USA Midterm Elections and Climate Change – Who is the Winner?

The 2022 USA midterm elections results can influence climate policy for years to come. In the run-up to and, of course, including November 8th, Americans will vote for 35 seats in the Senate and all 435 seats in the House of Representatives. What is at risk? If Democrats keep the majority in both chambers of Congress, President Joe Biden has the chance to push through his quite promising policy agenda regarding climate change mitigation actions with less opposition. If Republicans prevail, there could be political gridlock. What is “on the ballot” includes oil and gas leases, public lands, carbon emissions and forest fire management, to mention a few issues.

The stakes are high

Latest reports from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change make it clear that humanity’s chances of preventing global temperatures from exceeding the 2015 target set by the Paris Agreement are rapidly diminishing.

Yet, unfortunately, the climate crisis has not received as much attention in this election cycle as in the previous one, even though the crisis is causing increasing damage to lives and livelihoods across the world, not excluding the United States, with more droughts and forest fires, more rain and flooding from storms, and record-breaking heat waves. People genuinely feel what is at stake. But will their votes reflect this? Is climate change part of their decision?

We have long known that the climate agreement limits global warming to no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. This would help us mitigate the worsening impacts of climate change. However, this requires serious actions, meaning the rapid reduction in the use of fossil fuels and the development of renewable energy sources, and proper policies are necessary for countries to do them.

Policies – help or hinder?

Utilities and consumers are pushed in the right direction as renewables become cheaper than natural gas. However, more is needed to make the transition to clean energy smooth and fast enough.

In order for the US to meet its commitments under the Paris Agreement, Biden has pledged to reduce the country’s greenhouse gas emissions by 50 percent by 2030, and the US re-signed the agreement from which former President Donald Trump withdrew. Right now, Democrats have majorities in the House of Representatives and the Senate, and up until now, have passed legislation seen as steps in the right direction by environmental scientists and policy experts. One of the key tools to achieve the wonderful goals is the Inflation Reduction Act (2022), which would allocate tens of billions of dollars to encourage clean energy production, electric vehicle use and efforts to reduce carbon emissions. As part of the Inflation Reduction Act, for example, a 5 billion dollar fund would be allocated to sustainable forestry, including restoration projects, urban forest projects, forest management and planning activities, which is more urgent than ever.

Actions needed on the federal, state and local levels

A lot must be done at the federal, state and local levels. While some Republicans have discussed the need to address climate change and support a domestic clean energy industry, the party has no serious plans to address climate change. It opposes the abandonment of fossil fuels and seeks to increase US oil and gas production. Of course, this can be said about certain Democrats, such as Senator Joe Manchin, who represents the big coal-mining state of West Virginia.

It is unlikely that Republicans will be able to undo the Inflation Reduction Act provisions without a significant majority in both houses of Congress. However, if they win back either chamber, they could have a chance to delay or entirely block certain measures that would be important to implement in order to reduce emissions, or they could support opening more US land to oil and gas drilling.

Republicans could also cut budgets and staff at government agencies, such as the Environmental Protection Agency, which Republicans have often accused of excessive climate regulation. Republicans have also indicated that they are less likely to support emissions-reduction provisions in the farm bill, a major spending bill negotiated roughly every five years and is due in 2023.

Water rights – uncertain future

Two governors’ races could affect the 40 million Americans who get their water under the century-old Colorado River compact. A “megadrought” that has lasted for 22 years has pushed the mighty Colorado River well beyond its limits. To deal with the extreme lack of water, the Department of the Interior took a quite surprising step earlier this year, demanding governors of the seven states that get water from the river come up with an emergency plan to reduce use drastically. If they did not comply, the agency’s Bureau of Reclamation would do it for them. The deal has yet to be finished and is currently on hold, and how things turn out in Arizona and Nevada could delay a state-run plan. In these states, the Republicans, who have quite unorthodox water plans, could end up winning.

Emissions trajectory

In California and New York, ballot propositions have been passed that would provide billions of dollars for various climate and environmental initiatives. States will also play an essential role in implementing the Inflation Reduction Act.

Generally speaking, Democratic-controlled states have made more commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions; in Republican-controlled states, any movement in this direction has been largely based on economic considerations only. Therefore, USA midterm elections are going to have a huge impact on each state’s emission trajectory.

“We really believe the Biden administration and Congress are just getting started taking action on these issues. We’ve never seen change at this level, and from our perspective, whether it can continue comes down to Congress. A bunch of critical House and Senate races across the country.” – said Lead Donahey, the federal advocacy campaigns director for the League of Conservation Voters. This non-partisan environmental lobbying group has endorsed and run ads supporting Democratic candidates this election.

Andrea Nyilas is a Life Cycle Assessment and Sustainability Consultant and a Sustainability and Environmental journalist. She holds a Master of Science degree in Environmental Sciences and Policy from Central European University, in addition to a Master of Arts degree in Economics from the Corvinus University of Budapest. She is particularly interested in circular economy, natural resource management, and waste reduction.