How Climate Denial Could Cost This Iowa Senate Candidate An Election

State Sen. Joni Ernst waves to supporters after winning the Republican nomination for the U.S. Senate. CREDIT: AP PHOTO / CHARLIE NEIBERGALL
State Sen. Joni Ernst waves to supporters after winning the Republican nomination for the U.S. Senate. CREDIT: AP PHOTO / CHARLIE NEIBERGALL

Storm clouds are beginning to gather for Joni Ernst, the Republicans’ contender for Iowa’s Senate seat this November.

Within the last month, several liberal and environmental groups have targeted her with campaigns aimed at highlighting her climate positions and the money she’s received from the Koch Brothers and other fossil fuel groups. The latest — a rather slick production from NextGen Climate — promises to be the first in a series taking Ernst to task for valuing moneyed interests like Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform over the needs of everyday Iowans. The ad buy will run for five weeks starting Wednesday in Des Moines, Cedar Rapids, and the Quad Cities, and will total $2.6 million.

NextGen Climate is the super PAC set up by billionaire environmentalist Tom Steyer, and it has promised to drop $100 million this election season going after candidates in several clear races who have denied the validity of climate change. (Tom Steyer is a board member of the Center for American Progress, the sister organization of the Center For American Progress Action Fund, which houses ThinkProgress.) Back in June, the group hit Ernst for opposing the Clean Water Act in a debate and for stating in May that “I have not seen proven proof that [climate change] is entirely man-made.”

According to a round-up of climate research by the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel On Climate Change, scientists are 95 percent certain that human activities drove 74 percent of the observed global warming since 1950. (That’s also scientists’ level of certainty that the universe is 13.8 billion years old.)

For Iowa and the American Midwest specifically, the recently-released National Climate Assessment predicts more extreme heat, downpours, and flooding through 2100 — along with serious consequences for large portions of the region’s economy — thanks to human carbon emissions.

Ernst’s opponent, Rep. Bruce Braley (D-IA), is on board with policies to tackle climate change, including new Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) rules to cut carbon emissions from power plants and the 2009 effort to pass a national cap-and-trade system. Ernst is opposed on both counts, and actually earned herself a $1 million critical ad hit in June from groups like the League of Conservation Voters, the Sierra Club, and the Environmental Defense Action Fund, after she promised to “abolish the EPA.”

Across the aisle, the Charles Koch and some of his immediate family members have maxed out the personal contributions they can make to Ernst’s campaign, and Americans for Prosperity — the conservative group Charles and his brother David have helped bankroll — has gotten into the campaign in Ernst’s favor as well.

Also on Wednesday, the Sierra Club and other groups highlighted a fundraiser for Ernst that will be headed up the American Petroleum Institute (API) and Exxon Mobil.

The groups are linking that decision back to a previous statement by Ernst that she “philosophically” opposes the Renewable Fuels Standard (RFS) — a federal requirement that a certain amount of biofuel be mixed into the country’s fuel supply, which has benefited Iowa’s agricultural industry.

That’s put Ernst in a tough spot between the ideological drives of the conservative movement and the economic interests native to Iowa, and she’s insisted until the government ends all energy subsidies, she’ll “stand behind” the RFS. “I’m not going to do something that puts Iowa at risk,” Ernst continued. “I understand that we are an ag economy here in Iowa and until we eliminate those subsidies across the board — every sector and at the same time — I’m going to continue to support the RFS.”

The Braley campaign has gone after Ernst for the statement, sparking another fight between the two sides, and said Braley would support the RFS regardless of what happened to the other subsidies. When challenged on Monday about taking money from the Exxon-API fundraiser, Ernst said, “I don’t feel uncomfortable because they knew where I stand with the renewable fuels standard.”

Biofuels are a particularly thorny problem: both the agricultural industry and the oil industry have vested interests in supporting and opposing the RFS, respectively, regardless of its policy merits. And how the cost-benefit analysis shakes out in terms of biofuels’ affect on the climate, versus their effect on the food supply, versus how far the country’s fuel infrastructure can actually stretch to accommodate them, is far from clear.