As Arizona Senate Race Heats Up, Will Climate Change Be on the Agenda?

Image: Gage Skidmore/Flickr

Arizona’s Senate race is one of the most pivotal races for Democrats this fall–already $9.3 million has been spent on ads in the state. The party hopes that this is the election that flips Arizona blue as incumbent Martha McSally (R) who was appointed to serve out the rest of the late Senator John McCain’s term faces off against former astronaut Mark Kelly (D).

While jobs and the economy are still the top issues for Arizona voters (as they are in most of the country), a staggering 71% of them think climate change is a serious problem. Arizonans also have high levels of concern for the threat of the climate crisis among their counterparts in other states.

Why This Matters: While it’s difficult to assess how much priority climate change has as a political issue in Arizona (AZ’s Senior US Senator Kyrsten Sinema was one of three Democrats who joined all Republicans to vote against the Green New Deal), it’s undeniable that it’s shaping the life of Arizonans in real-time. This past week, Phoenix broke its heat record for having the most 110-degree days in a year (and could be unlivable by 2050) and the dwindling flow of the Colorado River puts the entire state’s water supply at risk.

As a scientist, Mark Kelly has campaigned on climate change from the beginning of his campaign yet Senator McSally has almost entirely refused to address the issue during her tenure in the Senate instead opting to align herself with the positions of President Trump. In a state that Democrats could win this fall, addressing climate change isn’t an issue they need to shy away from.

And while Mark Kelly hasn’t previously held public office and thus has no voting record to promote, his bona fides of space flight give climate voters confidence that he holds science in high regard. On the other hand, as the AZ Mirror wroteMcSally has been criticized in the past for her failure to support policies aimed at curbing climate change. The League of Conservation Voters lists her as one of the 2018’s “Dirty Dozen” politicians: the 12 members most friendly with polluter industries, such as oil and gas extraction.

Heat Ready or Not: As the Washington Post reported, each year, more Americans die from extreme heat than are killed by storms, floods and wildfires combined. In few places is the problem more pronounced than in Maricopa County, home to Phoenix and its suburbs.

  • In 2019, the region saw 103 days of triple-digit temperaturesand 197 fatalities from heat-related causes.
  • It was the highest number of heat-associated deaths on record for the county, and the fourth year in a row of record-setting heat deaths there.
  • Those numbers are only expected to increase as the climate changes.

Summer temperatures in Arizona’s cities are simply dangerous to human life, especially in communities of color where, as Scientific American explained, mosaics of dirt lots, asphalt and sparsely landscaped houses can bake 10 degrees hotter than wealthier, lusher zip codes. Phoenix is working to become the nation’s first “heat ready” city, but doing so will take the acknowledgment that the current levels of extreme heat are the result of human contributions to climate change.

The Politics: Climate change may not be the defining issue this election in Arizona, but at the top of the Democratic ticket, former VP Joe Biden and Senator Kamala Harris have indicated that they will make climate a priority in their campaigning. Therefore it would be a wasted opportunity for Democrats not to campaign on the issue in a state that will suffer more deaths and economic losses than most of the country under current climate change projections.

Senator McSally has also recently challenged Mark Kelly to 7 debates and it would serve Kelly well to bring the conversation back to climate change and public health should he accept. In a 2018 debate with then-opponent Kyrsten Sinema, McSally dodged her question about climate change entirely. When talking about the importance of water conservation and planning, McSally had no good answer for how she would address this critical issue. It’s a weak spot for her and Democrats would be wise to highlight it.

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