Could a Republican mid terms win sink US climate ambition?

Hostile lawmakers could slow or stall President Obama’s plans to curb the country’s fossil fuel use says think tank


By Ed King

The fate of the UN’s proposed 2015 climate change deal could rest on who US voters choose to represent them this week on Capitol Hill.

That’s the view of the Brookings Institution, a Washington DC thinktank, which says President Obama’s plans to roll out tougher carbon cutting laws will be undermined if Democrats lose their legislative power.

It warns efforts to secure an ambitious global climate agreement could be upset if the Republican Party takes complete control of the US Congress in the mid term elections.

Key environmental agencies could face funding cuts, while large delegations of Republicans hostile to an international climate agreement could crowd UN negotiations.

“This would undermine the faith of other climate diplomats that the US will live up to its greenhouse gas reduction pledges and other commitments in the negotiations,” says Brookings managing director William Antholis.

The knock-on effects could be catastrophic.

A US administration unable to announce credible carbon cuts early next year would likely lead to China doing the same, crushing the chances of avoiding warming beyond 2C, a level deemed dangerous by scientists and politicians.

Scientific confusion

Fears that a Republican majority could see US government plans to cut carbon emissions attacked appear well grounded.

Climate change, coal power plants, oil drilling and the Keystone XL pipeline have all been targets for opponents of President Obama during this election.

Mitch McConnell, who will lead the Senate in the event of a Republican victory, has made the “War on Coal’ a centrepiece of his own election campaign.

When asked if they believe in climate change, a common refrain from GOP candidates in this campaign has been “I’m not a scientist,” usually followed by a resounding “No”.

According to Brookings, fewer than 1% of Democrat candidates oppose US carbon cuts, while only 2% of Republican candidates support them.

“If the Republicans take the Senate that will have huge consequences for the next two years,” says Anthony Leiserowitz, who runs the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication.

“That’s going to be the President against Republicans in both houses. That just means it’s going to bloody for the next couple of years”

It’s a stance Bernie Sanders, a Democrat Senator who recently introduced legislation for a US carbon tax, argues is unacceptable in light of the UN climate science panel’s latest report, which warns of dire consequences if emissions continue to rise.

“Most of them are not doctors but they respect doctors’ opinions on cancer and heart disease,” he says. “Most of them are not generals but they respect the opinions of our military leaders. It’s time for them to respect the views of the scientific community on climate change.”

In one sense this shouldn’t matter. President Obama’s planned power plant CO2 cuts bypassed a hostile Congress, using his executive powers to enforce laws through the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

But a takeover of Capitol Hill by hostile lawmakers could see further budget cuts to a weakened Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as well as more legal challenges against the plans.

Art Handy, a Democrat Representative in Rhode Island’s state legislature who recently drafted its climate law warns of an EPA “death by a thousand cuts” if the GOP gets its way.

And given any future US climate pledge will rely heavily on the EPA enforcing those CO2 cuts, the prospect of it losing its teeth would likely impact on Washington’s decision making.

Electoral battle

The odds are currently stacked in favour of the Republicans. They holds 234 of 435 seats in the House of Representatives, a majority over the Democrats of 33.

According to CNN polling only 5% of those seats are rated as contestable, making the chances of any change slim.

In the Senate Democrats hold a 55-45 lead, but latest predictions by respected pollster Nate Silver suggest the GOP has a 73% of winning back a majority.

A sign of how worried supporters of plans for a global climate deal are can be seen in the levels of cash being sent to environmentally friendly candidates.

According to the Washington Post, over $85 million has been spent by green campaigning groups across the US fighting at state, congress and senate level.

That may seem a lot, but they face a well-oiled opposition which benefits from wealthy fossil fuel industry backers, notably the Koch Brothers, which have a $300m war chest.

In fossil fuel producing states like Alaska, West Virginia, Louisiana and Kentucky the Democrats could face a hiding, with coal mining communities fearful of losing their jobs and major refining areas desperate for Keystone to start pumping crude from Canada.

