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Extreme heat deaths skyrocketed 1,000 percent in the last decade and most see climate as a ‘serious’ threat. Do the politicians?

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When it comes to climate and the 2024 elections, Arizona just might represent the perfect storm of dramatic consequences: It’s one of the states most severely impacted by climate change, a strong majority of voters share climate concerns, climate issues dominate political debate in the state, it’s a battleground state that could help decide the presidential race, and its Legislature is so narrowly divided that it could easily flip from Republican to Democratic control.

Arizona has suffered through extreme heat and intense drought, wildfires are becoming more catastrophic, and record-breaking storms are causing intense flooding. The crisis is dominating headlines and exposing political divisions among Republicans, who are clinging to one-seat majorities in both chambers of the Legislature. 

Last week, it was reported that the state’s largest metropolitan area saw a more than 1,000 percent increase in heat-related deaths over the last 10 years — spiking from 61 in 2014 to 645 in 2023. The crisis has stretched the resources of Phoenix, America’s hottest city, which is relying on nearly $2 million in pandemic-related federal funds to build cooling centers. 

Now the cavalcade of catastrophic climate consequences is stirring concerns among voters. About 56 percent of Arizonans said that climate change is an “extremely serious” or “very serious” problem and 88 percent supported requiring oil and gas companies to pay for cleanup and land restoration costs after a well’s life has ended, per the 14th annual Conservation in the West poll conducted by Colorado College. “This year, we’ve seen the widest margin in favor of conservation,” pollster Dave Metz told Axios.

Similar to other states, climate change itself might not be on the ballot — or even much discussed by candidates — but its consequences are being hotly debated in local races and in the Legislature. The House recently approved legislation that, if it passes the Senate, would put on the ballot a measure to block restrictions on gas-powered leaf blowers and other devices based on the fuel they use. 

I don’t want you to take my blower away,” Republican Rep. Gail Griffin, chair of the House’s natural resources committee, told a Democratic colleague during a recent hearing.

Another bill that passed the House seeks to put a measure on the ballot that would forbid cities and universities from adopting a climate plan, working to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, encouraging bicycling or mass transit as a way to cut down on the use of cars, and even replacing meat with insect protein. The sponsor of that bill, Republican Rep. Austin Smith, said he drafted the bill with Merissa Hamilton, a conservative activist who’s been a close ally of US Senate candidate and election denier Kari Lake.

Hamilton, whom Lake named to lead an effort to overturn her losing gubernatorial bid in 2022, recently dismissed concerns about the spike in heat-related deaths by telling a reporter: “The political class on the left are pushing this ‘extreme heat emergency’ narrative to drive a Marxist takeover of our tax dollars for their Climate Cult agenda.”

The debate over Arizona’s record heat waves has also roiled the state’s most prominent political battle, the tight race between Lake and Democratic Rep. Ruben Gallego to replace US Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, who is not seeking reelection. Gallego has made an issue of the crisis, last year sponsoring a bipartisan effort to add extreme heat to the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) list of major disaster qualifying events, which spurs federal aid. In response, Lake’s campaign account on Twitter accused Gallego and Democratic Gov. Katie Hobbs of “pushing mass hysteria in an effort to declare a climate emergency” and blaming heat deaths on drug overdoses. 

Some of the more controversial bills are dividing Republicans in the state, with one House representative joining Democrats to kill a bill that would have disincentivized the use of electric vehicles. “There are some in the majority that are not excited about seeing these measures go to the ballot,” said Sandy Bahr, director of the Sierra Club’s Grand Canyon chapter. “There’s a concern that it could drive out voters who do care about climate and clean air and they’ll reject them.”

The summer season has just begun in the state, but Lake has been notably quieter this year on the issue. As to climate change in general, she said on her campaign site that “we can all agree that we want clean air to breathe and clean water to drink.” She added that “clean, plentiful natural gas and oil are the bridges” to a clean-energy future, and she supports opening oil reserves to exploration and expanding the import of oil and gas. Lake was recently endorsed by a union of oil and gas workers and has raised more than $35,000 from the industry, though it doesn’t play a major role in the state’s economy.

By contrast, Gallego has made environmental issues a centerpiece of his campaign and touts his vote for Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act, the largest climate investment in US history. He is outraising Lake, especially when it comes to clean-energy manufacturers, including $26,400 from Technology Crossover Ventures, an investment firm that has nurtured renewables companies.

The concern over the climate crisis is motivating voters in the state, said Vania Guevara, the advocacy director of Chispa AZ, a Latinx progressive political group, who said she assisted three people in recent weeks who were suffering from heat exhaustion in the Phoenix area. “There are more folks who realize it is getting significantly hotter and they are going to be voting,” she said, noting that a much larger group than in previous years turned out for the group’s Environmental Lobby Day to meet with lawmakers from both parties.

More people in the state are acknowledging that “we are experiencing the impacts of climate change” than in previous election cycles, said Bahr. More people, she said, understand that the impacts of climate change are intensifying, as reflected last year, which had the hottest summer on record. 

“More people are aware of things that we can do and understanding that it’s not so much the technology getting in the way, but the politics. Some people might not call it climate change but they’re definitely seeing the impacts — and that’s one of the ways that people connect that to elections. How is this impacting me and what can I do about it?”

This story by Marcus Baram was originally published by Capital & Main and is part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.

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