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Midterms and Climate: National Stalemates as Subnational Opportunities
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Election season in the United States comes to a defining close next week as the midterms take place on November 8th. After a tumultuous year in American politics including the controversial Dobbs decision overturning Roe v. Wade, and investigation into the Jan. 6th insurrection, Democrats and Republicans alike have been passionately campaigning for seats in the Senate, House of Representatives, state legislatures, and Governor offices. History has seen a pattern of defeat for the current President’s party in midterm elections which could derail much of President Biden’s climate agenda. And as seen during the Trump era, if little action comes from the federal side, climate experts and advocates will divert their attention to the state and local levels to meet emissions targets.

While this year could prove different given the issues on the ballot: inflation, abortion, and democratic backsliding, have invigorated the Democratic Party, it is still a neck and neck race with the Republicans slightly leaning towards a majority in the House and possibly, also the Senate. And with state leaders gathering next week at COP27, all eyes will be on the US and its commitments. But any further ambition on climate policy will be tough for the Biden administration if the Republicans hold a majority in either chamber. There are four possible scenarios for this election and each would significantly impact Biden’s climate agenda.

Scenario 1: Republicans control both chambers

Unfortunately, there is little talk on climate in debates and news coverage of the midterms, mainly due to voters concerned with high gas prices, rising inflation, and abortion. Yet, a Republican majority in both House and Senate would lead to a halt in all new legislation on climate and spell trouble for passed legislation, like the Inflation Reduction Act. Back in 2010, when the Republicans won the House and Senate two years into Obama’s presidency, climate policies were set back years. There were attempts to fire White House climate advisers, shut down the House Global Warming Committee, and Republicans effectively halted a bi-partisan effort to tax carbon pollution. Most notably, the GOP attacked the Obama administration for a stimulus bill which granted a $535 million loan to Solyndra, a solar company which declared bankruptcy soon after. Lately, some Republicans have been going as far as comparing it to Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), calling elements of the climate bill “Solyndra on steroids.”

Since President Biden holds the veto power, it will be impossible for the Republicans to retract new spending in the IRA, even with a majority. However, they could deter action on the bill, attacking the two public-financing agencies it funds and picking off certain provisions, further weakening the legislation. This would include utilizing the same budget reconciliation process used by the Democrats to initially pass the bill, which would be an uphill battle, even if they do have a majority. Any significant impact to the IRA would only be possible in 2025, and even then, outlets report that the GOP is unlikely to repeal the bill due to its key industrial elements which will allow American companies to compete with China. It is also important to note that the majority of zero-carbon energy infrastructure projects laid out by the IRA are being built in Republican congressional districts.

Scenario 2: Republicans control the Senate

A Republican Senate would have the power to block appointments to executive agencies and federal judges, furthering the Courts rightward. The Supreme Court’s ruling for the West Virginia v. EPA case earlier this year, limited the EPA’s regulatory authority and was considered a significant setback to the US’s ability to achieve its environmental and climate goals. The 6-3 ruling followed party lines, with the conservative justices ruling in favor.

Scenario 3: Republicans control the House

What appears to be very likely is the possibility of a Democrat-controlled Senate with a Republican-led House. In this scenario, there is the likelihood that Republicans would attempt to block any climate legislation put forward by the Government and work to hold a series of investigations into the Democrats, taking time and resources away from climate legislation. We could also see legislation surrounding permitting reform for energy projects. Senator Joe Manchin had scrapped his plans for legislation accelerating the approval of energy projects when there was lack of support in the Senate however, he is determined to push for the reform to pass by the end of the year. This could mean adding more incentives for fossil fuels to win over more Republican votes. Republicans may even be able to pass their own permitting reform legislation, which would not speed up permits for clean energy projects.

Scenario 4: Democrats control both chambers

On the flip side, if the Democrats manage to gain a majority in the House and Senate, we can anticipate stronger climate legislation. Specifically, if they win one additional seat in the Senate, they will not have to concede to members of the party like Senator Manchin, who previously diluted the IRA. As highlighted in this Climate Advisers piece, the next big opportunity for climate legislation could be the “Farm Bill,” which would affect all aspects of the U.S. agricultural economy and food system, from crop insurance to school lunch programs. There would be a focus on implementing more climate provisions in budget bills and a possibility for more climate leadership from the US in international spheres.

Subnationals to the rescue?

It has become certain after looking at the potential scenarios how important the need for strong subnational policy on climate change is. Although, progressive legislation like the IRA has passed, it is a far cry from what was hoped for with Biden’s Build Back Better plan and therefore, attention will turn to the subnational actors for climate action. As seen during Trump’s presidency, in times of national uncertainty, subnationals can again lead the way. Though not the ideal outcome, in the absence of national consensus, a piecemeal bottom-up approach of climate forward states can offer the next best solution to driving forward ambition.

A number of states have passed aggressive emissions reduction legislation. Early this year, Rhode Island enacted legislation requiring utility companies to buy more energy from renewable sources, setting the state on a path to 100 percent renewable energy by 2033 – the fastest projected timeline of any US state. Connecticut passed two bills aiming to decarbonize the transport sector, regulating the sales of carbon-emitting trucks and converting the school bus system to all-electric by 2035.

Some states have gone beyond the federal government to enact carbon pricing policies. Washington recently adopted rules on a “cap-and-invest” program which sets a cap on greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and implements an allowance trading market. Complementing the already handful of states implementing cap and trade schemes (California and members of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, RGGI). We have seen perhaps the most ambitious climate action by the State of California, which earlier this year, put restrictions on oil and gas drilling, banned the sales of gasoline-powered cars by 2035, and earmarked $54 billion for climate spending.

The importance of state races here cannot be overstated. In Pennsylvania, Republican Lawmakers filed a lawsuit seeking to prevent the implementation of the state’s CO2 Budget Trading Program and in Virginia Republican Governor Youngkin issued an executive order stopping the state’s participation in the RGGI.

Initiatives at the state and local level have a significant impact on the nation’s climate goals and are a necessary tool to achieving 2030 targets. The measures taken by subnational actors, especially during times of national uncertainty and inaction by the federal government, prove how imperative it is for states to lead the charge on climate action. The midterm elections will be highly influential for Biden’s climate agenda and if Tuesday night sees a Republican majority in either chamber, the government may have to rely on its state partners to get the work done – given that the states themselves still have the political climate majorities they need for their own ambition.

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Trisha Kershaw

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Project Assistant on the Transatlantic Climate Bridge at adelphi