprise, then, that as the South Carolina Democratic primary approaches, I am looking at all of the candidates' environmental records. I would expect anyone coming to the Lowcountry to ask for our votes to feel the same sense of reverence that we feel for the flora and fauna of our home. Yet I was startled this week to read the Democratic candidates' responses to the question of offshore oil drilling. Offshore drilling, you may remember, is opposed by a majority of South Carolinians, including Republican Gov. Henry McMaster and Democratic U.S. Rep. Joe Cunningham, who was elected largely on his promise to protect our coast.

When the candidates for president were asked by the South Carolina Small Business Chamber of Commerce if they joined the chamber and the rest of us in opposition to drilling, only four of the active candidates replied that they did. The candidates who responded on the record as of Feb. 21 in opposition to drilling are Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg, Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren. I am grateful to the chamber for asking the question so that those of us who love the Lowcountry's natural beauty may cast our votes accordingly. And I am surprised that anyone would come to South Carolina seeking our support without understanding how strongly we relate to our waterways and how much of our lives, livelihoods, culture, and recreation are directly related to their health and well-being.

In addition to candidates' positions on offshore drilling, we might look closely at their plans for responding to the climate crisis. Several groups have published climate scorecards, including Greenpeace, 350.org, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and the Sunrise Movement. You can look them up online and read the results yourself. I noticed that the candidates who did well on protecting our coast often scored highly with their climate responses. I'll remember them when I go into the voting booth. I'll also remember the articles I read every day and the news that is greater than the reductive cycle of a single day or week. Just this morning, for instance, I read two stories that were causes for concern. One spoke of loggerhead turtles laying eggs far earlier than normal due to the disorientation of an unusually warm winter. The other told of a leaked report from JP Morgan, the world's largest bankroller of fossil fuels, which has now assessed that climate change threatens the viability of human life on earth. The beach and the business pages agree that we have no more time to wait.

It raises the question of what our primary concern should be. Beyond the partisan divides of the moment, we are asked to consider a longer timeline. Will we vote for a sustainable future? Will we vote to protect and preserve the Lowcountry as we have known it? Will we vote out of our love for this place and our sense of reverence before the beauty of it all? And will we invite our neighbors to join us in voting for these primary concerns?

I don't know about you, but when I go into the voting booth, both in the primary and the general election, I won't be thinking of donkeys and elephants. I'll be thinking of dolphins and turtles. Anyone asking for my vote should be thinking about the same things.

Jeremy Rutledge is senior minister at Circular Church.

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