The Republicans won the mid-term elections: What are the implications for climate politics?

As countries negotiate an international climate agreement between now and December 2015, the Republican victory in the mid-term elections in the United States raises question about U.S. climate policy and politics going forward. Nivela interviewed Mr Neil Bhatiya from The Century Foundation, a specialist in U.S. foreign policy and climate change to discuss the election results. Here we offer a summary of this exchange on how Republican Party control of both chambers of Congress might shape U.S. domestic and international policies on climate change in the coming two years.

After the November mid-term elections in the United States, the Republican Party gained control of the Senate and maintained a majority in the House. The public’s discontent with the economy, the government’s dysfunction and the Obama administration were the main reasons behind voters' lack of support for the Democratic Party.

The elections results will inevitably affect the country’s climate policies. A number of Republicans deny human-induced climate change and represent states with interests deeply tied to the extraction and burning of fossil fuels. While the Democrats won some battles on the environment like a ban on fracking in a number of cities, their failure to remain a majority in either chamber of Congress threatens serious efforts to curb down greenhouse gas emissions.

Nivela: What are the main implications of the Republican control of Congress in terms of domestic climate policy and legislation?

NB: While the Republicans will be a lot stronger in this coming term, there are still limits to what they can advance on their own. Democrats in the Senate can still filibuster (sustain an open-ended debate essentially), and President Obama can veto legislation, and Republicans won't have enough votes to override. So you'll probably see more of the same inaction in terms of laws being passed. The GOP can of course hold more hearings in both houses, as well as launch investigations and issue subpoenas, and try as much as possible to keep officials testifying rather than executing policy.

Nivela: Were the results of the election a surprise? How so?

NB: The fact that the Senate was going to swing to the Republicans was a foregone conclusion. The extent of their wins at the state level, in governors races and in the state legislatures was more surprising. A Republican won the governor's race in Massachusetts and Maryland, both reliably Democratic states. A lot of that was due to surprisingly low turnout, uninspiring candidates, and general dissatisfaction with the performance of the Obama Administration.

Nivela: Why do voters keep supporting anti-climate politicians considering the point of the debate we are at and the high stakes involved?

NB: I doubt there is a significant percentage of people who vote specifically for climate denying candidates with no other reasoning behind it. Rather, climate change denial, in its various forms, is an ideological signifier for a low-tax, small government mentality that resonates with the American electorate. That said, it is becoming harder to be an outright denier; many politicians have moved on to saying that climate change is too big for the US to solve on its own, and we need to wait for India and China to agree to emissions cuts before we do the same. As extreme weather events, like Superstorm Sandy, become more prevalent, the necessity for politicians to act will only grow stronger.

Nivela: How did voters react to statements by GOP members about not being a scientist and thus, having no opinion on climate change?

NB: I haven't seen too much data on what voters think of that as a talking point. Cory Gardner, the new Republican Senator from Colorado, was tarred as a denier fairly consistently in the campaign and was able to win. On the other hand, a handful of pro-climate politicians were able to win (Jeanne Shaheen in NH). I think you have to consider that as just one part of a candidate's profile that voters will think about.

Nivela: What climate and clean energy progress can we expect from Republican leadership in the House and the Senate?

NB: Likely very little. There is no interest in national legislation and there hasn't been since cap-and-trade failed early in Obama's first term. You'll probably see a push to try to force Obama to approve the Keystone XL pipeline, though the decision is ultimately up to the State Department. There has been some discussion about rolling back subsidies for renewables, but I think the Republican caucus is likely not as unified on this point. Many business in key states love the production tax credit and will fight to see it maintained.

Nivela: How did the funding given by the Koch brothers and Tom Steyer impact the elections (if at all)?

NB: I think they were important factors, but I'm not sure how decisive they were. Dissatisfaction with the status quo has been high for a while, the money from the Kochs merely facilitated its expression at the ballot boxes. Steyer's experiment is more interesting, despite the less than stellar results this time around. As important to him, it seems, as getting people elected is shifting the conversation. That's a long range prospect, and I'm not sure it's easy to judge in one election cycle. 2016 will be interesting, because he will no doubt put pressure on the Democratic nominee to speak forthrightly about climate change.

Nivela: What do you think was the impact of the People's Climate March last September on public discourse around climate?

NB: It was a front page story the day after, then got lost in the news mix shortly afterward. While an important organizational exercise for those groups involved, it has yet to translate into practical political strength. Part of the problem with marches like this is that everyone agrees on the problem (climate change) but I doubt there is much universal agreement on what to do about it. There were a lot of anti-nuclear activiists at the march, but nuclear is one of the best low-carbon energy sources out there. There were a lot of anti-fracking activists there, but fracked natural gas has contributed to a decline in emissions by displacing the use of coal. I'm not saying these people are wrong to believe what they believe, but these are the tensions inherent in the debate.

More information on Mr Neil Bhatiya’s biography can be found here.

Upcoming article sneak peek