Ecocentric

Politics: What’s at Stake for Environmentalists at the Midterm Elections

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EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson, who will face investigative hearings if conservatives take Congress. Credit: Alex Wong/Getty Images

So there seems to be an election coming up tomorrow—or at least that’s what I can tell from all of the writers and editors scurrying around TIME HQ this morning, trying to make sure John Boehner’s deep orange tint doesn’t throw off the visual balance of the next issue. The sad truth for environmentalists—or “climate hawks,” or whatever the term is today—is that for the most part, the only role green issues will be playing in Tuesday’s midterms will be negative. Conservatives paying fealty to the Tea Party are denying basic climate science, and vulnerable Democrat House members who cast difficult votes for cap-and-trade—like Tom Perriello of northern Virginia, who’s running a tough reelection campaign—may end up on the streets because of their support. Many Democrats—especially in the middle of the country—are running away from President Obama’s environmental record. Witness this ad by Joe Manchin, the West Virginia Democrat running for the late Robert Byrd’s Senate seat:

(Well, if cap-and-trade weren’t dead, apparently Manchin would have killed it himself. With a bullet. Through its heart. I’ll chalk him up as a no, then.)

But even though the environment or climate change aren’t positive issues on the campaign trail—nor is the Gulf oil spill for that matter, which seems to have vanished entirely as a national political topic—that doesn’t mean the outcome of this election won’t have a major impact on how the U.S. grapples with green issues. Here’s a quick rundown of what’s at stake on November 2:

1.Control of the House means control of the energy committees: Barring a last-minute electoral miracle, the Republicans will take the House of Representatives. (Their chances to take the Senate aren’t as good—pollster extraordinaire Nate Silver gives the GOP just an 11% chance.) While the fact that Obama will still occupy the White House for at least the next two years will limit what the Republicans can do with the House, gaining majority control also puts GOP members at the head of the powerful committees that control legislation in the lower body. At the top is the House Energy and Commerce Committee, currently chaired by California Democrat Henry Waxman. The committee is one of the most powerful in the House, both as a means for controlling legislation—Waxman brought his carbon cap-and-trade bill out of this committee—and for launching investigations, like the ones held over the Gulf oil spill this summer. How important is this committee? It’s worth remembering that after the 2008 election, Waxman mounted a shocking—and ultimately successful—challenge for leadership, unseating the more senior John Dingell of Michigan, in part because Dingell was seen as an obstacle to cap-and-trade.

If the Republicans do take the House, it’s not yet clear who will get the coveted gavel for Energy and Commerce. POLITICO has a rundown of the likely candidates, with Fred Upton of Michigan considered the front-runner, largely because of his seniority and his financial support for other GOP candidates. But Upton—a guy whose nickname was once the “Young Slasher,” and who has promised to repeal health care reform and who led the opposition to cap-and-trade—is considered too moderate for some on the right, which could open the door for more conservative candidates like Cliff Stearns of Florida, who told POLITICO this:

It isn’t clear the kind of relationship Stearns might have with congressional Democrats and the White House on energy; he declined to note any energy proposals over which the two sides might find common ground.

“I don’t see anything in the Senate, and I don’t think anything in the administration,” he said of possible areas of compromise, while hammering House Democrats for passing their cap-and-trade bill in 2009.

A Republican victory would also likely bring an end to Democrat Edward Markey’s Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming, which for the past several years has provided a friendly platform for climate scientists and others pushing for strong action on carbon emissions. If Republicans control the House, Markey has said he will move onto other work because he feels that action on climate change will be impossible. But that doesn’t mean global warming will disappear from the House. Which brings us to…

2.Control of the House means control over the investigative process: While it’s hard to see a Republican-controlled House taking any action on climate change or energy—aside from pushing more aid towards nuclear power and opening up new areas for oil, gas and coal exploration—conservatives are chomping at the bit to open up investigations into the White House’s tougher environmental regulations. With the Senate having finally stalled on climate and energy legislation—and that’s unlikely to change post-midterms—it’s been up to the White House and especially the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to push for regulations that can reduce carbon emissions. While the Supreme Court has recognized the right of the EPA to regulate carbon, fighting those forthcoming rules is a major priority for the conservative business groups that have spent tens of millions of dollars on this election cycle. For Republicans, the best way to battle those regulations will be to ensure that EPA head Lisa Jackson remains “chained to a witness chair,” in the words of a recent POLITICO piece:

“I think she’ll be very much in demand on the Hill, at times not of her choosing,” said a former staffer on the House Energy and Commerce Committee. “It will diminish her free time, shall we say.”

Remember Climategate? Well if you don’t, the Republicans will ensure that you do—Darrel Issa of California has said that he intends to use the Oversight and Government Reform Committee to probe supposed controversies over climate science:

I do have a backburner investigation that I’m going to want to have completed, and that is, we paid a lot of money to have international evaluation, most of it done in Britain, that turns out to have been less than truthful in some of the figures. We’re going to want to not investigate to get our money back, but we’re going to want to have a do-over of good numbers so that everyone can have confidence.

As Issa himself said, these hearings wouldn’t be about enacting change—they’d be about undermining the basic case for acting on climate change. After two years with the ball in their court, greens will likely be spending the next Congressional term playing defense, hoping to keep the status quo, at best. Which brings us to number three…

3.The Battle Over Prop 23 in California: I have a piece over on the Time.com mainpage that covers Prop 23, the ballot initiative that would all but repeal California’s 2006 global warming law. The good news for greens—perhaps the only good news of the entire midterm election—is that Prop 23 is almost certain to go down in defeat, in part because in California at least, environmentalists have a big money edge, as I wrote:

It’s a different story in California, where a coalition of Hollywood celebrities, philanthropists and tech billionaires is fighting to save a favorite piece of climate policy and backing its efforts with millions of dollars in campaign donations. The battle is over Proposition 23, a ballot initiative that would all but repeal California’s landmark climate-change law. And unlike in much of the rest of the country, in the Golden State, the greens look to be winning — in campaign cash and at the polls. “The coalition we’ve put together to fight Prop 23 is the new face of the environmental movement,” says Annie Notthoff, California advocacy director for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). “This is enough to actually make a difference in the political process.”
So if the opinion polls hold, Proposition 23 will go down in defeat, handing greens at least one unalloyed victory on election night. But it’s the kind of victory environmentalists may have to console themselves with over the next few years—one that holds the line on past achievements, without breaking any ground. It’s defense, at a time when the environmental and energy problems facing the country and the world screams out for aggressive offense.
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