Target states

The money on both sides is being directed towards a select number of swing areas, such as Michigan, Iowa, New Hampshire, Colorado and North Carolina.

According to the League of Conservation Voters, a Washington campaign group, $2.4 million has gone to Democrat Senator Kay Hagan in North Carolina and $12.1 million to support Democrat Senator Mark Udall in Colorado.

Hagan has staunchly defended the EPA’s CO2 plans in the past, citing North Carolina’s vulnerability to rising sea levels and future extreme weather events.

But the oncoming threat of climate change may not sway voters in risky areas: Hagan is locked in a race too close to call with Republican Thom Tillis, state speaker and climate denier.

“It’s hard to split politics and ideology,” says Leiserowitz. “Just because you live in a place that is vulnerable doesn’t mean you will interpret it that way – that’s really important.”

“People interpret the issues through the values and lenses they already have.”

Sink or swim?

Perhaps nowhere is this more obvious that in the election to be Florida governor, being fought out between Democrat Charlie Crist and Republican Rick Scott, who has doubts on climate science.

Parts of South Florida and Miami are already battling against rising sea levels, but reports suggest Scott has done anything he can to avoid talking about climate change.

For some conservative voters this makes Scott a hero. For opponents it makes him an easy target in what has been an $8.6m drive to unseat him.

So called “attack adverts” depict Scott as a modern-day Noah, saving the “rich few” who have bankrolled his campaign in his Ark and leaving the rest of Florida suffer.

These type of adverts are running across marginal US states, going head to head with those backed by the Koch Brothers and other Republican backers.

What makes this race so interesting is that for the first time, the climate movement has its own powerful supporter with deep pockets: billionaire Tom Steyer.

So far he has given nearly $56m of his own money to back climate-friendly candidates, channelled through the NextGen Climate organisation.

Together with the Environmental Defense Action Fund, the NRDC Action Fund, the League of Conservation Voters (LCV), and the Sierra Club they are on course to top $90m of campaign funds by the time the mid-terms conclude.

“People understand what is at stake at this election, which is the pro-environmental firewall in the Senate,” says the LCV’s Jeff Gohringer. “That’s our big focus and where we will spend most of our money.”

Gohringer says the LCV has spent five times more on this election than any other previously. As of Friday 31 October it had raised $5,798,145.88 for pro-environment, “a record” he adds.

“We’re never going to match spending by polluters like the Koch brothers. We know that. But we know we can work harder, spend wisely and make a big impact. In a lot of the races we have spent millions.”

Political winds

It’s worth pointing out that Brookings doesn’t think a Republican takeover on Capitol Hill will mean Washington’s brief foray into climate leadership is at an end.

The President can still set the agenda for the coming two years, and his team appear to have based most of their planning on scenarios where they receive limited or no support from Congress.

“Any legislation to defund EPA would be unlikely to pass given the prospects of a Democratic Senate filibuster. Even if it passed, the president would be likely to veto,” writes Antholis.

But it will send out a message of uncertainty in a week where US officials are expected to discuss possible CO2 cuts with Chinese counterparts at the Asia-Pacific Economic Summit in Beijing.

That will make the job of lead US climate envoy Todd Stern all the harder, as he seeks to convince the rest of the world Washington is committed to a UN pact to slash emissions in Paris next year.

US commitment to global efforts is “indispensable to effective international action” he argued in a speech at Yale University last month.

“This mobilization of American effort matters. Enormously. It matters because the United States is the biggest economy and largest historic emitter of greenhouse gases,” he said.

Stern added, perhaps with the 2016 presidential elections in mind, that he doubted whether climate denial would be “viable” in a year’s time.

“Engagement is crucial. It’s a basic rule of politics that politicians listen to the voice of potential voters,” he said.

“Maybe not immediately, but before long. When politicians come to believe that not listening could be detrimental to their political health, they listen.”

Read more on: Comment & Analysis | US