What do the US midterms mean for the environment? | Environment| All topics from climate change to conservation | DW | 07.11.2018
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Environmental policy

What do the US midterms mean for the environment?

For the last two years, Trump has gutted US environmental regulation and promoted climate denial. But following Democratic gains, planet Earth should have more allies — at least in the House of Representatives.

United States President Donald Trump has withdrawn from the Paris Agreement, cut the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) budget and staffed it with climate skeptics, and ditched Barack Obama's keystone Clean Power Plan.

He and his allies at the EPA, the Department of Energy and the Department of the Interior have scrapped climate policy put in place by previous administrations — even as record-breaking hurricanes, heat waves and wildfires hit the US.

But with the Democrats taking control of the House of Representatives for the first time in eight years, Trump's opponents could thwart his determination to silence climate science and weaken environmental protections.

Read more: Trump's lasting damage to the environment

Thanu Yakupitiyage of environmental organization 350.org says last night's result was a win for the environment.

"We're not dealing with climate denial anymore, and that could have lasting impacts," she told DW.

Fresh focus on the environment

According to a survey by The Associated Press (AP), 26 percent of voters rated healthcare, and 23 percent immigration, as the most important issues facing the country during the first nationwide election under the Trump presidency.

In fifth place among voters was the environment, which only 7 percent said was a top priority.

Yet a separate poll by Yale University found that several US districts are deeply concerned about climate change and climate policies.

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The Trump presidency has had many US citizens aghast at their country's lack of climate action

According to its data, around 67 percent of residents in California's 48th district, which includes coastal Orange County, were worried about the impacts of flooding.

For residents of two districts in Texas — the 7th that includes Houston, and the 32nd that includes suburbs north of Dallas — extreme drought and heat waves were major concerns.

And a majority of Florida residents in district 26 — the state's southernmost region — were concerned about "climate gentrification" and rising sea levels.

They voted to oust incumbent House Republican Carlos Curbelo in favor of Democrat Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, who campaigned heavily on healthcare and environmental protection.

For a Republican, Curbelo had been seen as relatively supportive of climate protection, as he opposed Trump's exit from the Paris Agreement and had proposed a carbon tax. Curbelo was the GOP founder of the bipartisan Climate Solutions Caucus. Yet he had voted to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil exploration.

Such flips — from a relatively moderate Republican to a Democrat — could promote a wider divide between the parties.

Also significant were gains at the state level. Democrats racked up seven gubernatorial wins, stoking hopes for local climate action despite federal climate lethargy.

Big oil wins voters

Voters in Washington State had the chance to approve a statewide carbon tax, but following heavy campaigning by the fossil fuel industry that claimed consumers would be left out-of-pocket, voters rejected the plan.

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Big Oil also convinced voters in Colorado to reject limiting oil and gas drilling on non-federal land.

The utility also successfully campaigned in Arizona, where the electorate voted against plans to force energy companies to source at least half their electricity from renewables by 2030.

Such setbacks proved that the fossil fuel industry is still a powerful force in US politics, said Yakupitiyage: "They poured $100 million dollars into stopping progressive climate initiates, and essentially won."

But there were some key wins as well.

In Florida, voters banned offshore oil drilling (along with indoor vaping, also included on the same referendum); while Nevada voters passed an initiative to double the amount of solar, wind and other types of renewable energy provided by the state's electric company.  

Now that Democrats have a House majority, they must stand up for the interests of people and planet over rich companies, Yakupitiyage added.

"The Democrats in Congress need to hold the fossil fuel industry accountable and show just how dangerous they are," Yakupitiyage said. "By winning the House, the Democrats can keep Trump in line by enacting a system of checks and balances."

Steven Cohen, executive director of Columbia University's Earth Institute, agrees and pointed to the fact that revenue and spending starts in the House.

"Many of Trump's executive actions received little oversight and scrutiny — but with the Democrats now in control, they'll finally have the leverage they need to provide scrutiny into Trump's climate-denying administration," he told DW.

Before it's too late

Ahead of the vote, Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi promised that climate change would become a major issue if the Democrats took back the House.

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California is already rapidly expanding its renewable capacity, despite the president's promotion of fossil fuels

In a New York Times interview, she said she would revive a special committee to develop climate change legislation to curb the effects of greenhouse gases, which was effectively shut down by Republicans.

Cohen pointed out: "The Democrats don't have the White House or the Senate, so they'll still face problems."

"But with the newly gained leverage, they'll be able to delegate funding and oversight to enact climate change policies," he added.Yakupitiyage says this kind of action needs to include incentives for a rapid shift to cleaner energy.

"We're pumped about the Democratic win," she said. "But Democrats need to rapidly enact change at the local level to transition to renewables."

Read more: Climate action made in America — despite Trump

Not doing so could have catastrophic effects on the climate, as outlined in a recent landmark climate change report, she added. The report warned that the world needs to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 45 percent from 2010 levels by 2030, or face potentially grave consequences.

"We have little time to avoid a disastrous future. We need our politicians to enact change now," Yakupitiyage said.

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