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Can the midterm elections rescue America’s neglected climate policy?

Democrats need big gains to take on a president who thinks the climate ‘will change back again’, writes Tan Copsey

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President Trump listens as FEMA administrator Brock Long addresses reporters on Oct 10 on the possible impact of Hurricane Michael on the south-east US. (Image: Shealah Craighead)

Last week Hurricane Michael became one of the strongest ever hurricanes to make landfall in the United States. Fed by the unusually warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico, Michael hit Florida in the Southeastern US and beat a path through a region where climate change – and responses to it – are becoming an election issue.  

Florida, which bore the worst of the hurricane, is a key battleground state in America’s midterm elections, with senators, members of congress, governors, and a bevy of other local officials all facing voters next month. Florida is a low-lying state that depends heavily on tourism, making it especially at risk from climate change.

Democrats, who are broadly supportive of climate action, face an uphill battle to retake the country’s Senate so retaining Senator Bill Nelson’s seat in Florida will be essential. Nelson has linked the hurricane directly to climate change. By contrast, his challenger, the state’s current governor, Republican Rick Scott, banned the use of the words “climate change” by state officials.

The two are also fighting over toxic algae blooms, which have hit tourism, killed wildlife and risked residents’ health. Algae thrive in warm water, so the hotter weather has contributed to bigger blooms. Scott was recently chased from one of his own campaign events by protesters chanting “Red-tide Rick”.

Not all Florida Republicans agree with Scott on climate though. House Representative Carlos Curbelo, of Florida’s 26th district, leads the bipartisan Climate Solutions Caucus. Curbelo has challenged Republican Party orthodoxy, recently putting forward a bill for a nationwide carbon tax. He’s also in favour of increasing the state’s resilience to stronger storms, recently joking that "If people try to dismiss me, I'll say, 'Hey, that's OK. When my district is under water, I'll go to yours and run against you."

Many Republican Climate Caucus members, including Curbelo, could lose their seats if a “blue wave” of Democratic support washes in and flips the House of Representatives. On the one hand, Democratic control of the federal government seems the only real chance of passing meaningful climate policy in the near future, on the other hand, the efforts of unorthodox Republicans like Curbelo are essential if climate legislation isn’t going to be immediately overturned when control of government changes.

Following Hurricane Michael’s path, climate change is also an issue further up the coast in North Carolina. In the state’s 9th congressional district, a traditionally conservative area that voted for President Trump by a wide margin, Democrat Dan McCready is campaigning on the successful investment he made in solar energy in the state – putting more than US$80 million into 36 different renewable energy projects. By contrast, his opponent, Republican Mark Harris rejects established climate science and wants to abolish the parts of the federal government that deal with energy.

Far away from hurricanes, on the country’s west coast, the political climate is very different. Here, more progressive candidates are battling to put in place stronger climate policies. Citizens will be asked in Washington state to vote on a measure to implement the country’s first statewide carbon tax. The possibility of the measure passing is being taken very seriously by the fossil fuel industry, which has already spent more than US$20 million to try to defeat it. In California, where an unusual election system sees two Democrats fighting for the same Senate seat, incumbent Dianne Feinstein and challenger Kevin De León are vying to outdo each other in supporting renewable energy and opposing President Trump.

While climate change is a growing concern for voters – an August 2018 Yale poll found that 70% of Americans recognise global warming is happening, and 59% recognise humans are causing it – it’s still hard to get climate change into the election debate in many places. Only 5 of 36 Senate debates have included a climate-related question so far. Instead, President Trump’s extreme positions on healthcare, the economy, immigration, and the country’s Supreme Court are dominating the narrative in these elections.

President Trump remains intransigent on climate change although he declared this week that climate change is not a hoax, “I think something’s happening. Something’s changing and it will change back again”. Ultimately, while this election may provide victories for those in favour of doing something about our unfolding climate crisis, for things to really change, America will need to elect a different president. And it’s another two years before people get a chance to vote on that.

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