US climate action may slow after mixed midterm results

With Congress no longer under Democrat control, there’s little chance of any major new climate legislation in the next two years
<p>Members of Congress elected in the midterm elections gather for a “class photo” on the steps of Capitol Hill in Washington DC (Image: Yuri Gripas / Alamy)</p>

Members of Congress elected in the midterm elections gather for a “class photo” on the steps of Capitol Hill in Washington DC (Image: Yuri Gripas / Alamy)

US President Joe Biden woke to unexpectedly good news on 9 November. The red wave many were expecting, with Republicans taking control of huge swathes of the US government, never broke onshore. 

The country, and Congress, are split again between the Democrats, who see climate change as a core issue, and the Republicans, who continue to reject the science, the severity of the problem, or the urgent need to resolve it. 

With both chambers on a knife edge, governing will be a challenge. Democrats have maintained control of the Senate and may expand their margin by one seat, depending on the result of this week’s Georgia run-off. Meanwhile, Republicans have taken control of the House of Representatives, but their victory was smaller than expected – a majority of only eight or nine seats.

At the state level, Democrats expanded to 17 the number of states where they have “trifecta” control – meaning a Democrat Governor, State Senate, and State House or Assembly. This opens up the possibility of more state-level climate action. Republicans have 23 trifectas, while the other 10 states are shared.

Michigan, the traditional home of the auto industry, is now under total Democratic control, which may be good news for accelerating the production of electric vehicles. It may be bad news for the proposed Line 5 gas pipeline that would cut through the Great Lakes, a region that includes Michigan. 

However, in Florida, the Republican-controlled government is likely to continue to promote real estate development in areas threatened by hurricanes.  

Understanding the results

Not so long ago, rampant inflation, rising interest rates, and the possibility of a recession would have doomed climate action. But this year, many Democrats ran on climate as a solution to some of the problems facing the economy. And Republicans did not concentrate their attacks on this issue. Gone are the days of candidates shooting holes through carbon cap-and-trade bills. 

President Biden’s shift from taxing fossil fuels to investing in climate solutions is likely part of the reason the Inflation Reduction Act remains popular. The IRA includes $370 billion in climate spending and is by far the largest climate bill in US history. “The overwhelming majority of the American people support the elements of my economic agenda – from rebuilding America’s roads and bridges; to lowering prescription drug costs; to a historic investment in tackling the climate crisis,” Biden said. 

Relatively few voters cited climate change as the reason for their choices though. Instead, inflation, the economy and abortion were key issues. Some experts pointed to Biden’s relative success in keeping gasoline prices down as a reason for keeping Democratic votes. Of course, this success kept transport emissions up too.

Republican obstruction

Republican control of the House means that for the next two years there is little to no chance of major new legislation on climate, or spending beyond what is already agreed upon under the IRA. 

An effort to reform permitting to speed up construction, which would have benefitted both the fossil fuel and clean energy industries, is unlikely to go anywhere either, as Republicans will seek to deny the Democrats any wins, even at the expense of their political donors. 

Republican scrutiny of Biden’s spending will increase. New programmes, such as the Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund, a green bank that was created by the IRA and lives in the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), will be investigated.

The example of Solyndra, a small solar programme that was backed by a loan from the Department of Energy, and failed, is likely to be cited, repeatedly. Yet such loans have helped foster major technological breakthroughs and catalysed company growth, including Tesla’s. Nonetheless, the negative attention may discourage the government from taking risks in the technologies, companies and people it invests in, likely decreasing the effectiveness of the fund. Capital from the state often flows to things the private sector would avoid. Taking risks, and failing, is actually essential.

Republicans are trying to frame money moving from high- to low-carbon industries as ‘woke capitalism’

The Republican-run House will also attempt to deny funding to agencies it sees as overstepping their mandate (or fulfilling them too effectively). The Securities and Exchange Commission will be a target as it’s about to release a rule that will mandate more specific and detailed disclosures of information related to climate change by large companies. Some corporations and business lobby groups are opposed to the rule. Republicans across the country are trying to frame money moving from high- to low-carbon industries as a cultural issue, or “woke capitalism”. They are already accusing the SEC and agencies like the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission of succumbing to left-wing social pressure. 

At the recent climate negotiations in Egypt, developing countries drew attention to how the US has provided little funding internationally for installing clean energy or adapting to a changing climate. Biden has promised up to US$11.4 billion a year by 2024, but the US currently provides only around a billion a year. Congressional Democrats’ attention will now turn to raising that as high as possible in the “lame duck” session of Congress – the period before the end of the year when they still have control. Republicans are unlikely to countenance any increase in overseas spending when they take over. The Loss and Damage fund agreed at the Egypt climate talks has already become a target for the right, which don’t want the US paying for a problem they don’t take seriously. 

More broadly, at a time of economic uncertainty, the Republican House has already suggested it may be willing to do whatever it takes to prevent supposedly wasteful government spending. In recent years, the US has faced the risk of credit downgrades because Republicans in Congress won’t agree to a budget. The threat of such extreme tactics is likely to figure in any conversations about climate spending. 

Just after the election, Donald Trump announced that he plans to run again in the 2024 presidential race. If Trump is on the ticket, Republican turnout is likely to increase, which in turn may increase their chances of regaining the Senate and retaining the House. A third of the Senate faces re-election every six years. In 2024, of the 33 Senate seats up for election, 23 will be held by Democrats, including a number in areas that often vote Republican.

Last month’s midterm results were better for climate action than expected, but as always in the US, a couple of steps forward is often followed by a step back. There’s a chance things will get worse in 2024.