Hultman, with the Brookings Institution, said the new advocates on the Hill could help clear the way for climate or carbon initiatives to be included in the broader fiscal discussions that are likely to dominate Congress in the first part of 2013. Although a carbon tax is unlikely to be approved, it has been mentioned as a partial solution to the country's coming fiscal cliff by groups as varied as the American Enterprise Institute, the R Street Institute, the Brookings Institution, Resources for the Future and oil companies including Exxon and Shell.
Hultman said the Republican Party should be rethinking its strategy of obstruction in favor of compromise. (House Speaker John Boehner indicated a shift after the election.) That could mean fewer bills targeted at delaying or repealing EPA regulations, or simply a greater willingness to discuss clean energy loans and other issues that in the past had bipartisan support.
"It's early, but there are indications that things will be less fraught," Hultman said. "The Republican party, in their internal conversations, needs to take some initiative and look more like a broad-based party that can attract more votes ... But does that translate into a change for environmental or climate policy?”
Prospects for Change?
Saks, the National Wildlife legislative director, said one downside of the election was the loss of moderate Republicans who sometimes bridged the gap between the two parties. Representatives Charlie Bass of New Hampshire, Robert Dold of Illinois and Nan Hayworth of New York were defeated by Democrats. Others, including Ohio’s Steve LaTourette in the House and Maine's Olympia Snowe in the Senate, retired, citing fatigue with the partisan bickering.
Saks also pointed out that some of the environmental community's most outspoken foes are still in office and still have tremendous power. Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., the ranking member of the Senate's Environment and Public Works Committee, is one of the most prominent climate change deniers in Congress. Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, second in command of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, has opposed several clean energy initiatives, including efficiency standards for light bulbs.
"There was a time when John McCain and Lindsey Graham were advocates of climate legislation," Saks said. "If those guys aren't leading, then who is? Where are they going?"
Still, Saks remains hopeful that the new Congress will at least begin a more serious discussion of climate change.
"This is all part of a larger political change—it's not inconceivable that there will be new interest in this," said Hultman, with the Brookings Institution. "This is not altruistic action; this is something that relates to our well-being."