10 ways the 2014 midterm elections will affect climate policy

10 ways the 2014 midterm elections will affect climate policy

Capitol Hill
Flickr dannymac15_19992010
Congressional Republicans smashed Democrats by deepening the GOP's hold in the House of Representatives and taking the majority in the Senate after the 2014 midterm elections.

Tuesday night the Democrats went down to an even bigger defeat than had been expected in the U.S. midterms, as Republicans strengthened their hold on the House of Representatives and secured a majority in the Senate for the first time in a decade. With the GOP as hostile as ever towards environmental policies and the Obama administration's climate strategy, the result is likely to have significant implications for both the U.S. green economy and international climate change negotiations.

BusinessGreen took a look at the main lessons for green businesses from a humbling night for the Democrats.

1. The EPA is now public enemy No. 1 for the Republican-led Congress

The victorious Republican leadership has made it abundantly clear that it opposes the Obama administration's climate strategy in general, and the move to set emissions limits for coal-fired power plants in particular. Obama's decision to bypass gridlock in Congress and deliver climate policies through executive orders, the Environmental Protection Agency  and the existing Clean Air Act means the Republicans are unable to simply reverse the White House's policies (Democrats still have filibusters and the presidential veto). But that doesn't mean the EPA will be allowed to quietly go about its business.

Republicans now have the power to step up the number of time-consuming Congressional hearings on the EPA's activities and the administration's climate policies. More serious, the GOP also will consider using the Congressional Review Act, which feasibly could be used to block the EPA's power station rules through a simple majority. Think Progress also points out that recent filibuster reforms mean a simple Senate majority is all that is required to block presidential appointees, posing a further threat to the day-to-day operation of the EPA.

And then there is the nuclear option. Republicans could attach legislation defunding the EPA or rolling back its powers to budget and debt ceiling bills, sparking a stand-off with Obama that would force the president to choose between keeping the government running and the credibility of his flagship climate strategy.

The GOP would have to be extremely careful not to over-reach itself and end up taking the blame for another economically disastrous example of Washington dysfunction. But the party has shown that it is happy to hold the country hostage in the past and opposition to climate action may well prove to be an issue it is unwilling to compromise on.

In a piece titled "One big loser in this election? Climate policy," Brad Plumer said, "The bottom line of this election is that Congress isn't going to give much thought to climate change these next two years. Maybe not the two years after that. And it doesn't seem to be in the power of either committed billionaires or Mother Nature to get them to do so."

2. Jim Inhofe is not a hoax

In a "Henry Kissinger wins peace prize" worthy moment of irony, Congress' most notorious climate change skeptic is now on course to be named chair of the Senate's Environment and Public Works Committee. Jim Inhofe's elevation following a comfortable defense of his Senate seat means environmental policy makers, climate scientists and green business leaders can expect to be dragged to a series of hearings likely to delay a raft of climate policies.

With other leading Republican climate skeptics such as Ted Cruz and Ron Johnson likely to secure committee chair positions, the GOP will maintain a steady drum beat of opposition to any and all environmental policies. The new chairs may not end up with much to show for their opposition, but coupled with a host of industry-backed court cases in the pipeline, they do have the ability to slow down many of the EPA's environmental standards and rules. They also threaten to push a climate skeptic line even more heavily through the country's right-wing media.

3. Keystone XL is set to make headlines

The most immediate impact on the U.S. green agenda is likely to be renewed progress on the controversial Keystone XL tar sands pipeline. A handful of Democrats are known to be in favor of the pipeline, meaning that the Republican victory almost certainly will result in a filibuster-proof majority in favour of approving the pipeline. Any vote in favor of the project would put the president — who repeatedly has delayed a decision on the pipeline and said he would block it if it is shown to lead to increased climate impacts — in an extremely difficult position.

4. Wind and solar tax credits braced for fresh political row

Another likely impact of the midterms is a revival of the row over wind and solar tax breaks. There is a case for trimming these incentives as wind and solar energy costs continue to fall, but the industry will balk at any move to axe them altogether. Another round of investment-killing arguments on Capitol Hill over the future of renewables policy cannot be ruled out, particularly given the intensity of Republican opposition to clean energy subsidies.

5. Obama is holding the line, for now

Ahead of the vote earlier this week, White House press secretary Josh Earnest stressed that the Obama administration's climate change strategy would not be sacrificed to appease a Republican-controlled Congress. "There are too many Republicans in Congress who even deny the basic scientific fact that climate change is occurring and something that policymakers should be concerned about," he told reporters. "So the president will use his executive action to take some additional steps."

As such, the White House is likely to continue to push the EPA to enact emissions rules, while Earnest also revealed that Obama intended to use his final two years in office to "continue to talk about this issue in a way that lays the groundwork for action by future presidents and future Congresses."

