GOP Election Rout Delivers Blow to U.S. Leadership Role on Climate Change

Deck in Congress is stacked in favor of fossil fuels, throwing Obama’s climate agenda in doubt during his lame-duck years.

Midterm election results 2014: The ascendant Republican leadership, from Kentucky’s Mitch McConnell on down, are opposed to President Obama's climate policies. Credit: Mitch McConnell campaign

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Additional reporting for this story was done by ICN reporters Katherine Bagley, Elizabeth Douglass, David Hasemyer and Zahra Hirji. Graphic by Paul Horn.

The role of the United States in confronting the global climate crisis has been cast into serious doubt after an election that stacked the deck in Congress in favor of fossil fuel industries. Republicans seized firm control, and added several new senators who deny that climate change is a problem.

A solid majority of voters who spoke to exit pollsters said they regarded climate change as a significant matter, but most were on the Democratic side. By a huge margin, Republican voters said the opposite. And in state after hotly contested state, they elected their own to the Senate.

In that chamber, the ascendant Republican leadership, from Kentucky’s Mitch McConnell on down, are opposed to President Obama’s climate policies—starting with the EPA’s clampdown on carbon emissions from coal plants, and extending to his hopes that the U.S. will join Europe in leading the rest of the world to a new climate treaty.

In an election that hinged on broad opposition to Obama and left him to limp through his two lame-duck years, environmentalists did win a few battles—even as they lost the war.

The League of Conservation Voters, which along with other environmental campaigners spent heavily on the contest, noted that it had unseated several members of its “dirty dozen” target list. In Nebraska, a bastion of opposition to the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline, the project’s best friend in Congress, Rep. Lee Terry, was defeated.

Half of the local anti-fracking measures on the ballots of towns and counties in California, Ohio and Texas passed.

In the heavily fracked North Texas town of Denton, residents voted by nearly 60 percent to ban new drilling within the town’s boundaries. In Ohio, four towns voted on whether to adopt a community bill of rights that included restrictions on drilling. Only one, Athens, approved the anti-fracking measure, by a margin of 78 percent. California’s San Benito and Mendocino counties both passed measures banning fracking and other forms of drilling; Santa Barbara County did not pass its ban.

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Over all, climate campaigners failed to carry to the ballot box the momentum that saw hundreds of thousands of them marching through Manhattan just a few weeks ago. They will have a hard time moving their agenda through Congress, until they can move from walking the walk to voting the vote.

The landscape is now strikingly different from when Obama first took office in 2009, his party controlling both chambers of Congress. Then, he achieved two of the top three items on his agenda: an economic stimulus package and an overhaul of health care. The third—controlling greenhouse gases with a cap-and-trade bill—passed the House in 2009, but died the next year in the Senate.

Now his entire climate change agenda is in danger of being buried there as well.

Most of the new Republicans in the Senate deny the scientific consensus on man-made climate change, and are determined not to allow strong action against its main cause: the burning of fossil fuels.

The Senate’s leadership and the gavel-holders of its key committees will comprise defenders of carbon, in every one of its combustible forms. Many are men and women from coal country and oil patch states who built their platforms on promises to encourage the use of fossil fuels. This, at the very moment that climate treaty negotiators are urgently searching for a way to phase them out.

One of the rising power brokers, James Inhofe of Oklahoma, ridiculed the latest consensus report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which was published on Sunday. “The idea that our advanced industrialized economy would ever have zero carbon emissions is beyond extreme and further proof that the IPCC is nothing more than a front for the environmental left,” he declared. Currently the ranking Republican on the Senate environment committee, he is likely to become its chairman.

‘I Don’t Know the Science’

Just as strikingly, the newest Republican backbenchers will bolster the chorus of climate denial.

