What the Midterms Mean for Climate Change

What the Midterms Mean for Climate Change

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Up late last night? We were, too, on the climate desk, sorting through America’s mixed bag of election results on climate change.

In the most direct rejection Tuesday of a plan to tame greenhouse gas emissions, voters in Washington state defeated a proposed tax on carbon. The vote was a critical state-level test of whether carbon pricing can win broader support at the national level.

It’s not at all clear, however, that a carbon price is even on the agenda for Democrats, who handily won control of the House of Representatives. Nancy Pelosi, widely expected to become House speaker, has vowed to revive a select committee on global warming, a panel she initiated the last time Democrats controlled the chamber. But she has been vague about what, if any, legislation Democrats will seek.

Crucially, any House legislation would have to proceed without help from moderate Republicans like Carlos Curbelo of Florida, who lost his seat last night. Rare among Republicans, he championed climate science and introduced a plan of his own to tax carbon emissions.

There will be a new class of House committee leaders taking up environmental issues as they take over from Republican leaders hostile to climate science. Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson of Texas, who is poised to take over the House Science Committee from Lamar Smith, who disputes the scientific consensus on climate change, vowed the issue would be front and center for her.

One of her goals, Ms. Johnson said last night, will be to “address the challenge of climate change, starting with acknowledging it is real.”

Meantime, Democrats have promised hearings on the Trump administration’s regulatory rollbacks at the Environmental Protection Agency and the Interior Department, as well as the ethics questions that have dogged Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke.

Next year promises to be a wild ride.

As a parting note: Last night’s elections showed how deeply Americans are divided. But I’d urge you today to take some time with these maps from my colleague Nadja Popovich showing a few places where Americans actually find agreement on energy policy.

One thing you can do: Get involved after the election

Tyler Varsell

The election is over, but your political engagement around climate change doesn’t have to stop.

According to Elizabeth Beaumont, an associate professor of politics at the University of California, Santa Cruz, the postelection period is a good time to reflect on the issues that you’re most concerned about. And, it’s a time to find opportunities to engage with them in your community.

“It can be everything from looking at what a town council, a mayor’s office or what your local school board is doing around certain kinds of issues,” Professor Beaumont said. “And, if you don’t see your issue represented, thinking about how this could be a priority, even if it’s engaging in symbolic politics of getting resolutions passed.”

Getting involved doesn’t have to be about government. It could mean getting a group of parents together at your children’s school and organizing an energy audit.

“Very often,” Professor Beaumont said, civic engagement “is about not necessarily tying it back to partisan politics, which is so much of what our elections are, but tying it to either issues or causes that are very important to people.”

Under this thinking, politics becomes less of a zero-sum game where if one side wins, the other loses. It becomes more about what Professor Beaumont called “the art of the possible.”

“It’s getting into the more issue-based and cause-based politics,” she said. “People sometimes do find more common ground when they’re thinking about working on a cause or an issue than when they’re thinking about red versus blue.”

... and more than one thing policymakers can do

Climate change can often feel like an overwhelming and unmanageable. Recall that recent report from the United Nations that said the world would have to completely overhaul its energy system in the next 13 years to avoid dangerous warming.

With a message like that, it’s hard to even know where to begin.

So I found it useful to chat with Hal Harvey, head of a think tank called Energy Innovation, which models the impacts of various climate policies. He’s recently published a guidebook for policymakers that lays out a set of concrete actions they could take to avoid big temperature increases.

His main message is that the world needs to prioritize the big stuff. That means leaders in the world’s 20 largest carbon emitters — including the United States, China, India and Europe — should focus on a handful of actions that can get emissions down in a hurry.

“This is a triage business,” he said. “If you took the top 20 countries, focused on about a dozen policies and designed them right, we could make a lot of headway. Otherwise, we’re just flailing.”

The things to focus on: decarbonizing power plants, reducing transportation emissions, making buildings and factories more efficient, curbing pollution from industrial processes like steel and cement, and reducing deforestation in tropical countries.

Here’s the notable part: We basically know how to do most of this. For his book, Mr. Harvey and his team scoured the globe for policies that have already cut emissions in these areas — things like California’s clean-electricity standard or Japan’s energy-efficiency competitions for appliance and vehicle manufacturers. If every country adopted the best policies already in effect today, we could get somewhere.

He cautions, however, that there’s no silver bullet. While some analysts have suggested that a carbon tax could solve much of the climate problem, his modeling indicates that it would provide only about 26 percent of the cuts needed to avoid the worst effects of warming.

Similarly, it’s tempting to hope electric cars will save the day. “But, even under really fast electric vehicle scenarios, the world is still going to build at least two billion more internal combustion engines,” Mr. Harvey said.

Mr. Harvey notes that in the United States and elsewhere, policymakers have nurtured wind and solar power, cleaning up the grid. Yet, they’ve neglected sectors like heavy industry — cement, steel, chemicals — that account for 27 percent of the cuts needed by 2050.

Of course, the hardest part of dealing with climate change is often the politics, as Lisa explained above. But after Tuesday’s elections, for policymakers interested in crafting a climate plan, this guide at least makes it seem a little more tractable.

“Solving this problem does take political will,” Mr. Harvey said. “But it doesn’t take miracles.”

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