Democratic Upsets Could Spell Disaster For Lasting Climate Action

Last month’s midterm elections resulted in a substantial rout of the Republican majority in the House of Representatives and was the strongest indicator yet of the public’s disapproval of President Trump’s agenda. Indeed, the new Democratic majority in the House puts the nation’s newest batch of progressive legislative leaders in a powerful position to stymie the remainder of the President’s unaccomplished campaign promises. Those who favor a progressive direction in our country’s politics, however, may have missed an important undertone in the results of November 6th: the retirement or defeat of the core of the centrist Republican delegation in Congress. While the House of Representatives is firmly under Democratic control with famed progressive strategist Nancy Pelosi as Speaker, the potential for long-term change has been dealt a heavy blow by the loss of problem-solving bipartisan deal-makers like Carlos Curbelo, Mia Love, and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen. Making broad and durable change on the climate crisis facing us will be far more difficult without Republicans like these willing to lead change from within the party. If the Republican Party can evolve on this issue, and we can near a national consensus on the urgency of fighting climate change, we will have a real shot at introducing permanent solutions instead of short-lived ones. Unfortunately, with the loss of these three ideological mavericks, the likelihood that the Republican party will make meaningful compromise when it comes to climate change has been almost completely destroyed.

If you want to make a permanent political change on a controversial issue, you must first reach a bipartisan consensus on that issue. We saw this in 2008, when sweeping Democratic action on healthcare gave the Republican Party the political ammunition they needed to win eight years of Republican legislative control and the gutting of the Affordable Care Act. Instead, the most long-lasting progress has always resulted from movements led from within both major political parties. The Civil Rights Movement and the legislative action that followed was a joint effort between Northern Democrats, begun by John F. Kennedy and finished by Texas-born Lyndon Johnson, and Northern Republicans. It was accomplished over the opposition of staunchly conservative Republicans like Arizonan Sen. Barry Goldwater and Southern Democratic “Dixiecrats” like Sen. Richard Russell from Georgia. The absence of partisan polarization in the passing of the law contributed to its longevity and marked a foundation-shifting moment in the history of American progress. In our politically polarized nation, where public opinion on critical issues like climate change and healthcare is sharply split almost exactly along party lines, most potential solutions seem like temporary stopgaps to be quickly reversed rather than durable remedies. Most Republicans would rather remain opposed to carbon taxes and cap-and-trade plans than risk being primaried by There is not a large enough national consensus on climate action to ensure that climate legislation won’t blow back on the Democratic Party if it chooses to enact it.

Taking steps to halt climate change and some of its more devastating effects should not be overly controversial. A recent UN study yet again reiterated the massive problems we face if swift action isn’t taken: rising sea levels, more frequent and devastating storms, destroyed ecosystems, and disrupted agriculture. We only have around twenty years to act decisively on the issue before the threat to our existence becomes too great to address. Many economists for a long time now have looked at the free release of carbon as a market failure and have widely advocated market-based solutions like a cap-and-trade system or a carbon tax as fair and efficient methods of stemming the release of greenhouse gases. A cap-and-trade system would set a cap on the total amount of carbon that companies could release in a certain year, and companies that need to release more could trade for carbon credits from companies that need to release less. Democrats nearly passed a comprehensive, nationwide cap-and-trade system in 2009, succeeding in the House but failing to bring it to a floor vote in the Senate. Republicans, on the other hand, have held fast in their opposition to any government-mandated solution to the climate change crisis. Only this last July, a House resolution sponsored by House Whip Rep. Steve Scalise (R-LA) condemned any effort to impose a carbon tax as “detrimental” to our country’s economy. This concern points to one of the most important and controversial aspects of the carbon tax or any other market-based climate solution. To combat a threat like climate change, measures to ensure long-term stability will inherently cause some short-term burden in the form of higher prices on energy and consumer goods. The relative lack of dissent on this resolution in Congress indicates that for many Republicans, this short term burden is too much, and we continue to move into the 2020s without any momentum supporting action. That is scarcely a problem that can be fixed from outside the party. For a short time it certainly seemed that change could have been stirring within the Republican ecosystem. Six Republican representatives, among them Carlos Curbelo (R-FL), Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), and Mia Love (R-UT), voted against the resolution and expressed openness to working towards a carbon tax compromise. Going far further, Curbelo authored a bill himself that would have placed a tax on carbon emissions and set the US on a path to exceed its Paris Agreement goals by 2030. Such a bill would have certainly garnered widespread Democratic support in a Democratic-controlled Congress and could have provided a bipartisan path to lasting change instead of a forced partisan one.