Republican Tom Cotton, who ousted Sen. Mark Pryor in Arkansas, has said he would “unleash” the fossil fuel industries and continue to oppose policies like cap and trade and the EPA power rule. Corey Gardner, who beat Mark Udall in Colorado, has said he does not believe people are causing climate change “to the extent that’s been in the news.” Joni Ernst, the new senator from Iowa, shrugs that “I don’t know the science.” Thom Tillis, who won a nail-biter in North Carolina, says liberals are using the issue “as a Trojan horse for their energy policy.”

In the House, too, the existing Republican majority is settling in, more muscular than at any time since the days of Calvin Coolidge. They have already made plain their own energy and climate agenda. Approve the Keystone XL pipeline. Reject the EPA’s clean power rule. Open up the spigot for the export of crude oil and liquefied natural gas. And never mind the extension of tax credits for wind and solar power.

The incumbent architects of this package fared well.

Republican Rep. Fred Upton (Mich.-06), for example, won his 15th term in office, defeating Democratic challenger Paul Clements handily, 55 percent to 41 percent, despite a recent poll that showed Clements closing the gap in the last month of the race. The race featured rampant last-minute campaign spending by both parties. Environmental groups desperately tried to unseat the chair of the House energy committee, while conservative donors and the fossil fuel industry were determined to keep him in place.

Governor’s Races

Meanwhile, not all incumbent governors survived.

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett, a Republican, lost his reelection bid to Democrat businessman Tom Wolf. Corbett’s loss marks the first time a sitting governor has lost reelection since the state began allowing second terms in the 1960s. Wolf campaigned on a platform of instituting a 5 percent extraction tax on oil and gas drilling in Pennsylvania, arguing that the money raised—an estimated $1 billion annually—would help boost state education funding. But Wolf’s strategy could falter. The state legislature stayed Republican, and the party has balked at the idea of further taxing the natural gas industry.

In the days leading up to the election, forecasts for who would win the Florida gubernatorial race bounced between Democrat Charlie Crist and Republican incumbent Gov. Rick Scott. The race remained close through the end of the night, with Scott squeaking out a win 48-47 percent.

Voting hiccups in Broward County, a Democrat-leaning and heavily populated climate-conscious area, may have negatively affected Crist’s election. The Crist campaign asked for voting hours to be extended in the southeastern county, but was denied the request by the circuit court and the Broward County Supervisor of Elections.

Scott’s reelection has significant implications for climate action in Florida. Rising sea levels are already eating away at the low-lying state’s coastline and threatening cities and drinking water. Scott spent his first four years in office dismantling the climate change initiatives that his predecessor, Crist, put in place. These included a statewide climate adaptation plan, mandates for renewable energy and programs to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

Republican Asa Hutchinson won the governor’s race in Arkansas, giving Republicans a statehouse it hasn’t held since 2006, and securing another ally in the fight against new federal climate regulations. Hutchinson won 55 percent of the vote to beat Democrat Mike Ross. In January, he will replace current Gov. Mike Beebe, a Democrat who was ineligible to run for reelection because of term limits.

Hutchinson has said Arkansas would join a lawsuit filed by other states in opposition to the U.S. EPA’s power plant rules. During four years in Congress, Hutchinson cast pro-environment votes on just 13 percent of key issues, as calculated by the League of Conservation Voters.

In Colorado, a fight for new political leadership saw incumbent Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper clinging to a slim lead ahead of Republican opponent Bob Beauprez, while Sen. Mark Udall lost to his Republican challenger, Gardner. The governor’s race remains so close it’s uncertain whether a winner will be declared or whether the race will head to a recount.

Colorado was one of few races with such a stark divide between candidates on climate issues.

Incumbents Hickenlooper and Udall stressed clean energy and climate action. Gardner and Beauprez marginalized climate change in favor of championing the oil and gas industry. Beauprez, a former two-term congressman who lost the race for governor in 2006, wrote a 2009 book in which he said that climate change was “at best a grossly overhyped issue and at worst a complete hoax foisted on most of the world.”

