President Trump late Tuesday touted the 2018 midterm elections as a “tremendous success,” with Republicans gaining seats in the Senate and picking up some other wins. But with Democrats winning the majority in the House of Representatives, environmentalists are trumpeting the election results as good news for the environment and action on climate change.
Environmental leaders say that the new Democratic majority in the House will provide checks and balances in a divided Congress on the Trump administration. They also point to pickups in governorships and other races in which successful candidates have pledged to support 100% clean energy by 2050.
However, voters rejected several state ballot initiatives to protect the environment, and the bipartisan House Climate Solutions Caucus was weakened with the defeat of caucus chair Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R-Fla.) and other Republican caucus members.
“We’ve witnessed the last 2 years the most antienvironment president in history, and we’ve seen the most antienvironment Congress in history,” Gene Karpinski, president of the League of Conservation Voters (LCV) said at a briefing by environmental leaders in Washington, D. C., on Wednesday. “The good news is that the voters said enough is enough and we need to go in a new direction.” LCV is a Washington, D. C.–based group that supports environmental issues, elected officials, and candidates through the electoral process.
Karpinski said that the new direction includes taking action on climate change and holding the Trump administration accountable for its efforts to weaken environmental regulations.
The House needs to conduct “intensive oversight” into the Trump administration’s policies and activities, Karpinski added. He cited the administration’s efforts to repeal the Clean Power Plan and clean car rules and corruption at the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of the Interior.
Opportunity to Play Offense for the First Time in a Long Time
Karpinski also said that much more needs to be done about climate change. “We need action. We have a chance to be on the offense in the House for the first time in a long time,” he said.
At the briefing, Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club, an environment group based in Oakland, Calif., said his group anticipates a lot of specific action in the House on climate change. “We fully expect the House to enact a series of measures on climate change, on climate action, on clean energy, [and] holding polluters accountable, and then put pressure on the Senate to do the same thing,” he said.
Tom Steyer, president of NextGen Climate Action, put the need for Congress to act on climate change and what’s at stake in stark terms. It’s not enough to “give it the good college education try,” said Steyer. “The [United Nations] described not solving the climate problem by 2030 as causing unimaginable suffering.”
Some influential members of Congress are planning to give it more than a good college try. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas), who is in line to be the next chair of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, said that climate change needs to be high on the committee’s agenda. The agenda should “address the challenge of climate change, starting with acknowledging it is real, seeking to understand what climate science is telling us, and working to understand the ways we can mitigate it,” she said.
Climate Solutions Caucus Takes a Hit
The Climate Solutions Caucus will need to regroup following the electoral defeat of a currently estimated 13 of its current 45 Republican members. A handful of other Republican caucus members are retiring, and one lost in a primary race.
The Heartland Institute, an Arlington Heights, Ill.–based think tank that focuses on free-market solutions to social and economic problems, blames caucus member defeats on “climate alarmist politics.” However, Steve Valk, director of communications for the Citizens’ Climate Lobby, calls Heartland’s public relations “total BS.” The Citizens’ Climate Lobby is a grassroots advocacy organization based in Coronado, Calif., that has worked closely with the caucus.
Valk said, for example, that Curbelo nearly saved his House seat in a heavily Democratic leaning district because of his leadership on the caucus.
“For all the Republicans in the caucus who lost their elections, being in the caucus had absolutely nothing to do with their defeat. They lost because they were in toss-up or Dem-leaning districts in a year when Democratic voters turned out in droves,” he said.
“The Climate Solutions Caucus is here to stay,” Valk told Eos. “More Republicans will replace the ones not returning. Bottom line is that the [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] is telling us we can’t kick the can down an ever-shortening road, so we need to be working on an effective national policy now. With a divided Congress, that means we have to take a bipartisan approach, and the Climate Solutions Caucus provides the space for that to happen.”
At Wednesday’s briefing, several speakers said that they value bipartisan efforts on climate change but questioned whether some Republicans have used their caucus membership to “greenwash” otherwise poor environment voting records. “Our hope at the Sierra Club is that the Climate Solutions Caucus will be replaced, perhaps by the climate action caucus,” Brune said. He added sarcastically that perhaps it could be replaced by “the caucus on climate honesty or the caucus on climate opportunism.”
Some Key Ballot Initiatives Defeated
Regarding state ballot questions, Nevadans approved an initiative to require electric utilities to acquire 50% of their electricity from renewable resources by 2030. However, a similar initiative failed in Arizona, where the state’s largest electric company, Arizona Public Service (APS), poured in more than $30 million to defeat the measure. In addition, Arizona attorney general Mark Brnovich included extraneous wording—that the measure would be “irrespective of cost to consumers”—in a plain-language summary that appeared on every ballot, leading critics to charge that he helped tip the scales against the measure. Brnovich reportedly has received hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from APS.
At the briefing, Steyer, whose group financially supported the Nevada and Arizona initiatives, said that “Americans in purple states support renewable energy overwhelmingly, as long as you’re allowed to talk honestly about it.” He charged that Brnovich’s actions are “a straightforward reflection of the corruption that reflects our political situation.”
Also falling short at the polls was Washington State’s Initiative 1631, which asked voters to approve the nation’s first statewide fee on carbon emissions. There, too, the initiative was heavily opposed by the oil and gas industry.
“The oil industry spent the most money in our state’s history and were willing to lie to voters about their support and mislead them on the facts,” Nick Abraham, communications director for the Yes on 1631 group, told Eos. “Regardless of the final [election] outcome, our coalition is sticking together. We know the longer we wait, the worse this problem is going to get. Climate pollution isn’t going anywhere, and neither are we.”
Another ballot measure that failed would have established a bigger buffer zone to keep new oil and gas drilling away from houses, parks, and water bodies in Colorado.
Lessons for the 2020 Campaign
At the briefing, Broun and others said that the strategy for winning the presidency and other elections in 2020 needs to include clearly articulating the economic, environmental, and societal benefits of climate and clean energy. What’s more, candidates need to offer ambitious and workable solutions.
“People who were elected [in 2018] both to Congress and to governors’ houses and to state houses were elected with the most ambitious climate and clean energy agenda that we’ve seen from candidates in any past cycle, particularly on climate and particularly on clean energy,” Broun said. “So, our strategy, at least in the Sierra Club, is centered around ambitious solutions that will actually solve the problem.”
Kevin Curtis, executive director of the NRDC Action Fund, which is affiliated with the Natural Resources Defense Council, said that between the election of President Trump in 2016 and the 2018 midterm election, the pendulum has shifted from environmental protection rollbacks to the potential for “a stronger environmental position.”
He said, however, that with the “ticking time clock of climate change,” climate action needs to happen quickly. “That’s what we’re all focused on,” Curtis said. “The 2020 presidential [election] is absolutely the opportunity to do that.”
“We fully expect all the Democrats to be fighting on climate,” he added, “and we hope they will be joined by more and more Republican candidates who see that the path to victory is to be good on climate, to actually address it, and not to greenwash it.”
—Randy Showstack (@RandyShowstack), Staff Writer