The leading international network of climate scientists is urging a rapid shift away from fossil fuels, just as allies of coal, oil and natural gas industries in the United States appear poised to tighten their grip on Congress—where opposition to cleaner energy is already entrenched.
That outcome of Tuesday's midterm election would spell trouble for advocates of a strong international climate accord. Treaty negotiations are supposed to pick up in the next few months and culminate in Paris just over a year from now.
This weekend, the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued a synthesis report that sums up its years-long review of the climate crisis and what to do about it. The report called for the near-complete elimination of fossil fuel-burning by the end of the century. This, it said, is what is needed to have a reasonable chance of avoiding the most severe risks of man-made changes to the world's climate.
Nothing could be further from the agenda of Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the coal-state Republican who on the eve of the election appears to have significantly better than even odds of becoming the next majority leader. (Though, as the IPCC might put it, until the last votes are tallied any forecast of which party will prevail deserves only "medium confidence.")
Even if the Republicans don't gain a majority in the Senate on Nov. 4, they are likely to gain strength in that chamber as well as in the House—an election outcome that would undermine President Obama's entire climate agenda, not just his influence in the Paris talks.
From the Keystone XL pipeline decision and so-called "war on coal," to a carbon tax and the very foundations of climate science, Congressional Republicans have opposed Obama on anything having to do with global warming from his first days in office.
Just last year, on the day the IPCC released one of three exhaustive treatments that formed the basis of this week's synthesis report, McConnell co-sponsored an amendment to block the EPA from regulating fossil fuels in electric power plants, the largest single source of carbon emissions in this country.
His co-sponsor, Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma, offered another amendment at the same time. It would have prohibited the administration from participating in international climate negotiations "unless the U.S. offers an addendum to the latest IPCC report stating that anthropogenic climate change is a scientifically unproven theory." Inhofe, who reportedly aspires to be chairman of the environment committee in a Republican Senate, calls the whole IPCC enterprise a "conspiracy" and "a hoax."
Their ascent would alarm participants in the climate talks who agree with IPCC chairman, Rajendra Pachauri, that the climate crisis could be solved if action is quick and decisive. "All we need," Pachauri said as he released the new synthesis report, "is the will to change, which we trust will be motivated by knowledge and an understanding of the science of climate change."
Emissions must fall by 40 to 70 percent between 2010 and 2050, and then to zero by 2100, he explained at a news conference.
Those are fighting words to anyone committed to defending the coal industry in Kentucky, the oil and gas industry in Oklahoma, or campaigning in any fossil fuel stronghold—from the Marcellus shale to the Bakken light oil play. And it helps explain why the politics of carbon are a feature of so many swing elections in states like West Virginia, Colorado, Louisiana and Alaska.
The contrast between this increasingly partisan American political divide and the increasingly solid international scientific consensus could hardly be starker.
"The scientists have done their jobs and then some," said Alden Meyer of the Union of Concerned Scientists, who has tracked the negotiations for decades. "Politicians can either dramatically reduce emissions or they can spend the rest of their careers running from climate disaster to climate disaster."
Other environmental advocates, too, issued statements emphasizing that the synthesis report—including its summary for policymakers, expressly designed to guide them toward early action —was as significant politically as it was scientifically.
"The report is alarming and should be a wake-up call to government leaders," said Mindy Lubber, president of Ceres, a group that encourages businesses to show leadership on climate issues. Her statement called on them to "ramp up the pressure...especially in Washington."
"The critical missing link is the oil and gas industry, which is doing its best to thwart concrete action," she said.
The Sierra Club's Michael Brune aimed a jibe at the Koch brothers and their favored candidates, saying that "we don't have any more time to coddle fossil fuel billionaires or politicians who will eschew responsibility at every corner."
Big environmental groups have spent heavily in this campaign, too—$85 million on state and federal races, according to Daniel Weiss of the League of Conservation Voters, including $40 million on just six key Senate races. And in the closing days, they were knocking on millions of doors to bring out a green vote.
The organizations released results from a Hart Research Associates poll taken in late October in swing states suggesting that the climate issue could break in their favor.
"The survey suggests that Republican candidates are losing ground as a result of their climate science denial and opposition to climate pollution reductions," Hart reported. "This is true among independent swing voters, and particularly among women and younger voters."
But only about 40 percent of those surveyed said they had heard much of candidates' views on climate. A majority had heard about energy issues, but far more about abortion, jobs and Obamacare.