US Midterm Elections: Economy and Environment

5 November 2010

In the wake of the U.S. midterm elections, Evan Juska, Senior Policy Manager at The Climate Group, discusses the implications of a Republican-controlled House on the long-term prospects for the country’s energy and climate agenda as well as California’s decision on the fate of a state climate law.

  • How did clean energy and the environment issues generally resonate with voters in this election?

This election was about the economy. Clean energy and the environment didn’t really factor much. The top three election issues were the economy, healthcare, and the size of the government, in that order.

More broadly, it was about how voters felt about President Obama and the Democratic Congress. With 55% of voters “disapproving” of the job the President is doing, and 61% disapproving of the job Congress is doing, the Republican gains that we saw were to be expected.

While the party in power usually loses seats in the midterms, the losses this time were pretty significant (60-70 in the House, 6-8 in the Senate) – not seen since President Roosevelt’s second midterm when the Democrats lost 71 seats in the House and 6 in the Senate. So I think President Obama’s mandate for ambitious policies is gone, which is important to recognize when thinking about what will be possible on climate and energy in this upcoming Congress.

  • How did U.S. House Democrats who voted for last year’s cap-and-trade bill fare?

They didn’t fare well. Among Democrats in close races, who voted for Waxman-Markey, 61% (Source: E&E) lost the election.

Interestingly though, among Democrats in close races, who voted against Waxman-Markey, 79% lost – so they did even worse. Also interesting is that 7 of the 8 Republicans who voted for Waxman-Markey got re-elected (one was elected as a Senator, and another was appointed by Obama as Secretary of the Army).

So it looks like being a Democrat, rather than supporting climate policy, was the real fatal flaw in this election.

  • How significant is California’s rejection of Proposition 23? And how might it affect the national energy and climate agenda?

California’s rejection of Proposition 23 – their decision to uphold AB 32 – was very significant. AB 32 was one of the first policies to price carbon and promote clean energy in the US. Supporting more than 12,000 clean tech companies (including 7 of the top 10 in the country) and more than 500,000 clean tech employees, as well as encouraging $10 billion in private clean tech investment, it has been a huge success and an example of how climate policy can encourage economic growth. For Californians to repeal it after the success it has had would have been a huge blow, not only to the future of California’s clean tech sector, but also to the broader effort to pass a national climate policy in the US.

That said, I think it will have a limited immediate impact on the national climate agenda. Misinformation about climate science, and the misrepresentation of cap and trade will, unfortunately, continue to prevent that debate from looking clearly at, and learning from, California’s example.

  • Is there any one state race that seems emblematic of where the country is at in terms of climate legislation?

Maybe (Senator) John McCain in Arizona. Here you have a moderate Republican who has sponsored cap and trade legislation in the past, who felt that he not only had to go back on that position, but also to entertain doubts about the climate science in order to win re-election. He did both of those things, and he was re-elected. So in that sense, his decisions are a reflection of just how unwelcome a serious discussion about climate change is in today’s Republican party.

Senator McCain, and other moderate/conservatives, also represent our best chance for getting climate policy back on the agenda. Support from liberal Democrats isn’t enough. And the Tea Party won’t be bringing it up anytime soon. It is moderate Americans who need to be better informed about the risk and opportunity climate change represents. It is moderates who need to understand the real costs and benefits of climate policy, before we will see any real progress at the federal level. In that sense, it is also moderates like Senator McCain who must be at the forefront of future progress.

  • Any predictions about how the midterm results will affect the position of U.S. delegation heading to Cancun for COP 16?

The international negotiations have already adjusted to the reality of modest actions and intentions from the US, so I don’t think the elections themselves will have too much impact on Cancun, and the direction that meeting is heading.

Failure to deliver on President Obama’s already moderate goals (i.e. 17% reduction by 2020 and a US contribution to fast-start finance), could further erode the level of ambition from other countries, and encourage a race to the bottom - as opposed to a race to the top, which international cooperation can encourage.

Avoiding this will require some fresh thinking about how to develop, finance, and deploy transformational clean technologies domestically, as well as how to better incentivize cooperation internationally.

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