Tony Abbott probably feels he has friends in high places. Or at least those that agree that the climate is not worth fighting for, or that coal is anything other than good for humanity.
On Tuesday night in the US, Republicans – and particularly those who reject climate science and despite renewable energy, won big in the US Congressional elections.
As the US website Grist notes today, this is not good news for climate. The Senate is now in the hands of a group of people who make Maurice Newman and Corey Bernardi look moderate.
The US Senate will now be led and controlled by veteran Mitch McConnell, from the coal state of Kentucky, who has attacked Obama for not sharing his love of burning coal.
McConnell recently sidestepped questions about climate science by saying “I’m not a scientist”, and then went on to repeat claims by a George Will, a contributor to Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News, that climate scientists had only recently been predicting a coming ice age.
But McConnell is not nearly as scary as some of the others now with large influence.
Jim Inhofe, recently wrote a book called The Greatest Hoax: How the Global Warming Conspiracy Threatens Your Future. He has argued that global warming is good for humanity. Along with coal. He is almost certain to be the next chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, the committee that controls the Environmental Protection Agency, which has responsibility for climate change policies.
Ted Cruz, the Texas Republican, also plays the “global cooling” riff, and says there is no data to support global warming. He said recently: “It’s cold. Al Gore told me this wouldn’t happen.” He will likely be chair of the Committee on Science and Technology.
Lisa Murkowski, an Alaskan Republican who has actually argued that climate change needs to be addressed, but acted otherwise, is to be chair of the Senate Energy and Commerce Committee, which has carriage of the controversial Keystone XL pipeline that will provide an export outlet for Canadian tar sands in the Gulf of Mexico. She approves of that project and her 121-page “Energy 2020” report laid out her plans to expand oil and gas drilling in federal onshore and offshore lands, including the Arctic.
And these leaders are urged on by a new group of eager Tea-Party types who are, if that is at all possible, even more extreme. Take, for instance, Joni Ernst, the newly-elected Senator for Iowa, a “biscuit-baking, gun-shooting, twangy, twinkly farm girl,” as the Washington Post described her. Ernst (pictured right in her advertising campaign) simply wants to “shut down the EPA”, and according to Grist’s David Roberts, has also sort of “whackadoo” theories.
It’s worth noting that the EPA was created by Republicans, in much the same way as the renewable energy target was launched in Australia by the conservative Coalition, which also argued for an ETS before Big Coal took control of its agenda.
Conservative commentators in Australia – including Greg Sheridan and Andrew Bolt – were luxuriating in the Republican wins in Congress, suggesting they validated Tony Abbott’s dumping of the carbon price, and that an ETS was now dead in the water in the US.
It already was. There was no chance that a nationwide-ETS could have ever have passed Congress with the Republican gerrymander in the House, and Obama would not have tried. Hence the focus on regulation through the EPA.
And while the Republican gains in the House and Senate, and the new chairs of key committees will increase the fire and brimstone surrounding climate change policy – and lead to some ludicrous claims – it may not have that much of an impact.
As many commentators have noted, Obama still has power of veto over legislation. He is almost certain to use that to protect the EPA. Less certain is the fate of Keystone XL, which some speculate he may trade as a bargaining tool, despite it being made a signature issue by the environmental movement.
“Obama will not let congressional Republicans make him look like a feckless liar to our allies, whose cooperation we need to get a more ambitious climate agreement in the 2015 round of negotiations in Paris,” Ben Adler writes, also in Grist.
“So Obama will make a stand on EPA authority if he must. And before it even comes to that, Senate Democrats will likely throttle any EPA authority repeal with a filibuster.” This relates to their ability to demand any new legislation require a 60 per cent majority, which the Republicans do not have, before it is enacted.
The power they do have is to reject any Obama nominees in key agencies, such as the EPA. And to block new legislation and reverse others that are not worth a filibuster or a veto. So a Republican push to stop the EPA and Army Corps of Engineers from protecting America’s small streams and wetlands – that provide drinking water for 117 million Americans – will be put into effect.
