The Day After Tomorrow: The Midterms and Climate Change

Former Alaska Governor and Mama Grizzly Sarah Palin speaks at a Tea Party Express rally on Boston Common in Boston, Massachusetts on Wednesday, April 14, 2010. UPI/Matthew Healey

The much-hyped midterm elections in the US have come and gone. And as the smoke clears, there’s good news and bad news on the climate.

OK. Actually, it’s almost all bad news …

So let’s start with that …A Republican majority in the House of Representatives puts the seal on what was pretty clear already; that the US is not going to address climate change in a broad way anytime soon.

When I asked EU Climate Action Commissioner Connie Hedegaard last week in Brussels what potential she saw for the Americans to get back in the game on global warming, she said, “I think I could give you a better answer when I know the results of the midterm elections.”

Now that we know those results, I’m pretty sure Connie’s not popping open any champagne.

Shortly after the extent of the ass-kicking the Dems had received was clear, President Obama announced that cap-and-trade legislation was dead. He was stating the obvious. It’s become a Republican article of faith that global warming is at worst a socialist fraud, at best an annoyance we’ll find technological fixes for and in either case, certainly nothing the government needs to do anything about.

Waxman-Markey? Toast.

According to the New York Times, three dozen House Democrats who voted for that bill sacrificed their seats in vain. (Interestingly enough, seven of the eight Republicans who were targeted by the Tea Party for their apostasy in joining the Dems in passing Waxman-Markey fared quite well …)

Given all this, it’ll be interesting to see what the US brings to the climate conference in Cancun next month. The Obama administration made promises in Copenhagen that the Europeans made very clear in Brussels last week they expect the US to keep. In his post-election remarks, Obama restated his commitment to working to address climate change and said cap-and-trade was “was just one way of skinning the cat; it was not the only way. It was a means, not an end.”

Fair enough, but just how he hopes to make good on his Copenhagen commitment to help keep global temperature rise below 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees F)  is something of a mystery. Even the EU is admitting that their promise to cut their greenhouse gas emissions by 20 percent from 1990 levels – way beyond anything the Americans have committed to — is insufficient to meet the 2 degree standard. So it’s kind of hard to see what Obama could offer that’s even close, now that putting an economy-wide price on carbon emissions is off the table.

And with a House majority openly hostile to climate legislation (five of the six new GOP senators and 35 of the 85 incoming Republican freshmen in the House have questioned whether greenhouse gas emissions caused by human activity contributes to climate change, according to Daily Kos blogger R.L. Miller and ThinkProgress)   there’s little reason to expect anything more than tinkering around the edges for at least the next two years.

This is particularly unfortunate when you consider that the Sunday Times of London reports “World carbon emissions must start to decline in only six years if humanity is to stand a chance of preventing dangerous global warming”

Even so, Eric de Place at Sightline Daily finds a silver lining in the gloom. He points out that California voters thrashed a ballot measure – heavily funded by Texas oil companies — that would have essentially repealed the state’s ambitious greenhouse gas reduction law. Californians also re-elected Senator Barbara Boxer, a stout proponent of climate legislation, and put Jerry Brown – a long-time supporter of renewable energy – back in the governor’s mansion in Sacramento (after a 28-year hiatus).

De Place says “California’s climate laws have now been vetted — and overwhelmingly approved — by the people. That paves the way for reinvigorated state and regional climate programs, including the Western Climate Initiative.”

Eric’s got a point. The stakes in this one were very high. California is the eighth-largest economy in the world. It’s also the 800-pound gorilla in the Western Climate Initiative. That’s a consortium of seven western states and four Canadian provinces formed in the waning years of the Bush Administration to take the climate action the feds refused to.

Among the WCI group, California and New Mexico are the only states so far to pass laws to implement the initiative’s regional climate goals (British Columbia has passed a carbon tax). If California had backed away from that process, the lights would have gone out on the West Coast’s efforts to get serious about global warming. Now, with Californians reaffirming those goals, the WCI has the potential to come forward as an American example of how to take action on climate change AND kick-start the green economy.

Eric again …. “I know I’m bucking the received view here, but for Northwest climate policy I’d say that on balance things look much like they did before the election. The prospects for strong federal action are diminished (though they were already dim), but on the heels of Prop 23’s defeat in California the prospects for the Western Climate Initiative look brighter than ever.”

I want to believe Eric’s right … But we’re still a long way from realizing the elaborate plans of the WCI to make the West Coast from Mexico to Alaska a model of climate responsibility and clean-tech innovation. Both Washington and Oregon failed last year to join California in passing enabling legislation (and show little sign of trying again anytime soon. In fact, the governor’s office  told me Thursday that not a single representative from the State of Washington will be attending next month’s conference in Cancun).

Still, Eric and I agree on at least one thing … Now there’s room to see a constructive way forward, at least on the West Coast.

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