The Midterms were Good for Climate Candidates but Disastrous for the Climate

November 9, 2018

Democrats campaigning on climate action and clean energy did very well around the country election night. It’s clearly a winning issue, as the polls have long said.

But two key results of the election are bad news for the climate — and together they pose a very difficult challenge to the kind of near-term climate action that’s needed to avoid catastrophic climate change.

First, the big polluters showed they are willing and able to spend big bucks to kill climate action, including a major ballot initiative that would have put a price on carbon pollution in Washington state.

Second, the anti-democratic nature of the Senate became painfully obvious Tuesday night, underscoring how a minority of Americans can control a blocking majority in the Senate.

The good news is certainly good. Candidates who explicitly ran on a policy of embracing strong climate action and a rapid transition to renewable energy did very well Tuesday night.

These winners include Democrat Sean Casten, a clean energy entrepreneur who won a House seat in a strongly Republican Illinois district — as well as 10 key governors races around the country including Colorado, New Mexico, and Maine. In each case, Democrats defeated or replaced Republicans who were pro fossil fuel.

Democratic Governor-elect J.B. Pritzker of Illinois, for instance, is “committed to putting Illinois on track to acquiring 25% or more of our energy from clean renewable sources by 2025 and 100% of our energy from renewable sources by 2050.”

Governorships are particularly crucial now, since they can promote real action on climate change and renewables at the state level, even as President Trump undermines both nationally.

But at the same time, the big polluters opened their wallets in 2018 to squash some key climate and clean energy ballot initiatives. In Colorado, Big Oil raised nearly $32 million to kill an initiative that would have sharply limited oil and gas fracking in the state — and outspent proponents by more than 25 to 1.

At the same time, the Western States Petroleum Association raised more than $30 million to kill a Washington state ballot initiative that would have established a price on carbon — and likely made it easier for other states to follow suit. Fossil fuel funded opponents outspent proponents 2-to-1, flooding TV and Facebook with misleading ads.

In Arizona, Pinnacle West — owner of Arizona’s largest utility, Arizona Public Service (APS) — spent $30 million to kill Proposition 127, which would have required the Arizona grid to be 50 percent renewables by 2030. APS is a fossil-fuel intensive utility with multiple coal plants. Proponents of the proposition were outspent by more than $7 million.

Slide Anything shortcode error: A valid ID has not been provided

Significantly, in neighboring Nevada, a similar renewable energy ballot initiative easily won approval since it was not opposed by the local utility, NV Energy, which is owned by Warren Buffett.

Finally, the election is a painful reminder of how a minority of Americans can control the Senate. In the current senate, the 49 senators in the Democratic “minority” represent nearly 40 million more Americans than the GOP “majority,” as ThinkProgress’ Ian Millhiser has pointed out.

Tuesday night showed that the Senate is becoming more polarized and more tribal, as moderate Democrats in red states like Indiana, Missouri, and North Dakota were voted out.

The problem is that by 2040, some 70 percent of Americans are projected to be residing in the 15 largest states, and thus represented by a mere 30 percent of the Senate — whereas the other 30 percent of Americans will be electing 70 senators.

“The Founders imagined that the Senate would check and cool the impulses of the majority,” Washington Post columnist Stephen Stromberg explained Wednesday. “But the body is poised to serve as a reactionary rural veto on a center-left country, routinely thwarting efforts to address major issues such as immigration, climate change….”

Strong support of renewables at the state level is certainly crucial to accelerating the clean energy economy in the Trump era. But the latest science makes clear that we also need aggressive federal action to cut carbon pollution.

So it it is more disastrous than ever that big oil and the other major polluters — backed by a minority of reactionary voters — can and will thwart serious climate action at both the state and national level for the foreseeable future.


Photo by Mirah Curzer on Unsplash

Joe Romm

Dr. Joe Romm is Founding Editor of Climate Progress, “the indispensable blog,” as NY Times columnist Tom Friedman describes it.

Tags: American politics, environmental issues, US elections