Surprises, a Runoff and More

Among the Senate races, one of the biggest surprises of the night was Georgia’s. Democrats viewed the state as one of their last hopes of keeping a GOP majority at bay. But Republican businessman David Perdue won the race with nearly 56 percent of the vote, beating Democrat Michelle Nunn, the CEO of a nonprofit. Nunn was a supporter of the Keystone XL pipeline, but she also acknowledged that climate change is happening, that fossil fuel consumption needs to be curtailed, and renewable energy increased. Perdue, on the other hand, criticized Nunn’s pro-climate action policies and said on his website that, “we must unleash our nation’s energy potential…Georgians can’t afford Barack Obama and Michelle Nunn’s failed energy policies.”

One of the later Senate races to be called was North Carolina’s. Incumbent Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan lost her reelection bid to Tillis, speaker of the state’s House of Representatives. The defeat was quite a blow to environmentalists who spent at least $2.4 million trying to get her reelected. Tillis’ climate and environmental views are in line with some of the GOP’s most conservative policymakers. He was head of North Carolina’s state legislature when it voted to forbid state agencies from planning for rising sea levels. He also helped repeal renewable electricity standards, voted to allow oil and gas companies to keep their fracking mixtures secret from the public, and supported coal ash being stored in open-air pits.

On the other coast, voters in California authorized $7.5 billion in bonds for badly needed water projects with the passage of Proposition 1 by more than a 2 to 1 margin. Support for the initiative was driven by the current drought and by fears that unpredictable weather patterns fostered by climate change will continue to strain the state’s water system.

The funds will help finance two critical new dams and reservoirs for water storage. It will pay for groundwater cleanup and management, watershed restoration, water recycling projects, and water treatment and seawater desalination projects.

As expected, the fate of Louisiana’s hotly contested Senate seat will be decided by a Dec. 6 runoff between Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu and Republican Rep. Bill Cassidy. In the state’s most expensive Senate race, three-term incumbent Landrieu faced two Republican challengers, and none of them won more than 50 percent of votes as required under state law.

Landrieu, chair of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee and a staunch supporter of the oil industry, lacked support from environmental groups and other organizations known to support Democratic candidates. Cassidy got 42 percent of the vote, and Landrieu garnered 41 percent, according to CNN. Since Republicans have already won control of the Senate, the state’s runoff election will have less significance. Either way, Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski will probably lead the energy committee next year.

Obama’s Problem

What this all means for Obama’s stance in defense of his climate agenda remains a mystery.

Take the Keystone XL, for example. The new Senate majority, with presumed Democratic votes added in, has the 60 votes it needs to cut off a filibuster and pass a bill to force the president’s hand on the issue. Would he veto it? Would he veto a larger bill, or one he really wanted to pass, if it included a Keystone XL rider?

Obama’s problem is that if he caves on one relatively narrow issue, he risks giving an inch and granting a mile.

Keystone XL aside, it’s not entirely clear that a president must bow before the energy and climate agenda of an opposition party that controls both houses of Congress.

Bill Clinton faced a similar situation in the 1990s, when Newt Gingrich took over the House of Representatives with his “contract with America” and Bob Dole was the Senate majority leader.

Clinton wasn’t able to get consent to the ill-starred Kyoto climate treaty from the Senate, where opposition was so broad that he never tried. But he stood his ground on other issues.

Republicans tried to open up the Alaskan wildlife refuge to oil drilling, attaching a rider to a “must-pass” budget bill. Clinton vetoed it, and 20 years later there is no drilling there.

They tried to pass a sweeping regulatory reform bill, which got through the House and was sponsored by Dole as S.1—his first priority. It died at the hands of a Democratic filibuster.

The House passed amendments, drafted by industry, to the landmark Clean Water Act— ridiculed by opponents as the Dirty Water Act—and that was so unpalatable to Senate Republicans that it went nowhere.

But in those days, the Senate’s environment committee was run by a moderate, Rhode Island’s John Chafee. There are few birds of that feather in today’s new Senate.