Once upon a time, both Republicans and Democrats saw climate change as a problem. For a fleeting moment last election cycle, candidates across the board talked about the problem and supported implementing policies to do something about it.
But that (often tenuous) bipartisanship has completely reversed. As GOP lawmakers tiptoed away from their earlier support for climate action in recent years — with many eventually moving toward outright rejection of the science — the issue has become almost entirely partisan. Some former Republican lawmakers are trying to bring their party back around, but there are very few signs that climate will become less politicized after the election.
So in today’s election, a “win” in the eyes of climate advocates largely means a “win” for Democrats. As a result, environmental groups have targeted key races that will put Democratic environmental champions in office and limit the influence of Republicans with poor climate records.
Below are some political outcomes environmental groups have been pushing for that might favor climate action in the coming years.
1. Passing the Proposal 3 ballot initiative in Michigan.
This is one of the toughest fights for clean energy advocates this election. Proposal 3 is a ballot initiative in Michigan that would amend the state’s constitution and increase renewable electricity targets to 25 percent by 2025. The proposal initially had majority support from voters and a high profile endorsement from Bill Clinton. But after the state’s two largest utilities and the Koch-backed Americans for Prosperity raised more than $25 million to defeat the measure, sentiment has shifted in the other direction.
In a year when clean energy has become a major political attack point, Michigan’s ballot initiative was billed as a Big Deal for establishing positive momentum. But proponents were outspent 2-1 by coal-heavy utilities, significantly weakening their campaign. If the current polls are any indication, this will be a loss tonight.
2. Defeating members of the “Flat Earth Five.”
In July, the League of Conservation Voters rolled out a $1.5 million campaign to defeat members of Congress who deny that climate change exists. Dubbed the “Flat Earth Five,” the list of Republicans includes Anne Marie Buerlke (NY), Dan Benishek (MI), Dan Lungren (CA), Francisco Canseco (TX), and Joe Walsh (IL). These five candidates represent only a small number of climate deniers in the House of Representatives. But they are more vulnerable than others, and LCV specifically targeted them for their climate views in order to influence tighter races.
In a Politico op-ed today, LCV’s President, Gene Karpinski, outlined the organization’s strategy for targeted ads and mailers: “Coming into this daunting election cycle, LCV understood that we could never match our deep-pocketed opposition dollar for dollar. But we knew from extensive polling that voters are with us on the issues; they strongly support clean energy and want leaders who will confront the challenge of global warming.”
The outcome of these House races will be an indicator of how well this strategy worked.
3. Electing “Climate Heroes” to office.
In mid-October, environmentalists organized a “money bomb” to raise funds for 14 candidates (all Democrats) who have made climate and clean energy issues a part of their campaigns. They have raised nearly $140,000 for these so-called Climate Heroes of 2012 so far.
The candidates are running in eight House races and five Senate races around the country. There’s also one big gubernatorial race in Washington State — a very tight contest between Republican Rob McKenna and Democratic climate hawk Jay Inslee. Although McKenna has a pretty good record on environmental issues, advocacy groups have strongly supported Inslee, who they see as a much stronger ally.
Environmental groups are watching these 14 races very closely. Some wins from this list would put very climate-friendly folks in office, helping neutralize the push in Congress to weaken environmental regulations and aggressively develop carbon-intensive fuels.
4. Ensuring Democrats maintain control of the Senate.
There is one Senator who scares many environmentalists more than any other this year: James Inhofe. The Oklahoma Republican is one of the most outspoken climate deniers in Congress. And if the GOP regains control of the Senate, Inhofe will take the reins of the Energy and Public Works Committee, a body that guides environmental and infrastructure priorities — including those within the Environmental Protection Agency.
Putting Republicans in control of the Senate would also enable lawmakers to pass more pieces of legislation to stop EPA regulation of greenhouse gases, push more pro-drilling policies, and kill federal support of renewable energy.
The League of Conservation Voters has devoted $8 million toward ads promoting eight climate-friendly Democrats and one Independent in close Senate races around the country. The states include Arizona, Maine, Massachusetts, Nevada, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, West Virginia. If the Senate stays in Democratic hands — an outcome that is looking increasingly likely — it would be a major political win for environmental groups.
5. Keeping Barack Obama in the White House.
Many advocates have been furious with President Obama’s silence on climate change and his strong promotion of fossil fuels. But they also praise what his administration has done to deploy clean energy, promote efficiency measures, develop new clean air rules, and work to regulate carbon emissions. In the eyes of environmental groups, this does not add up to a coherent climate strategy. However, it is above and beyond what any president has ever done thus far.
As Governor of Massachusetts, Mitt Romney was once a Republican who cared about climate change. But he’s completely changed his position — either because he legitimately believes “we don’t know” what’s causing climate change or because he’s simply tapping into the current Republican zeitgeist. Either way, Romney has pushed an energy policy that would curtail environmental regulations and push almost exclusively for the use of coal, oil, and gas and roll back incentives to renewables. Scientists, insurers, energy analysts, and advocacy groups all agree that would be a complete disaster for the climate.
After the election, energy and environmental policy will rest squarely with the White House. And the differences between how Obama and Romney would handle that authority are stark. While President Obama hasn’t suggested any grand strategy for dealing with climate change in a second term — upsetting many who want him to pursue climate in a stronger way — his current efforts would be dramatically more climate friendly.