Does the recent U.S. election matter to climate change policy?

November 6, 2014, by Michael Gillenwater

If you are not a U.S. citizen, then you may not be following American politics. But if you follow climate policy, you should also be following U.S. politics, at least somewhat. From the standpoint of unlocking international climate change policy, U.S. politics are probably a —if not the— master key.

It is plainly clear that the election this week went badly, both for the Democrats (Obama’s party) and the broader green movement. If you read anything about this week’s election, you are likely to a hear one of a few different narratives. Underpinning all these storylines is the common question: How much will the latest election results matter?

Narrative 1:  This election does not matter. The U.S. legislative body, the Congress, was deadlocked before the election and will still be deadlocked after. Due to the nature of U.S. Senate voting rules, a 60% vote super-majority is required to do most anything. Further, a 67% vote majority is required to ratify a treaty – such as ideally would come out of the 2015 COP in Paris. No climate change law or treaty is going to get passed in the USA. The new Republican-controlled (i.e., climate change denying) legislature can pester the Obama administration with circus-like committee hearings, but it cannot stop the U.S. EPA from moving forward with its Clean Power Plan regulation to cut GHG emissions from power plants. So, the election does not make politics on climate better, but in terms of policy, neither have things really gotten any worse.

Narrative 2:  The election does matter because it validates our assessment that Americans do not care about climate change. In this election, more money was spent by environmental groups than probably ever in an attempt to influence the election. Much of that campaign money focused on the climate issue. Yet, it appears voters rejected or ignored the green appeals in mass. So, it matters because it hopefully teaches us to be realistic about our ability to shift public opinion.

Both of these narratives have some truth in them. And it is very easy to read far too much into any single election. But, let me offer three other narratives that are more subtle, less obvious, and I believe more important.

Alternative narrative 1: This election does not matter because Americans are fickle. Yes, the biased (e.g., less racially diverse, older, and relatively small) sample of the American populace that votes in non-Presidential election years rejected the Democrats and showed no meaningful concern about climate change. This reminder came in the wake of not only gobs of climate-concerned campaign money (see: Tom Steyer), but also more damning national climate impacts and IPCC reports. But, look at history. Pubic option on an issue can change quickly. We worry about climate tipping points. Well, there will come, at some unpredictable point in time, a social tipping point on climate change in the USA. The analogies are dangerous, but ongoing examples here are gay marriage and legalization of marijuana. I’ve written before about what I see as one potential trigger for this tipping. In sum, don’t read too much into this election. It provides few new insights into American public opinion on climate change. Nothing much has changed. If you do want a deeper look into the topic, read my previous post on why Americans deny climate change. When a public policy issue becomes a marker of tribal identity, it becomes “sticky”, that is, until it’s not.

Alternative narrative 2:  This election does matter because the long-run path to geopolitical success still goes through the U.S. Senate. I’m not talking about the real century-plus time-frame of climate change, but the longer-term political game plan. As I mentioned above, to get an international treaty ratified in the USA requires 2/3 approval in the Senate. A third of the Senate is elected every 2 years for 6-year terms. So, the more climate change denying Senators that get elected now, the longer it will take to replace them with candidates (from either party) that take a more evidence-based view on climate change. Taken together we need more election cycles before we can expect to see a climate-rational bloc span the 2/3 of the Senate necessary to ratify a treaty.

Alternative narrative 3: This election does matter because the path to success for U.S. domestic action on GHG emissions does go through the U.S. Congress and especially its U.S. Senate. A lot has been said about Obama’s EPA moving ahead with GHG regulation on power plants using existing U.S. Clean Air Act authority (blessed by Supreme Court rulings). It is a desired legacy issue for Obama. I’ve written about the challenges the proposed rule faces in the coming years. Although I hope I am wrong, there is a high probability of a lawsuit against the rule succeeding before it goes into full effect. At issue is the precedent-setting question of whether EPA can require power plants to require other actors to do something. Let me try to briefly explain. The proposed rule says power plants must reduce emissions. To do so, they must, in part, improve the energy efficiency of their consumers and shift to renewable energy. The problem is that this requires power plants to physically change something they do not have legal control over (e.g., how much electricity their customers use). Yes, it is logical that energy efficiency and renewable energy is the solution to reducing emissions from power plants. But, legally, this is novel under the relevant sections of the Clean Air Act. The courts will be asking if EPA has this authority with respect to power plants and GHGs, then can they or any other agency force a company assume legal liability for the actions of others outside of their direct control? (One might argue that automotive CAFE standards do just this for auto companies, but I’m not a lawyer, so I’m sure I already said something stupid.) So, if the courts reject the rule, or enough individual State governments delay it by fighting EPA for years, then ultimately, even modest action on GHG emissions will require federal legislation passed by the U.S. Congress. Which again, requires a 60% super-majority of the Senate and is subject to the election cycle turn over lag explained in Alternative narrative 2 above. Upshot: if you are counting on the EPA’s proposed regulation to circumvent the U.S. Congress, a few years from now, after the lawsuits run their course, you may find we are back where we started.

In the end, all of these narratives contain some elements of truth. Ultimately, though, it is the first alternative narrative to which I am paying the most attention. Americans, and the world, will eventually be forced to care enough about climate change to demand action. And then when things get sufficiently dire, with some lag and residual resistance, political action will come from the United States. Precise prediction of the timing of this action is a futile exercise. Further, I don’t see socially endogenous activities moving us to a tipping point, as much as I wish it could (sorry NextGen and climate marchers). Historically, environmental disasters have been what have triggered action in the USA.

In the true long-term, I place some hope that maybe, after learning from our initial experience dealing with climate change, future generations will meet the next major global challenge with more foresight and capacity for collective action.

2 responses to “Does the recent U.S. election matter to climate change policy?”

  1. Craig Strong says:

    Michael, thanks for the well thought out post. It certainly covers all of the angles on how the most recent election could impact the climate. I think what disturbs me most about this election is the sheer number of people (2/3 of eligible voters) that do not participate, especially the very large number of Millennials that will have their entire lives impacted by climate change. It is depressing and disgusting when you consider the number of people around the world that risk their lives to live in a democratic society.


  2. Andrew says:

    Re EPA’s power plant rule, I think Congress can attach riders to EPA appropriations bills that hamstring implementation of the rule. These might not be easily vetoed.

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