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Analysts Forecast Midterm Election’s Impact on Climate Change

A Democratic wave could prompt more legislation on climate change but might dampen bipartisan efforts.

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If Democrats take back majority control of the House of Representatives in the midterm election on 6 November, it could be a mixed bag for climate change efforts in Congress, according to policy experts at a recent forum.

A predicted blue wave, with Democrats capturing the House, could bring a lot more focus on climate change and on oversight of the Trump administration, analysts said at an election-themed forum at the Society of Environmental Journalists’ annual conference in Flint, Mich., on 5 October. However, a significant loss of moderate Republicans could chill bipartisan efforts on climate change, the panelists indicated.

If Democrats win one of the two chambers of Congress, “climate change will no longer be a four-letter word,” said panelist Ana Unruh Cohen, managing director of government affairs for the Natural Resources Defense Council’s (NRDC) Action Fund. The fund builds political support for the goals of NRDC, an environmental group headquartered in New York. “We’ll be back to actually talking about it.”

If Democrats do, in fact, take the House, Cohen said that she anticipates they will likely introduce various pieces of legislation to deal with climate change, whether the bills focus on a carbon tax, caps for greenhouse gas emissions coupled with a market for trading emissions allowances (cap and trade), energy, or a more comprehensive approach to the issue.

“Climate change is a multifaceted problem, and it requires many different types of solutions,” Cohen, the former policy director for climate, energy, and natural resources for Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), said. “If you think about baseball for a moment, you’ve got to hit some singles and doubles to load the bases for a grand slam. So that’s what, legislatively, people will be looking to do: to build some smaller policies up to take the time to rebuild people’s understanding of the urgency of addressing climate change.”

Even if climate-related bills do not see a lot of movement in the current political scene, they “could be important building blocks for later action,” she added.

A Plug for a Carbon Tax

A tax on carbon could be a winner, explained panelist Alex Flint, executive director of the Washington, D. C.–based Alliance for Market Solutions, which favors a carbon tax policy consistent with a progrowth conservative agenda. Such a tax, he said, would help to curb greenhouse gas emissions while using the money for other priorities.

“One of the best ways to address the large-scale change in the economy that has to occur to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is not to make it just a discussion about greenhouse gas emissions,” said Flint, who was a member of President Trump’s transition team. He said that a “reasonable” carbon tax of $30–$50 per ton of greenhouse gases could raise $1.5 trillion over 10 years and that the proceeds could go to shortfalls in the Highway Trust Fund and other areas.

Could Bipartisan Efforts on Climate Change Be Weakened?

Flint and Cohen both said that they worry about what might happen to the bipartisan House Climate Solutions Caucus if a number of moderate Republican representatives lose their seats in the election. The caucus, which currently has 90 House members and advocates for a bipartisan approach to dealing with climate change, includes many Republicans who “have been among the first to reconsider the Republican orthodoxy,” Flint said.

“If we agree that we really need to solve climate at a scale for the duration, our contention is that we need both parties involved,” he said. “We need to somehow make it safe for Republicans to take initial steps to join the [caucus] even if it doesn’t take any action, but at least because they recognize they need a fig leaf on this.”

Flint forecast that there will be “a lot of turnover” on the caucus after the election. The caucus is going to have to decide what to do going forward, including whether to maintain its balance of having an equal number of Republican and Democratic members, he added.

Will Trump Deal with Democrats?

At a federal level, passage of climate change legislation rests to a large extent on President Trump, whose administration has been combing through environmental regulations passed during the Obama administration with an intent “to undermine them,” Cohen said.

A lot depends on how President Trump “responds to what I anticipate will be some pretty vigorous oversight by Democratic [committee] chairs of his administration,” she said, adding, “it’s hard for me to see the president really be willing to engage in negotiations with Democrats. But he did write The Art of the Deal.”

—Randy Showstack (@RandyShowstack), Staff Writer

Citation: Showstack, R. (2018), Analysts forecast midterm election’s impact on climate change, Eos, 99, https://doi.org/10.1029/2018EO107715. Published on 11 October 2018.
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