The Coming Climate Election

State Capitol
On November 2, America’s attention will focus on the mid-term elections for Congress. But those of us who believe government must act against global climate change had better pay attention to another set of races: the election of 37 governors and scores of state legislators.

In the years ahead, the people we elect to our 50 statehouses may be more important than the people we elect to Congress.

Consider the impact on international climate treaty negotiations. At the end of November, negotiators from more than 190 nations will gather for the 16th Conference of the Parties in Cancun to continue working on a global climate pact.

Few experts expect that a treaty will be signed in Cancun, but there’s hope the meeting will narrow the gaps nations have failed to bridge in the negotiations so far. One positive development would be a concrete, credible, verifiable plan by the United States to cut its greenhouse emissions.

The chief U.S. negotiator, Todd Stern, has just reaffirmed Obama’s goal to cut the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020. But with no climate bill from Congress again this year, U.S. negotiators reportedly are pondering how to show the United States will achieve the goal with “other available tools”.

There’s the Clean Air Act, of course, but it’s a path with lots of litigation ahead. Many other tools belong to states and cities and already are in place – for example, utility regulation, energy codes for buildings, public benefit funds, renewable energy and energy efficiency portfolio standards, and zoning that influences how much energy people need for mobility.

The World Resources Institute (WRI) issued a report in July that put a number on what states are doing with their tools. WRI counted the climate actions announced or put into effect so far by 25 states and the federal government. Fully implemented, the combined policies would cut U.S. greenhouse gas emissions 14 percent by 2020, most of the way to Obama’s goal.

Other policies in the pipeline could result in deeper reductions. For example, WRI’s calculations did not include:

• Federal policies to reduce vehicle miles traveled;

• Measures to decrease net emissions by increasing carbon sequestration in forests and farmlands;

• Actions cities are taking beyond the requirements of state or federal law. Of special interest are the more than 1,000 U.S. cities that have signed the Mayors’ Climate Protection Agreement.

Armed with WRI’s documentation, U.S. negotiators can go to Cancun with more than aspirations. They won’t have one big national climate bill, but they will have an inventory of national and sub-national commitments that show the United States is moving in the right direction.

WRI’s calculations must be considered qualified evidence of progress, however, because the states’ contribution to emission reductions depends on whether they fully implement the policies they’ve announced.

That’s where the November 2 election comes in. The danger is that voters will elect governors, legislators, mayors and city council members who are opposed to, agnostic about, or frightened to implement the climate and energy policies their predecessors embraced.

Although global climate change is not an inherently partisan topic – some Republican governors have been vocal supporters of climate action, while some coal-state Democrats have been opposed -- conservative Republicans are trying hard to make it a wedge issue. Politico reports that Republican candidates for Congress and governorships are becoming more vocal in denying climate science and opposing climate action.

Opinion polls show that while a national climate bill has bipartisan support among likely voters, considerably more Democrats than Republicans favor action. So, however imperfect, domination by one political party or the other has become an indicator of whether a state will move boldly to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions.

The governorships up for reelection this year are evenly split between Democrats (19) and Republicans (18). Democrats control both houses in 27 legislatures, while Republicans control both houses in 14. Control of eight legislatures is split between the parties.

The Washington Post reports that at the national level, the Republican and Democrat organizations are focusing on about 100 competitive legislative races.

The national parties are said to be approaching statehouse elections with the intensity usually given presidential elections. The reason: The outcome will determine the composition of Congress for years to come.

Every 10 years the Census results in reapportionment of House seats among the states based on their newly counted populations. States that gain or lose seats redraw the boundaries of their congressional districts. The process invites gerrymandering – the manipulation of district boundaries to favor one political party over the others. As a result, the party that controls the state capitol usually controls redistricting. As the Washington Post explains:

Redistricting plays a central political role very 10 years, but the stakes seem particularly high this cycle…Republicans see an opportunity to improve their prospects for winning back Congress and controlling it for years to come by shaking loose the Democrats’ grip on state governments.

The Post quotes Ed Gillespie, a former chairman of the Republican National Committee, that legislative races in 16 states could control the remapping of districts for nearly 200 congressional seats.

Current polls notwithstanding, the biggest issue on November’s ballots is not illegal immigration, health care, the federal deficit, greed on Wall Street, creeping socialism, Glenn Beck’s megalomaniacal ownership of godliness and patriotism, same-sex marriages or even jobs. The most enduring, destructive and irreversible damage to God’s creation and our way of life will be global climate change, and it already has begun.

For that reason, November 2 is more than a mid-term election; it’s a climate election. It will influence public policy at all levels of government in the United States during a decade that leading scientists tell us is crucial if we are to avoid the worst consequences of an unstable climate.

The chattering class predicts this will be the year of the Tea Party because its members feel more passion about their issues. Despite repeated blows to its moral during the past year, the climate action movement must not lose its passion, or this November’s elections.


William S. Becker is the Executive Director of the Presidential Climate Action Plan (PCAP), a project of the University of Colorado, Wirth Chair, charged with producing a 100 day action plan on climate change for the next President of the United States, and the author of THE 100 DAY ACTION PLAN TO SAVE THE PLANET, available in eBook format from St. Martins Griffin.

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