The urgency with which activists (and scientists and the United Nations) view the threat of climate change is not matched on Capitol Hill. The year 2014 was meant to be change that, with environmental groups and one particular billionaire investing heavily in demonstrating that the climate was an electoral winner.
Instead, 2015 will arrive with environmentalists in a much worse position than they were even a year ago. Here's why.
The Keystone pipeline could get congressional sign-off. It probably was only a matter of minutes after news outlets called the Republican takeover of the Senate that the word "Keystone" was mentioned by some senator somewhere. The long-stalled proposal to build a bigger system for shunting tar sands oil from Canada to the Gulf Coast was identified as a priority should the GOP win; now that they have, it almost certainly will be near the top of the "to-do" list.
Since the proposed pipeline crosses the Canadian border, it's dependent on a permit from the State Department — meaning that should a presidential administration seek to delay it, it can. A final decision on the permit has been withheld by the Obama administration for years for a variety of reasons (environmental analysis and a kerfuffle in Nebraska among them). Perhaps the key key reason it has been withheld, though, is that it became a focal point for environmental activism, a symbol of investment in a fossil-fuel economy that polarized greens in opposition — and, perhaps predictably — conservatives in support.
With Republicans controlling both the House and Senate, it's likely that a bill removing the State Department's jurisdiction over the permit would pass quickly. We looked at this in August, pointing out that Obama would still have veto power over the move. The Senate is probably close to having enough votes to override that veto, making Obama's political calculus trickier. One possible scenario: Obama tries to trade Keystone approval to protect some other environmental priority.
Anti-climate change Republicans will take over key Senate committee assignments. Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) wrote a book titled "The Greatest Hoax," in which the hoax at issue is the "global warming conspiracy." As the Post reported on Wednesday, Inhofe will also probably be the new head of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee in January.
While the power of Senate committees can be debated, it's clear that Inhofe will not use its platform to bolster American investment in cutting carbon emissions. Instead, he'll likely use it in the way that Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) has leveraged his chairmanship of the House Oversight Committee: As a mechanism for putting pressure on political opponents.
Inhofe will almost certainly have the blessing of incoming Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). McConnell has dismissed climate change (more on this below), including stating that "each side has its scientists" in debating the topic. (The "it is real" side has far more scientists.) If Inhofe or other incoming committee chairmen want to put pressure on one group of scientists, McConnell likely won't stand in their way.
The EPA will be under constant fire. Speaking to the Lexington Herald-Leader, McConnell said that his top priority as the new Senate leader will be to "try to do whatever I can to get the EPA reined in."
The EPA has been a target for conservatives for years, coming under increased pressure earlier this year as the vehicle for the president's proposal to curb carbon emissions from coal plants. That rule could face legislative opposition from a unified Republican Congress, even as the agency itself tries to fight off attempts to scale back its budget. (The only tool to effectively curb the EPA, McConnell said in that interview, "is through the spending process.")
Environmentalists lost a great deal of political leverage. Even before the results of the election were in, we took a look at the heavy investment of billionaire environmentalist Tom Steyer. His group NextGen Climate Action spent tens of millions of dollars on a select set of governor and Senate races in 2014. That investment was joined by bolstered spending from environmental groups, all hoping to have concrete wins that could be used as a stick against wavering politicians in the future.
The groups got blown out.
There's a great vignette in Dave Weigel's recap of Election Night at conservative parties.
Pat Michaels, the resident climate science skeptic at the libertarian Cato Institute, looked intently at a screen that was counting up the results of Florida’s race for governor. “If Charlie Crist wins, Tom Steyer is going to claim credit,” he said. Steyer, an environmentalist billionaire, had spent more than $6 million on ads to aid the Republican-turned-independent-turned-Democratic candidate for governor. “If Scott wins, it will absolutely prove that no amount of money can make people care about ‘climate’ as an election issue.”
That's probably pretty accurate. Had NextGen taken out Florida governor Rick Scott (R), Steyer and/or NextGen and/or other environmental groups would drop that name as soon as they walked into a meeting with an elected official. Be right on climate, they'd say, or that will be your fate. Yes, they backed Sen. Jeanne Shaheen in New Hampshire, but that was defense, not offense. The wave election meant that they were likely never going to be successful in their goal (it was a weird cycle to pick, driven by the urgency mentioned at the start of this article), but now politicians can take the opposite lesson: There's no political risk in opposing climate action.
Republicans can point to an anti-climate change mandate. What's more, candidates that won often ran against the the idea of climate change, to varying degrees. Scott was the centerpiece of a Times article looking at "I'm not a scientist" claims. But McConnell ran explicitly against the EPA and against regulations on coal -- and won big. Most of the other incoming GOP class is similarly aligned against taking action on climate change.
Every election is touted by the winners as a mandate on whatever issue is deemed important in the moment. The new Republican Senate majority will likely cite 2014 as a mandate to put pressure on the EPA and on other government bodies that want to act on climate change. It's precisely the opposite of where environmentalists wanted to be.