Climate policy after the midterms

Electric vehicle charging in Three Rivers, Texas, on Jan. 6.

The climate crisis is literally heating up as the U.S. braces for another season of wildfires and heat waves. But even as the urgency grows for climate action, three major forces are slowing down the U.S. response. First, the midterm elections will likely give Republicans control of the House and possibly the Senate, with climate priorities taking a hit. Second, Russia’s attack on Ukraine has sent global energy prices soaring, making climate-energy policies more difficult than ever. Third, the Supreme Court has limited the EPA’s ability to hasten the transition away from coal-powered electricity. 

But a shift to Republican control of at least one chamber after the midterms doesn’t have to mean the U.S. abandons climate action. What it will certainly do is change the focus of the climate discussion. The GOP has a climate platform for the first time in over a decade. Conservative voters, especially younger ones, take climate change seriously and have demanded that their representatives embrace science and offer serious, conservative policy approaches.

Unfortunately, many older voters and Trump supporters resist climate reality, so the GOP isn’t about to become the standard-bearer for meeting IPCC targets (despite strong support for that amongst Americans). But high fuel costs, China’s increasing dominance of clean energy, and the accelerating frequency of droughts, floods, and fires impacting rural Americans are spurring a Republican agenda around energy security, competition, and working lands that could contribute to climate action. 

In a Congress where Republicans control one or both houses, there won’t be a marquee climate bill. Instead, smaller, more targeted bills or riders are likely in areas including domestic energy, supply chains, manufacturing and international competition, and farming and forestry practices. Expect many of these bills to have “America” in the title and “beat China” in the subtext. In particular, there is hope that the Republicans’ focus on competition with China could be a boon for clean energy. For example, China has built more than 18,000 miles of high voltage direct current (HVDC) transmission lines in recent years while the U.S. has built zero. We need to start building to beat them. 

Similarly, electric vehicles and grid-supporting energy storage depend on battery and mineral supply chains from China. If the pandemic has taught us anything, it is to respect the fragility of supply chains. Increasing domestic production of minerals and batteries might not be a darling of environmental advocates. Still, it could be critical to expanding our ability to safely source ample EVs while building more resilient supply chains and reducing China’s power over our economy. Similarly, a benchmarked industry-specific border adjustment would allow American industries to leverage their carbon-efficient advantage over China and invest in staying ahead of international competition. 

The GOP climate platform talks a lot about increasing domestic oil and gas supply and little about building up domestic clean energy or reducing pollution. But the potential is there for a majority-Republican Congress to take action to make America a technological leader, creating and deploying low-carbon solutions that help us and other countries displace fossil fuels from the hearts of our economies.

For example, using a market mechanism to encourage farmers to find ways to reduce or sequester pollution could help create and spread proven practices like cover cropping and precision agriculture that farmers around the world can then adopt. Harnessing American ingenuity to develop non-battery long-term energy storage solutions would help our grid, and we could also export the technology to help other countries build reliable, clean grids. Investing in renewable energy, efficiency, storage, carbon capture, transmission, and nuclear power could create a clean, reliable grid in the U.S. and abroad.  

Now that the Supreme Court has squeezed off a major administrative avenue for climate action, and with a divided government looming, bipartisan cooperation on clean energy and climate might be required. Does that seem realistic? Research shows that about half of successful legislation in divided governments has broad bipartisan support, and almost all the other half is softened to overcome partisan opposition. If the midterms usher in a divided government, Republicans could be thinking early about how they might need to soften strident proposals, and Democrats could prepare to find and foster areas of broad support. 

We already have signs this is possible. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and Scott Peters (D-Calif.) have backed the Save Our Sequoias Act, acknowledging the need to act against the threats of a changing climate. Other areas of overlap could include the need to streamline the process for building more transmission infrastructure, building clean energy facilities to bring cash to rural economies, boosting clean domestic manufacturing, and providing incentives for farmers and foresters to adopt practices that prevent pollution. 

As we’re rapidly passing the window to keep our emissions to levels that avoid the most catastrophic climate change, the most important thing the U.S. can do is stop dragging its feet and start building. 

Kristin Eberhard is climate director at the Niskanen Center.

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