Likewise, the EPA will likely be stopped from even proposing new safeguards for smog-causing ozone; even though scientists have found current standards are too lax.
And, according to the National Resource Defence Council, they will prevent any new safeguards on any issue – be it banking, food safety, environment, etc. – by taking away the ability of scientists and experts to set standards. The so-called REINS Act would require both houses of Congress to approve every new standard, the NDRC says.
Like Australia’s conservative Coalition, Republicans are also cutting funds to environmental bodies such as the EPA, and UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, as well as scientific research.
And like the Australian Coalition, the Republicans will likely target any programs that promotes renewable energy (with the exception of wind energy, which is popular in the mid-West and even Texas) and anything that looks like intelligent social policy with an environmental hue such as mass transit and transit-oriented affordable-housing development.
As one US-based correspondent noted, almost everyone – including the Republicans – expect control of the Senate to go back to the Democrats in 2016. That’s because there will be a higher turnout because of the Presidential election, and the Senate seats up for grabs that year will be favourable to Democrats.
Here’s his thoughts on the matter, which I find to be as cogent an argument as i have seen.
This year also saw an unusual number of Senate Democrats from Red states retiring, so those open seats were a big advantage for the Republicans – this time around.
Next time the situation will be exactly reversed, with a good many Republican seats up for grabs in largely Blue states. Moreover, these will be Republicans who won in the off-election in 2010, and they will no longer enjoy the advantage of low turnout.
“Bear in mind that Senators are elected to six-year terms, and it is a Constitutional requirement that one third of all Senate seats be filled every two years. So, some years favor one party, and other years favor the other party. If all were elected at once, the Democrats would likely not have lost control of the Senate in this election.
Still, however, nothing will change in 2016.
Odds are that we will again have a Democratic president, a Democratic Senate, and a Republican House. So, the gridlock of the last four years will continue without letup. The Republican House will not vote on presidential initiatives, and the Republican filibusters will not let anything get out of the Senate either. The Republicans will not likely win the White House, but a Democratic president will effectively be a lame duck (in legislative terms) from the day of inauguration.
So, what the professional politicians are really doing is to prove that the country can get along without a functioning national legislature at all. Most of the real work is being done at the state level, and this is especially true with respect to alternative energy.
In fact, the only reason that there are any Federal incentives at all is because they come in the form of tax credits, and Republicans will almost always vote in favor of lower taxes, even if those credits are for alternative energy. Taxes are a bigger issue for the broad Republican base, than alternative energy is for the relatively small number of fossil fuel campaign donors. Even the Fossil Fools recognize that their guys have to get elected, so they continue to donate, even though their proteges occasionally have to vote for a renewable energy tax credit that is popular with their constituents.
But that is it for serious, broad-based incentives.
There is also some indirect support in the form of government grants to support renewable energy research, but, again, its existence is rather a side-effect.
So, if Ancient Rome is anything to go by, the Presidency will become increasingly “imperial”, and the Congress, like the Roman Senate, will be in no real position to change that. Aside from a growing tendency for presidents to simply ignore the law, or to interpret it in very strained ways, Congress is nearly always too divided to take a strong stand on most issues. As individuals they are too busy grandstanding for their constituents to bother with general policies that might be to the benefit of the country as a whole.
Finally, this is one of the main reasons that I keep pushing the idea that it is more effective just to ignore national government, and to find ways to get what you want anyway.
We learned quite some while ago that states and cities can do lots of useful stuff for their citizens, regardless of what is happening in Washington D.C., and Australia appears to be learning much the same lesson, according to RenewEconomy’s own reporting. South Australia is right up there with Germany in adopting renewable energy, Tasmania already has a ton of hydro, the ACT is following in South Australia’s footsteps, and lots of cities and large private companies are making vigorous moves, even in the most backward states.