The implications of the US midterm elections for climate change policy

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The US mid-term elections will be crucial for climate policy at a national level, and for solar and wind in some key states.

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The Carbon Brief

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US voters will head to the polls tomorrow to decide which party rules Congress for the next two years. Environmental groups have spent millions trying to make climate change an electoral issue. Come Wednesday morning, they’ll see what those bucks bought.

The US legislature looks like it’s heading for a shake up. Polls show the Republican party has a good chance of winning a majority in both chambers of Congress for the first time in almost a decade.

That could have serious ramifications for the country’s climate policy.

US commentators have done a good job of rounding up what that could mean state-side. We take a more international perspective, looking at what it might mean for the world’s chances of agreeing a new global climate deal.

Midterms

Congress is a perennial thorn in the side of those pressuring the US to take action on climate change. The outcome of this week’s election could make the task a whole lot harder.

Unlike the President, who gets elected every four years, Congressional elections take place every two years. This week’s election is known as the midterms, as it’s held midway through the President’s term.

Every member of the House of Representatives and one third of the Senate is up for election. It’s of particular interest because the Republicans look likely to win a majority in the Senate for the first time since 2005. To do that, they need to win at least six extra seats – either by winning six and losing none or, more likely, winning more than that and not losing many.

It’s significant, because the Senate has a lot of important powers.

The Republicans need a two-thirds majority in the Senate to be able to prevent the Democrats blocking any new laws. They won’t win that many. So overturning the steps Obama’s administration has taken to curb the US’s emissions in recent years by passing new legislation isn’t on the table.

But they can obstruct and alter climate policy in other ways. The Senate has the power to ratify the budget and any treaties the president signs. It has used such powers to block climate action in the past.

Here’s what’s at stake this time around.

Obama’s plan

Last year, President Obama announced his climate action plan. The centrepiece of the policy is a new regulation requiring power plants to cut emissions 30 per cent by 2030, known as the clean power plan.

The Republican’s current leader in the Senate, Kentucky senator Mitch McConnell, describes the policy as “a massive, big-government boondoggle“, and has pledged to try and overturn it. There are a number of ways the Republicans could set about this if they win a majority in the Senate.

Congress can override the president if the House of Representatives and Senate both pass joint-resolutions – a kind of formal statement – as thinktank the Centre for American Progressand blog Climate Progress point out.

The Republicans already control the House of Representatives and look set to expand their majority this week. If the party gains control of the Senate as well, the Democrats would not have enough members of Congress to block such a move.

The Republicans could also add clauses to any legislation the Democrats and president really want passed, known as riders, with the aim curbing Obama’s plan.

If Obama’s clean power plan is rolled back, it could have serious implications for international climate negotiations. Lots of countries argue that they shouldn’t be expected to act until the US does as it has the world’s largest historical emissions. China’s approach to the climate negotiations has arguably softened since Obama announced his action plan.

If the climate plan was no longer in place, or significantly curbed, China and nations may be reluctant to commit to strong climate action. That would represent a big blow to negotiators’ chances of getting a new global climate deal in Paris.

Committee powers

If the Republicans gain control of the Senate, members of their party would also become chairs of some prominent committees. That would give a high-profile platform to some politicians vehemently opposed to tackling climate change, as The Nation points out.

Oklahoma senator James Inhofe would become chair of the Senate’s environment and public works committee. The committee has the ability to hold up, change, or scrap any climate change legislation. It also holds regular hearings on matters related to climate policy.

Inhofe describes climate change as a “hoax” and is strongly opposed to Obama’s clean power plan. He became known for aggressively questioning the validity of climate science in his previous tenure as the committee’s chair between 2003 and 2007.

If the Republican’s win, climate skeptic committee chairs such as Inhofe, Ted Cruz, and Ron Johnson could also move to cut funding to those charged with implementing Obama’s climate plan, such as the Environmental Protection Agency.

Combined, the committee chairs would make the Senate altogether less climate-friendly.

That could spook other governments in the run-up to next year’s international climate negotiations. If they don’t think the US’s more proactive approach to curbing emissions is going to last, they are less likely to agree to taking action themselves.

Global issues

The US’s efforts to curb emissions and the world’s prospects of taking action are largely synonymous.

Those unsure of the Senate’s international influence need only to think back to 1997, when a Republican Senate refused to ratify the Kyoto Protocol. That decision meant the world’s only binding agreement to cut emissions was hamstrung from the start. Many say it never recovered.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change yesterday spelled out the dangers of failing to tackle climate change in the clearest terms yet. How the US votes tomorrow will have a significant impact on the type of action the world agrees to next year.

That’s why environmental campaigners have spent millions promoting climate-friendly candidates. And it’s why it shouldn’t just be US citizens watching closely when the polls close.

Source: The Carbon Brief. Reproduced with permission.

Meanwhile, Bloomberg New Energy Finance reports that:

Americans are heading to the polls to cast their ballot for candidates running in the country’s mid-term election. The outcome, some pundits say, could be a brutal blow for Democrats, who are battling to control the Senate. The results may also have ripple effects for renewable energy in several states.

As Bloomberg New Energy Finance points out in its Analyst Reaction: US REC market cheat sheet: are RECs above the ballot?, there are several states of particular interest: Florida, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, California and New York.

