The last two years in American politics have spelled trouble for the global climate, thanks largely to the Trump administration. And the next two years probably won’t be much better, given the results of Tuesday’s midterm elections.
Voters failed to pass a historic ballot initiative in Washington state to create the first-ever carbon tax in the United States. They rejected a ballot measure to increase renewable energy in Arizona, and to limit fracking in Colorado. Some of Congress’ most outspoken climate deniers held onto their seats. Several candidates who ran on explicitly pro-climate agendas lost.
Democrats did not quite get the blue wave they wanted, but it was even worse for environmentalists. There was no green wave whatsoever. That’s partially because of record political spending by the fossil fuel industry to oppose pro-climate initiatives, but also because of the Democratic Party’s failure as a whole to draw much attention to the issue.
The midterm elections were always going to be consequential for climate change. The world’s governments only have about twelve years to implement policies that can limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. That’s the point at which catastrophic impacts begin, according to a recent report from an international consortium of scientists.
The U.S., as the largest historical emitter of greenhouse gases, is essential to achieving that target. But for the last two years, the U.S. government has been ignoring the need to reduce emissions—and in many cases, actively working against it. Along with withdrawing from the Paris climate agreement, President Donald Trump has been attempting to repeal and weaken existing climate regulation, with the support of the Republican-controlled Congress.
The midterms gave voters two opportunities to change America’s course on climate change. They could have elected a Congress that would no longer support Trump’s anti-climate agenda. And they could have approved strong statewide climate policies to counter the federal government’s inaction.
Voters took the first opportunity, but only slightly. Democrats won the House of Representatives, making it near-impossible for Trump to pass any anti-climate legislation.
But voters didn’t elect many candidates who ran on pro-climate agendas. Environmentalists had hoped that Florida, being on the front lines of climate change, would make history in that regard. But Democratic Senator Bill Nelson, a climate champion, was unseated by Governor Rick Scott, a Republican accused of banning the word climate from state government websites. And Democratic gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum, who pledged to act swiftly on climate, lost to a Republican who has dismissed the problem.
Voters rejected almost every opportunity to enact strong state-level climate policies. The biggest failure by far was in Washington. Initiative 1631 would have made the state the first in the country to charge polluters for their emissions. The proceeds from the carbon fee could have provided Washington with “as much as $1 billion annually by 2023 to fund government programs related to climate change,” Fortune reported, and “potentially kickstart a national movement to staunch greenhouse gases.” The measure lost by 12 percentage points.
The renewable energy ballot initiative in Arizona also presented a big opportunity to reduce emissions. Proposition 127 would have required electric companies in Arizona to get half of their power from renewable sources like solar and wind by 2030. (In a rare win for the environment on Tuesday, Nevada voters passed their own version of that initiative.) Proposition 112, Colorado’s ballot initiative to keep oil and gas drilling operations away from where people live, was far more about protecting public health than it was about limiting climate change. But the effect would have been to limit further fossil fuel extraction in the state.
The oil and gas industry spent quite a lot of money opposing all of these pro-climate ballot initiatives. The campaign against Washington’s carbon fee “raised $20 million, 99 percent of which has come from oil and gas,” according to Vox. The carbon fee was thus one of the most expensive ballot initiative fights in Washington state history. The renewable energy fight in Arizona was also the most expensive in state history because of oil industry spending. The same was true for Colorado’s anti-fracking measure, as the oil and gas industry clearly spent nearly $40 million opposing it.
While Tuesday’s results show the impact of massive political spending by the fossil fuel lobby, they also shine a light on Democrats’ failure to mobilize voters on the issue. The Democratic Party has failed to treat climate change with much, if any urgency this election season. According to The New York Times, the “vast majority” of the party’s candidates did not mention the problem “in digital or TV ads, in their campaign literature or on social media.” And the party’s leaders in Congress have given little indication that they intend to prioritize climate change in the future. Is it any wonder voters weren’t excited about solving the problem, either?
Correction: A previous version of this story stated that Nevada voters rejected Question 6, a ballot initiative on renewable energy. The measure won.