Just days after a United Nations panel warned that failure to dramatically and quickly curb the burning of fossil fuels would do "irreversible damage" to the planet, the U.S. electorate on Tuesday voted in a Congress even more committed to the carbon status quo.
Controversial projects such as the Keystone XL pipeline enjoy strong backing by the Republican House and Senate leadership. Some newly elected politicians want gas and oil production boosted to turn America into "the next Saudi Arabia," and have questioned the existence of climate change. Despite a few bright spots, especially at the local level, the election results suggested that — if anything — Washington would become even more resistant than it already has been to legislate action on global warming.
“We had some wins, but it was pretty much a bloodbath,” said Wenonah Hauter, the director of national environmental group Food and Water Watch. “I think the election showed that the strategy the Democratic Party has used of betraying its base and relying on TV ads instead of relying on a local infrastructure to get people to the polls isn’t working.”
For Republicans, the Keystone XL pipeline, which would carry tar sands oil from Alberta, Canada to the U.S. Gulf Coast, has become a symbol of everything wrong with the Obama administration. Obama has repeatedly delayed a decision on whether to approve the pipeline as his administration investigates the potential environmental consequences of bringing nearly a million barrels a day to U.S. refineries. Those delays, Republicans say, have cost American jobs.
The GOP-led House of Representatives has voted eight times to approve the Keystone. Those votes were largely symbolic because Democratic Party control of the Senate meant that the bills would be shot down each time — even before they reached the Executive Branch, whose approval was needed because the pipeline crosses an international border. Now, however, Republicans control the Senate, and some Democrats have signaled that they are willing to vote in line with Republicans to get the Keystone through. That means Congress could produce a filibuster-proof majority to strip the president's power to approve cross-border pipelines, leaving it up to Obama to veto or sign the bill. It’s unclear what he’ll do, but environmentalists are hoping he'll hold fast against the pipeline.
“He knows that Keystone would tar over every accomplishment he’s made,” said Jamie Henn, one of the founders of environmental group 350.org. “I don’t see any benefit in him approving it. It will ruin his reputation, and it will guarantee big protests.”
The midterms have raised the profile of several politicians who continue to question the broad scientific consensus that human activity is causing climate change. Most significant among them is Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe, who won reelection by a landslide. Analysts believe that Inhofe will be appointed the chair of the Senate’s Environment and Public Works Committee, which is currently chaired by Democrat Barbara Boxer.
That’s significant because Inhofe has said several times that he doesn’t believe in global warming. In 2003, he said, “increases in global temperatures may have a beneficial effect on how we live our lives.” In 2012, he said, “The arrogance of people to think that we, human beings, would be able to change what He [God] is doing in the climate is to me outrageous.” His book on the topic is titled, The Greatest Hoax: How the Global Warming Conspiracy Threatens Your Future.
Some newly elected Republicans are also unsure of the science of climate change, including Iowa freshman Joni Ernst. “I can’t say one way or another what is the direct impact [of climate change], whether it’s man-made or not,” Ernst said recently. She has also said she supports the idea of abolishing the Environmental Protection Agency. Colorado Republican Cory Gardner, who beat out incumbent Mark Udall in a closely watched race, has also questioned whether man-made global warming is real. “I believe the climate is changing, [but] I disagree to the extent that's been in the news that man is causing it,” he said at a recent debate.
The resurgent climate-change deniers could make things much harder for the EPA, which is currently implementing some of the most far-reaching environmental regulations in decades, designed to limit the carbon gas output of power plants.
While an all-out repeal of President Obama’s most recent policies is unlikely (any stand-alone repeal could be vetoed by Obama), EarthJustice president Trip Van Noppen said that Republicans were more likely try to whittle down the EPA’s power by seeking to defund new rules through attaching riders to bigger spending bills.
“They’ll be ordering the administration not to spend any funds on moving the climate rules forward,” he said. “That would make it a harder fight for all concerned.”
Coal country comeback
Republicans have long complained about a “war on coal,” arguing that Obama’s order to the EPA to limit carbon-gas pollution from power plants effectively killed the coal industry. Those claims have been sharply questioned, of course, but the messaging was effective for candidates such as current Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell, who won his Kentucky Senate seat for the sixth time on Tuesday. McConnell beat expectations against Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes, especially in coal-rich counties in the east of the state. McConnell in his victory speech pledged to end the “war on coal.”
And in West Virginia, Republican state Sen. Evan Jenkins won an expensive victory over longtime Democratic Rep. Nick Rahall in an election fought as a referendum on the “war on coal.”
“West Virginia now has a representative in Evan Jenkins who can truly fight back against the Obama war on coal...” National Republican Congressional Committee chair Rep. Greg Walden said on Wednesday.
Rhetoric in the House and Senate will likely be ramped up, but it’s unclear what effect the influx of pro-coal Republicans will have on policy.
“Congress hasn’t passed a major piece of climate change legislation in the last two years either, so it’s not going to change the status quo that much,” 350’s Henn said.
All politics is local
The silver lining for environmentalists came at the local level, in the form of several ballot measures that showed, even in more conservative states, that a substantial portion of the population cares about environmental issues.
In Alaska, 65 percent of voters approved a measure that allows the state’s legislature to ban a controversial mining project that threatened to destroy some of the state’s salmon fisheries.
In Denton, Texas, 59 percent of voters backed a ban on hydraulic fracturing. The city has 275 hydraulically fractured wells, including some adjacent to playgrounds. Similar votes also passed in communities in California and Ohio. These measures will likely be contested by the fracking industry. But for some advocacy groups, the vote showed that putting local control over environmental issues on the ballot could bring people to the polls.
“It’s a good indicator that national groups need to be running not only political campaigns but community organizing campaigns,” said Jane Kleeb, the founder of Bold Nebraska, an anti-Keystone pipeline group.
For environment groups, the local wins and national losses also showed that, in the current political environment in Washington, focusing on grassroots local organizing may be the best option in the coming years.
“When you’re out organizing and have boots on the ground and explain these issues to people, environmental issues can win,” Hauter said. “That’s the strategy that environmentalists need to get back to.”