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A green ripple in Texas has major implications for national and local environmental efforts

A green ripple in Texas could have major implications in a state vulnerable to climate change.

Beto O'Rourke (D-TX) talks with a supporters after he cast his ballot at El Paso Community College-Rio Grande Campus on Election Day November 06, 2018 in El Paso, Texas. CREDIT: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Beto O'Rourke (D-TX) talks with a supporters after he cast his ballot at El Paso Community College-Rio Grande Campus on Election Day November 06, 2018 in El Paso, Texas. CREDIT: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

When Democratic senate hopeful Beto O’Rourke came within 2.7 percent of unseating Republican Ted Cruz on November 6, he lost a battle — but many Texas progressives argue he brought the state closer to winning a once seemingly hopeless war, not least of all on climate issues.

For environmental advocates in the state, the success of a number of down-ballot races and initiatives shows that Texas is changing, bringing a green ripple along with it.

In the days following last week’s election, climate advocates sounded hopeful notes to ThinkProgress, even as they pointed to the obvious: Texas remains a Republican-controlled state, where the fossil fuel industry has a deep hold on the economy.

But the midterm elections showed that progressive messaging on environmental and climate issues can find support in the Lone Star State. On a national level that means restoring a reliance on science to House committees; on a state and local level, that means proponents of renewables are now in a better position to fend off attacks.

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“With Beto, he campaigned on clean energy,” said Luke Metzger, the executive director of the organization Environment Texas. “From a climate perspective, [that’s] big … on the other side, Ted Cruz ran a bunch of TV ads attacking Beto, claiming Beto would raise taxes on oil and gas. Based on the results, it doesn’t seem like Cruz’s messaging worked.”

In the wake of the election, Metzger told ThinkProgress that O’Rourke’s loss was disappointing for progressives, many of whom had hoped that the rising political star might eek out a win, however unlikely. O’Rourke ultimately failed after coming closer to victory than any Democrat has in a generation, while leaving his future path up in the air amid speculation that the popular politician might run for president, or challenge Texas Sen. John Cornyn (R) in 2020.

But those paths forward come after O’Rourke carved out a space as a climate progressive, pledging not to accept money from the fossil fuel industry outside of individual contributors. He ran on a platform embracing renewables and public lands, in addition to rejecting pipeline projects like Keystone XL.

He also emphasized his belief in global warming. During a much-covered debate with Cruz, O’Rourke asserted that “man-made climate change is a fact,” while pointing to the impact rising temperatures are having on Texas.

O’Rourke’s name may have dominated the midterms in Texas and he may have lost, but it shouldn’t overshadow the fact that climate change proved to be a winning argument for other Democrats in the state.

National momentum

In the 7th congressional district, Democrat Lizzie Pannill Fletcher unseated incumbent Republican John Culberson, who has represented the area for nine terms.

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TX-07 is home to a section of Houston along with other parts of Harris County, which is still recovering from Hurricane Harvey last year. Climate scientists have consistently argued that warming waters in the Gulf of Mexico allowed Harvey to supercharge and then stall over land, flooding southeastern Texas in the process.

At least 88 Texans died from Harvey’s impacts and aid has been slow to flow to low-income communities, along with Black and Latinx Texans. Fletcher emphasized accounting for flooding and climate resilience in Houston throughout her campaign, while criticizing Culberson’s skepticism over climate change. And while Fletcher has been accused of playing to the center by progressives, climate advocates in the state have largely seen her victory last Tuesday as a success.

“She took out a climate denier, she’s going to be strong on clean energy,” said Metzger. “She came out on top. Voters are increasingly concerned about climate [issues] and supportive of clean energy.”

Some Texans already in Congress are also set to make waves. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D) of Dallas, who accepts the science on climate change, is expected to take over as chair for the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, replacing Texas’ long-time climate denier Lamar Smith (R) who is retiring.

Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D) of Austin, meanwhile, is set to take on a more powerful role in the House Ways and Means Committee, something advocates say could spell good news for tax incentives for clean energy. The representative has a history of favoring renewables and science-based climate policy.

