Illinois 18th Congressional Candidates Support Climate Action in Democratic Debate

06/24/2015 09:36 am ET | Updated Jun 23, 2016

The two Democrats running to replace Aaron Schock in Illinois' 18th Congressional district supported action on climate change in a recent debate sponsored by several news organizations.  Both candidates mentioned a letter from Pope Francis calling on Catholics to make combating climate change a top priority. Less than a week after being issued, the pope's encyclical is already having an impact in a Congressional district with a significant Catholic population.

In a question that sounded like it came from a coal industry lobbyist, the candidates were asked if they support boosting Illinois coal production.

Candidate Rob Mellon immediately moved the conversation to where it belongs. "We have to realize that climate change is real and there's no debate about that." He took on the latest dodge of climate deniers who claim it's happening due to natural cycles, not man-made pollutants. "The overwhelming majority of scientists are clear about that. That humans play a role."

Mellon, who teaches at Quincy High School, says he agrees with Pope Francis and pointed out that climate change disproportionately hurts the poor. "Individual politicians have to step up to the plate. We have to remove our focus on fossil fuels. These are finite resources, and if we continue to put our resources into drilling, fracking, and pipelines, we're doubling down on a failed policy." He believes energy policy can include coal but should focus on clean renewable energy.

Springfield school board member Adam Lopez responded by talking about the number of people who work in coal power plants and said, "clean coal is what we need to look at." He agrees that climate change is real and renewable energy will move the nation forward. Lopez also mentioned Pope Francis and says getting away from foreign oil will be a big focus for him in Congress.

Unions who represent workers at the coal power plants Lopez mentioned are often effective at pressuring Illinois politicians to oppose environmental safeguards that impact plant operators. Many central Illinois Democrats try to have it both ways by supporting action on climate change and promoting so-called clean coal.

Support for failed clean coal projects has been a policy disaster. Two versions of FutureGen, the Taylorville Tenaska plant, Power Holdings and other clean coal pork projects all failed after wasting millions in state, local, and federal tax dollars. That money could have been spent creating real clean energy jobs instead of the fool's errand of keeping a dying coal industry on life support.

It's significant that both candidates want strong action on climate change in one of the few areas where coal still has political influence. Democrats have two candidates with reality-based positions that recognize the scientific consensus.

Rob Mellon's bold pledge to move away from fossil fuels contrasts with Lopez's support for clean coal. Lopez's interest in moving away from foreign oil is the same promise made by candidates who want more domestic drilling. Mellon sounds enthusiastic about tackling climate change, while Lopez sounds like a candidate nervously attempting to appease interests on every side of the issue.

Based on this debate, Rob Mellon is the clear winner for climate change voters. Primary election day is Tuesday, July 7.