A bad night for climate bill supporters…AND opponents

The Wilderness Society Director of Climate Policy David Moulton

Headline: “Democrats who voted for the controversial House climate bill were slaughtered at the ballot box
Rep Boucher’s former staffer Andy Wright says that Boucher’s support for climate action is why he lost. West Virginia Governor Manchin shoots a climate bill and wins his Senate election.

And yet:

  • The five moderate House Republicans who stood for reelection after voting for the House comprehensive climate bill were all reelected;
  • Pro-climate Democrats were reelected at a higher rate than anti-climate Dems;
  • The only place climate was on the ballot, California’s economy-wide policy to reduce carbon pollution won handily over the oil company campaign to stop it
  • Cap-and-trade to reduce carbon pollution from utilities in 10 northeast states appears to be unaffected by the election (although that could change depending on what Maine’s new conservative governor decides)

The common frame in most districts was never climate – after all, environmental issues are usually far down the list of voter concerns compared to unemployment or the cost of health care. The common frame was was high unemployment, deep recession, persistent health cost increases despite health reform, and a series of “too-big-too-fail” corporate bailouts begun by the Bush Administration in the financial panic of 2008. Nothing that the Obama Administration did to try to change this frame succeeded in time to counter the attacks, and so a message was sent.

Virginia is instructive – Congressmen Rick Boucher, Glenn Nye and Tom Perriello all lost. One was an architect of the House climate bill, voted yes on the stimulus but no on health care. The second voted no on climate, no on health care and no on the stimulus. The third voted yes on all three. This was a national election, and there was no right answer for Democrats, particularly in districts who had voted for Senator McCain in 2008, which included Boucher’s (59 percent McCain) and Perriello’s (51 percent McCain.)

It was a bad night for Democrats, whether you supported climate or opposed it. And it was surely a terrible night for climate science, whether you were a Republican or a Democrat. Too many new members of the new US Congress found political energy – and support - in denying the existence of global warming, or denying that it was a problem, or denying that humans have anything to do with it.By some accounts, five of the six new GOP senators and 35 of the 85 incoming Republican freshmen in the House have questioned whether greenhouse gas emissions caused by human activity contribute to climate change.

There is hope. If state-based efforts, like Western Climate Initiative or the Northeast’s Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, are allowed to proceed and demonstrate success, acceptance of reductions by politicians may return at the national level.

In the meantime, progress on climate in Congress is only likely to occur as a by-product of clean energy technology and energy independence agendas that may still hold bipartisan potential. Meanwhile, the fuse on the climate time bomb burns shorter…tick, tick, tick.