For instance, in Florida, former Governor Charlie Crist (D) is in a tight gubernatorial race against incumbent Rick Scott (R). Crist, who in the past supported developing a Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) for Florida, has made improving the solar industry one of his touchstone campaign pledges. In Pennsylvania’s gubernatorial race, candidate Tom Wolf (D), who is leading in polls over Tom Corbett (R), has pledged to bring Pennsylvania into the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (a cap-and-trade scheme with Northeast and Mid-Atlantic states).

At the national level, legislation to extend the federal Production Tax Credit (PTC) for wind generation is expected to become serious after the elections, when the ‘lame duck’ session begins, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance. A bill introduced in the House in September – HR 5559, entitled ‘Bridge to a Clean Energy Future Act of 2014’ – would extend the PTC, but the act is sure to be watered down as it filters through committees.

Looking forward, it remains unclear whether the EPA’s Clean Power Plan will incentivise states to start or strengthen Renewable Portfolio Standards. At the very least, however, it does appear that renewables will play an important role in reducing states’ “adjusted” emissions rates.

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3 Comments
  1. Bob_Wallace 5 years ago

    The election is basically over. Republicans will control both houses of Congress for the next two years. What does that mean? Basically more of the same.

    For the last four years nothing good has come out of Congress. Right-wingers in the House blocked anything helpful. The really awful stuff that the House put forward was blocked by Democrats in the Senate.

    The difference now is that the awful stuff out of the House will be passed by the Senate. Then President Obama will veto it. The Republicans in the Senate will not have enough votes to override the President’s veto. That takes 67 votes and they will have 64 or 65. (The Democratic senators from coal and oil states have been largely replaced by Republicans.)

    The legislation enabling the EPA to control carbon emissions is already law and has been reviewed by the Supreme Court. There’s no way to take that back except with new legislation. Veto.

    Coal plants will be closed.

    Wind probably will get no additional subsidies. But perhaps it will since many of the states which benefit from wind revenue are Republican. If wind gets no subsidies installations will continue as wind, without subsidies, is our cheapest source of new electricity.

    Solar still has a couple of years of subsidies left. And by the time those expire utility scale solar should be well below $1.50/watt.

    Basically the US government’s role in supporting wind and solar is about over but prices have dropped so much that installations will continue and accelerate based on non-subsidized costs.

    EVs will use up their subsidies. But by the time they run out prices should be competitive with ICEVs. Market forces (cheaper operating costs) should cause large scale movement away from gasmobiles.

    For the next couple of years the world should not expect the US to play a leadership role in fighting climate change. But we’ll almost certainly continue cleaning up our grids simply because renewable energy and storage make financial sense.

  2. Motorshack 5 years ago

    “Congress can override the president if the House of Representatives and
    Senate both pass joint-resolutions – a kind of formal statement …”

    What is this guy (apparently a Brit, not an American) talking about?

    The Constitution provides that a law may be enacted despite a Presidential veto if two thirds of both the House and the Senate vote in favor of said law.

    In contrast, Congressional resolutions, joint or otherwise, are just a formal expression of opinion, with no force of law.

    The author also says, “If the party gains control of the Senate as well, the Democrats would not have enough members of Congress to block such a move.”

    This ignores a Senate parliamentary mechanism called a “filibuster” in which a single senator can stall passage of a bill unless 60% of the Senate votes to continue. Since the Republican majority in the Senate is well short of this number, a good bit of their legislation will never even come to a vote in the Senate.

    Indeed, it is this mechanism – along with the absolute Republican majority in the House – that has permitted the Republicans to block much of Obama’s agenda, and that would have remained the case even if they did not control the House.

    As Bob Wallace notes in his comment, all this election will produce is one more way for Congress to remain in total gridlock for another two years. So, there is nothing much new to see here.

    In any event, my main point here is that this writer clearly does not have the grasp of American politics that he claims, and other foreigners should be a little careful about what they take at face value.

    • Bob_Wallace 5 years ago

      An interesting point was made this morning by someone being interviewed on NPR. Republicans may, in fact, be in a tougher spot as a result of their total control of Congress.

      Now they will have to overcome the intra-party split between their corporate wing and their radical Tea Party wing and pass legislation (even if PBO vetoes it). If they can’t overcome their very deep rift and “govern” then that will hurt them in the 2016 election.

      They probably are going to have to compromise with PBO in order to get some of their agenda passed in order to keep their base from “throwing all the bums out” in the next election. There are probably some things that PBO would be willing to agree to as long as he gets some stuff he wants.

      I suspect PBO will trade away the Keystone pipeline for something that he wants. In the long run the Keystone is meaningless (as long as it doesn’t run through very delicate areas). We’re going to keep on burning oil as long as demand for oil continues. Stopping one pipeline won’t lower oil usage nor will it decrease the flow of oil from Canada oil sands, they will ship by rail if that’s what it takes.

      The way we get rid of Canada tar sand oil, and all oil use, is by eliminating demand. At least reducing demand to a tiny percentage of what it now is. Keep pushing efficiency. Keep increasing the use of public transportation. And move to EVs ASAP.

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