Congress wasn’t the only place where conservative movement on the climate change issue was visible. Over the past few years, a real conservative policy rationale for carbon taxation has taken shape within the ranks of conservative academia. The libertarian-leaning Niskanen Institute’s Jerry Taylor published a detailed study laying out the conservative case for action. The policy plan seems workable: a tax would completely replace emission regulations, substituting an efficient fee rate for seemingly overbearing government restrictions. It would mark the end of subsidies for clean energy that Republicans have time and time again accused of distorting the energy market. Furthermore, a carbon tax would provide valuable tax revenue that could be used to pay down the budget deficit, mitigate the impact on people with low-income, or fund any other number of conservative budget priorities. Even with all of these considerations, however, action requires conservative Representatives and Senators with the political will to work with Democrats on a solution. The current class of Republicans is too frightened of the prospect of government regulation and too reliant on funding from the energy industry to do so now. Under the last Congress it seemed like there were Republicans who could finally helm the transformation of the party on this utterly important issue and lead compromise. After the midterm elections, that is no longer the case.

Rep. Ros-Lehtinen resigned her seat for undisclosed reasons on April 30th, 2017, marking the first of a long line of centrist Republicans calling it quits early in the campaign cycle. Rep. Curbelos’ seat was targeted early on by Democrats as a potential pickup opportunity, since his seat had voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016 by 16 points. Curbelo had been able to withstand that particular election year even though his district had just been redrawn to be more Democratic-leaning, but November 6th this year saw him lose by a thin margin of two points. More surprisingly, Mia Love lost her own seat in deeply Republican Utah to her Democratic challenger in a race that took several days to finally be called. These three will all be missed sorely as Congress continues to be marred by gridlock over the next two years. The Republican Party that remains in the House of Representatives after the 2018 midterms is smaller and more partisan, and climate change compromisers are few and far between. In addition to those already mentioned, the end of the 115th Congress also marked the loss of the leaders of the bipartisan Tuesday Group like Charlie Dent, Dan Donovan, and Leonard Lance. The consequences reach far further than just climate change. Any sort of inter-party reconciliation on the budget, immigration, healthcare, or infrastructure is now that much further away, and the chances of irreconcilable gridlock and even government shutdown are now increased.

Democrats can certainly win the Presidency in 2020, which would go a long way towards giving them the ability to meet their policy goals on climate change. They could even retake the Senate, even though that seems far less likely after the gains Republicans made during this cycle. Even if they do both of those things and somehow pass comprehensive reform, they can expect it to be bitterly contested by Republicans. It wouldn’t be surprising in the least if critically important climate legislation destroyed whatever Democratic majority passed it. The general partisan divide is too great, and the few bridges that crossed it are crumbling away. This phenomena has been documented at length by political researchers, and has led voters and politicians alike to become increasingly averse to political compromise. Perhaps the next two years of divided government will encourage some hidden or reluctant moderates to step forward and lead collaboration between the two parties. But a quick glance at the current environment would make that appear unlikely. So if the only concern for Democrats is their ability to block the President’s agenda for the next two years, then the midterms went swimmingly. If they wanted to see an opening for inter-party cooperation and actual policy progress on planet-threatening issues, however, all they got was a door slammed shut. The world needs us to take a lead on this existential crisis, and we cannot do so when our government is alternating between those who do and do not believe in its existence.