Gains in the Texas legislature

The impact of the midterms, however, stretches far beyond the national scene. More locally, advocates have worried for months that 2019’s session of the Texas legislature — which convenes every two years — will feature an attack on renewable energy. Texas is the country’s leading producer of both fossil fuels and wind power, with the latter coming increasingly under scrutiny by top conservative donors. 

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But progressives came in droves to the polls, electing a number of Democrats to the Texas legislature. That means any attacks on renewables in the state could hit a wall.

“Dan Patrick is still lieutenant governor, he still has a super-majority as of the moment,” Cyrus Reed, conservation director for Sierra Club Texas, told ThinkProgress. “But, I think the tone and tenor will change a little bit.”

The deeply conservative Patrick, who holds arguably the most powerful role in Texas politics, beat Democrat Mike Collier 51 percent to 46 percent for re-election — a far narrower margin than expected but one that still ensures Patrick’s power over the Texas Senate.

Over the years, Patrick has garnered deep support from Texas oil and gas, which he has called the “backbone of industry” in the state. He has also given speeches at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative Austin-based think tank notorious for its anti-climate slant and its close ties to the Trump administration.

That’s hardly ideal for Texas environmental advocates, but many remain hopeful. Patrick’s leading foe over the past few years has been Texas Speaker of the House Joe Straus (R-121), who blocked a number of far-right efforts in the state and appealed to moderation. Straus is retiring as speaker and will likely be replaced by State Rep. Dennis Bonnen (R-25), who has garnered support from far-right Republicans and moderates alike, including Straus.

“I don’t know what his position is on climate change,” said Reed. “But he [Bonnen] is somewhat of a pragmatist [in the style of Straus.] I think he’s pretty politically adept.”

Several bills with a climate or environmental slant have already been filed in advance of the session since Tuesday’s elections, including one bill urging the U.S. Congress to conduct an analysis of climate change risks. Even if they don’t pass, the presence of the bills serves as an indicator that lawmakers are optimistic about environmental issues.

“In the long-term there’s a big question of, is this a permanent realignment?”

Some new faces will be helping climate action along as well in the legislature, including Vikki Goodwin, a Democrat, who beat out Republican incumbent Paul Workman to represent the 47th House District in Texas.

Advocates had worried Workman was set to target Austin’s energy utility, which state legislators have sought to deregulate. Goodwin, by contrast, is seen as a strong advocate for green efforts and for Austin’s energy regulation.

Her victory, however, hints at a larger reality. One of the largest threats to Texas cities — which are friendly to Democrats and to climate action — is the overarching power of the conservative state legislature, which sees urban hubs as political foes, especially Austin.

But cities are charging ahead nonetheless, with positive implications for climate activists. In Austin, a deeply controversial ballot initiative that would have reigned in efforts to overhaul the city’s aging land development code failed, following outcry from advocates who worried any delay might hinder efforts to reign in carbon emissions.

Harris County, meanwhile, saw a giant shift in its courts, ushering in 59 Democrats, including one socialist and 19 Black women, a historic moment. That shift means good things for climate efforts, activists say.

There’s also Harris County Commissioner Rodney Ellis, a champion of climate action and clean energy, who was once the lone Democrat on the commission court. Now, he’ll have support from his colleagues.

Something is changing

Climate advocates are excited about these developments, albeit cautious.

“In the long-term there’s a big question of, is this a permanent realignment?” said Metzger, noting that there’s no way to know if such trends will continue in 2020.

“But what came out of this is that Beto is not the only exciting candidate,” he continued, naming congressional candidates, like Joseph Kopser and MJ Hegar, who lost narrowly after passionately embracing issues like renewable energy and climate adaptation. “[That’s] something that had been bemoaned [for years]. I think that bodes well for future elections.”

Reed, meanwhile, noted that he had just wrapped up a weekend workshop aimed at prepping environmental advocates for, among other things, the upcoming session of the Texas legislature.

“I think people are energized. We had about 50 volunteers at the workshop,” he said. “Our message to them was … the Texas legislature is a tough place to get environmental issues passed, but … [that] this is actually [going to be] a fight over the next several sessions about what kind of state we’re going to be.”

And while the future is far from guaranteed, Reed echoed what many progressive Texans have said in the days following the election: something is changing in the state.

“I do think whether or not people want to say it out loud,” he said, “[they know] climate change is real.”