Pro-environment Democrats gain influence in Congress and states, but lose key GOP allies

Pro-environment Democrats gain influence in Congress and states, but lose key GOP allies
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This week’s elections opened up a few avenues for progress on clean energy and climate, while erecting roadblocks for others. Pro-environment Democrats will have newfound influence in Congress and in the states, but fewer bipartisan allies for pursuing comprehensive solutions.

At the federal level, the biggest changes come from Democrats regaining control of the House of Representatives and the crucial committee chairmanships that come with it. Rep. Eddie Bernice JohnsonEddie Bernice JohnsonHillicon Valley: Doctors press tech to crack down on anti-vax content | Facebook, Instagram suffer widespread outages | Spotify hits Apple with antitrust complaint | FCC rejects calls to delay 5G auction House technology committee leaders ask to postpone 5G spectrum auction Overnight Energy: Interior authorized 0M to open parks during shutdown | Inslee launching 2020 bid with 'Climate Mission Tour' | Dems raise red flags over planned White House climate council MORE (D-Texas) is in line to take over the gavel of the House Science Committee, a position that Rep. Lamar SmithLamar Seeligson SmithFormer GOP chairman Royce joins lobbying shop Comstock joins K Street firm Congress can stop the war on science MORE (R-Texas) had used to raise spurious doubts about climate science. Rep. Frank Pallone, Jr. (D-N.J.), who is expected to chair the Energy and Commerce Committee, has strongly criticized Trump administration efforts to bailout the coal industry.

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Most House Democrats campaigned on vague support for clean energy without endorsing specific policies, focusing instead on health care and other issues. Meanwhile, the ranks of Republican allies have dwindled, dampening hopes for bipartisan initiatives. Rep. Carlos CurbeloCarlos Luis CurbeloEx-GOP lawmaker joins marijuana trade group Dems think they're beating Trump in emergency declaration battle Trump suggests Heller lost reelection bid because he was 'hostile' during 2016 presidential campaign MORE (R-Fla.), author of an ambitious carbon tax proposal, lost his seat. Of the five other House Republicans who voted against a resolution denouncing even the idea of a carbon tax, one has retired and another, Rep. Mia LoveLudmya (Mia) LoveThe 31 Trump districts that will determine the next House majority Juan Williams: Racial shifts spark fury in Trump and his base Trump suggests Heller lost reelection bid because he was 'hostile' during 2016 presidential campaign MORE (R-Utah), narrowly trails in her bid for re-election. More broadly, nearly half of the 45 Republican members of the bipartisan House Climate Solutions Caucus that Curbelo co-founded were defeated or are retiring.

In the Senate, the authors of two of the most sweeping climate bills, Sen. Sheldon WhitehouseSheldon WhitehouseDems introduce bill requiring disclosure of guest logs from White House, Trump properties Sanders announces first staff hires in Iowa, New Hampshire McConnell works to freeze support for Dem campaign finance effort MORE (D-R.I.) and Sen. Bernie SandersBernard (Bernie) SandersAlan Dershowitz: In defense of Chelsea Clinton O'Rourke: Decisions on late-term abortions 'best left to a woman and her doctor' CNN to host town hall with Cory Booker in South Carolina MORE (I-Vt.), easily won re-election. But the uptick in the Republican margin will make it all the more difficult for Democrats to regain a majority in the Senate in 2020, let alone a filibuster-proof one. A padded margin also paves the way for confirming conservative cabinet secretaries and judges, who play pivotal roles in environmental disputes.

With Congress gridlocked, state policies are becoming ever more important. There, the lessons from this week’s elections are mixed.

Prices on carbon emissions have long been endorsed by economists but unpopular with voters. Once again, voters in Washington state defeated a ballot initiative that would have imposed a fee on carbon emissions. As I explained last month, the revenue would have been used to create a clean energy fund, unlike a similarly unsuccessful 2016 proposal that would have rebated the revenue. On the other hand, California voters upheld their state’s hike in gasoline taxes.

Mandates for clean or renewable electricity attract less scholarly support, but tend to be more popular with voters. That trend continued this week in some but not all states. Nevada voters easily passed Question 6, which calls for 50 percent renewable electricity by 2030; they’ll need to pass it again in 2020 for the target to become law. Meanwhile, six newly elected Democratic governors campaigned in support of 100 percent clean or renewable electricity by 2050 or sooner, and three others for 50 percent by 2030. They’ll be working with state legislatures with more Democratic legislators than in past years. California and Hawaii have already enacted commitments for 100 percent by 2045.

Even where renewable electricity mandates did not pass, prospects for cleaner electricity remain bright. Arizona voters rejected a constitutional amendment that would have required 50 percent renewable electricity by 2030. Still, the state’s largest utility has been cooperating with regulators as they consider strengthening the state’s clean electricity mandates. Earlier this year in Michigan, a proposed mandate was pulled from the ballot after environmentalists and utilities compromised on a plan to boost energy efficiency and renewable electricity.

Proposals to restrict oil and gas drilling drew mixed results. In Colorado, voters rejected a measure that would have banned new oil and gas drilling within 2,500 feet of homes and schools. However, Florida voters passed a peculiar proposal that simultaneously bans offshore drilling and indoor vaping.

Overall, it was a disappointing night for advocates of carbon pricing, even as bright spots emerged for clean electricity mandates. That extends a pattern of achieving far steeper emissions reductions from power plants than from other sectors. Meanwhile, we’ll soon have a House of Representatives led by supporters of climate science and clean energy, but with fewer Republican allies than ever.

Unfortunately, battling to a draw won’t be enough to rein in climate change. More decisive victories are needed as carbon dioxide continues to accumulate in the atmosphere and temperatures continue to climb. This week’s mixed results only heighten the urgency for a paradigm shift in climate policy in 2020 and beyond.

Daniel Cohan is an associate professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Rice University.