The key question now is how high a priority Obama wishes to make climate change if (and more likely when) the Republicans engineer a stand-off over his environmental strategy. With his current popularity ratings, Obama will not want to be blamed for high energy prices or another disruptive Beltway row. But equally, he may well be emboldened by polling showing his climate policies are broadly popular. A president who managed to cut emissions while growing the economy and tackling the deficit must be due some credit at some point.

6. U.S. credibility at international climate talks is under threat

Obama quietly has engineered a significant boost to the U.S. reputation at the U.N. climate change talks, albeit from a very low base. Constructive bilateral talks with China coupled with tangible steps by the EPA to curb emissions have strengthened the U.S. negotiating position and fueled hopes that an international agreement could yet be brokered next year.

However, there is little doubt that a more vocally hostile Congress could undo much of this good work. As Carbon Brief noted this week, Obama is likely to come to Paris to pursue an international deal, but everyone from the smallest nations to the largest emerging economies will be skeptical that the U.S. government will be able and willing to honor any agreement when the Republican chorus line in Congress is noisily denouncing any treaty and threatening not to ratify it. The standing of the U.S. among international climate diplomats is also unlikely to be helped by likely Republican moves to defund U.N. climate initiatives.

Hopes remain that an international agreement can be reached, but the chances of an ambitious deal look less compelling than they did at the start of the week.

7. The U.S. public wants climate action, even if it is not a priority

The many potential negative implications for the green economy that result from the Midterm results have to be set against the fact that growing numbers of Americans back climate action. A poll published earlier this week showed that 49 percent of people likely to vote in the midterms wanted tougher climate regulations, compared to just 35 percent opposed to such moves. In addition, 53 percent said that it was either somewhat or very important that Congress pass climate legislation within a year. And more voters thought the environment gets less attention than it deserves compared to those who think the opposite.

So why did the public return a Congress that is even more hostile to climate action than the one it replaces? The answer may lie in the fact that while more Americans want to see measures to tackle climate change and most now accept the climate is changing, relatively few regard it as a top priority. A separate Pew poll from September ranked the environment eighth out of 11 issues. Although it also found it is much more likely to be regarded as important by Democrats than Republicans, suggesting that whoever is seeking to animate the Democrat base come 2016 will have to prioritize environmental action.

8. The Republicans don't have a climate plan

The growing support for climate action among the public has prompted a shift in strategy from the Republican leadership. As The New York Times noted earlier this week, GOP candidates have moved from commonly attacking climate science to simply glossing over the topic with the line "I'm not a scientist."

As Michael McKenna, a Republican energy lobbyist, observed, "It's got to be the dumbest answer I've ever heard."

"Using that logic would disqualify politicians from voting on anything. Most politicians aren't scientists, but they vote on science policy," he explained. "They have opinions on Ebola, but they're not epidemiologists. They shape highway and infrastructure laws, but they're not engineers."

However, the Republican strategy represents progress of a sort given that the penny seems to have dropped that vocal opposition to climate science is not inherently a vote winner, particularly in the swing states the party needs to win to take back the White House. The realization will lead to real tension in the Republican ranks, as Inhofe and his allies push for an all-out assault on Obama's climate strategy and moderates counsel that attacking popular environmental policies and denigrating scientists may harm the party in 2016.

9. Tom Steyer will be back

One of the main features of the midterms was billionaire climate activist Tom Steyer's decision to go toe to toe with the Koch brothers and fund campaigns in support of candidates who backed climate action. Around $65 million was spent by Steyer's NextGen Climate group in congressional and state races, leading to a mixed bag of results. Races in New Hampshire were won, but high profile battles in Iowa and Colorado went to the Republicans.

However, Steyer's millions did help to push climate policy up the political agenda and with such deep pockets it looks likely that many Democrats will be able to call on green campaign dollars for the presidential race.

10. The U.S. green economy will continue to prosper

There is no way to spin it — U.S. climate change policy has been dealt a significant blow and it will now be even harder for Obama to enact his environmental strategy, despite significant public support for his policies.

However, the impact on the U.S. green economy, while negative, should not be overstated. Congress has been largely deadlocked over climate and environment policy since George W. Bush's second term, after Obama passed up the opportunity to pass climate legislation in the first two years of his presidency in favor of healthcare reform. During that period the U.S. still has cut emissions as a result of renewables and shale gas, delivered historic vehicle emissions standards, and mobilized a huge surge in clean tech investment that has made the country one of the world's renewables markets. Meanwhile, numerous state governments have enacted bold climate policies that have served to further drive green business development.

The U.S. is still one of the world's largest greenhouse gas emitters, both on an absolute and per capita basis, and a Republican-controlled Congress will make climate investments harder to deliver. But with renewables now cost-competitive in many states and Silicon Valley earmarking billions of dollars for clean tech investment, Inhofe and his allies will not be able to derail U.S. green growth.