Environmental groups are viewing the Democratic takeover of the House of Representatives as the first step in stopping the barrage of environmental rollbacks the nation has experienced over the past two years. The number of climate champions — at federal and state levels — who won election on Tuesday also is providing a glimmer of hope for stemming the climate crisis.
As they seek to change the nation’s priorities, Democratic policymakers must keep in mind a warning issued by the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in a report released last month: the world has only a dozen years to solve the climate crisis or else face catastrophic conditions.
California billionaire Tom Steyer sought to put the midterm elections into context with the climate crisis during a press briefing on Wednesday at the National Press Club in Washington.
“Flipping the House was a big step forward. But we have to realize that’s just a step and that there is not an other side to this argument where we can compromise our way to victory,” said Steyer, referring to the Republican Party’s intransigence on the issue.
Steyer, one of the biggest Democratic donors, founded NextGen Climate Action in 2013 to advocate for climate action. He has also helped fund ThinkProgress.
Using the conclusions in the new IPCC report as a guide, Steyer explained what will happen if the nation keeps waiting for the Republican Party to play catch-up on recognizing the seriousness of human-caused climate change. “The U.N. described not solving the climate problem by 2030 as causing unimaginable suffering,” he said.
With its return to controlling the House, Democrats will have new powers that will allow them to take steps, albeit small ones, on environmental and climate issues. Soon after taking control of the House in January, Democrats are expected to use their authority as committee chairs to conduct aggressive oversight of federal agencies that have been permitted to run amok by the Republican-controlled Senate and House.
The Democratic takeover will allow “much-needed scrutiny” by congressional committees of the Trump Administration’s dismantling of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), according to Environmental Integrity Project Executive Director Eric Schaeffer, who formerly served as director of civil enforcement at the EPA.
“We expect House committee hearings to shine a bright spotlight on this betrayal of EPA’s intended purpose. To paraphrase Justice Louis Brandeis, sunlight is the best disinfectant,” Schaeffer said Wednesday in a statement.
The heads of the EPA, the Department of the Interior, and the Department of Energy will likely be asked to appear before House committees to explain their anti-environment and pro-fossil fuel policies, as well as answer for alleged misconduct inside their departments.
House Democrats, in particular, are vowing to probe the Trump administration’s attempt to replace the Interior Department’s inspector general who had asked the Department of Justice to look into Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s role in a Montana land deal linked to a Halliburton chairman.
Rep. Frank Pallone (D-NJ), who is expected to take over as chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, promised Wednesday to address climate change and to “hold the administration accountable for its policies that make it worse.” As committee chairman, Pallone also vowed to work on restoring environmental protections gutted since Trump took office.
At the press briefing on Wednesday, Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club, said House Democrats are likely to follow three tracks in the next congressional session targeting investigations, ethics, and legislation. This strategy could have widespread policy implications in the House, including how the governing body addresses environmental regulation and climate change.
One track, Brune said, will be investigating the alleged corruption and misconduct inside the Trump administration, including its “collusion with polluters.” Brune expressed optimism that many of the acts of alleged misconduct by officials at the EPA, Interior Department, and other agencies will be “unearthed.”
— LCV (@LCVoters) November 8, 2018
In the wake of scandals at the EPA, Interior Department, and other agencies, another track will be for the Democratic leadership to offer a package of ethics reforms — reforms to strengthen American democracy, as Brune described it.
Along with a strong emphasis on enforcement, Brune said the third track will be the introduction of pro-environment and pro-climate legislation.
“We fully expect the House to enact of series of measures on climate change, on climate action, on clean energy, holding polluters accountable and then put the pressure on the Senate to do the same thing,” he said.
Democrats also want to probe Trump’s response to Hurricane Maria, which left most of Puerto Rico without electricity for months, and caused an estimated 2,975 deaths.
“We are going to be looking at FEMA, specifically the response to the hurricane in Puerto Rico, but also the FEMA response more broadly,” Steny Hoyer, the second-ranking Democrat in the House, told Bloomberg News prior to the election.
In Tuesday’s elections, environment-friendly change also occurred at the state level. Several Democrats committed to fighting climate change gained several key governorships that could hasten local and national progress in clean energy.
Governors hold tremendous power over what happens in their states, including how rules under the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act promulgated by the EPA are enforced at the state level.
“Does a coal plant stay on line, or is it replaced with clean energy. Governors have a tremendous voice in that question,” Brune said.
The commitments made by governors for moving toward greater amounts of renewable energy, including 100 percent clean energy in some states, “will be deeply transformative,” he added.
In New Mexico, for example, Michelle Lujan Grisham easily won victory to become the first Latina elected governor. During her time in Congress, Lujan Grisham earned a 91 percent approval rating from the League of Conservation Voters. In 2017, she had a 100 percent rating.
“We will lead from today and [going forward] in renewable clean energy and we will be known as the clean energy state of America,” Lujan Grisham emphasized at the beginning of her victory speech Tuesday night.
In Maine, Janet Mills (D) won the governorship, becoming the first woman to lead the state. She will succeed Paul LePage, who has been one of Trump’s biggest supporters and put together a horrible record on environmental issues during his tenure.
For the past eight years, LePage has worked systematically to prevent the state from becoming energy independent and from fighting climate change, Mills said on her campaign website.
“My Administration will chart a new direction — one that will see Maine reclaim its place as a national leader in energy efficiency and renewable energy. We can reduce our spending on fossil fuels by billions of dollars, and at the same time create thousands of new jobs,” Mills proclaimed.
While Tuesday’s election results offered hope for climate activists, there were some setbacks. Sweeping climate initiatives failed to pass in both Washington and Colorado on Tuesday following a record-breaking multi-million dollar opposition effort from the oil industry.
In Arizona, voters rejected proposition Proposition 127, a measure that would have required electric utilities to obtain 50 percent of their electricity from renewable energy sources like solar or wind power by 2030.
“Despite a few losses against colossal fossil fuel cash infusions to fight local initiatives to restrain oil and gas development, we have hope that this is the beginning of a collective move towards meaningful climate action on a larger level,” Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food & Water Action, said Wednesday in a statement.
The nation is seeing the beginning of a “green wave” in the Democratic Party, according to Hauter, led by women like newly elected House members Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez from New York, Deb Haaland from New Mexico, one of the first two Native American women elected to Congress, and Rashida Tlaib from Michigan and Ilhan Omar from Minnesota, the first Muslim women elected to Congress.
The election results will put a “legislative check” on Trump’s anti-environment agenda, Hauter insisted. “What’s more, gains have been made at the state level, with progressive champions elected in legislatures across the country,” she said.
The Sunrise Movement, a group of young people who fought hard to elect progressive and pro-environment policymakers in 2018, highlighted how 19 of the 34 new House Democrats won without a dime of money from fossil fuel executives and lobbyists.
The group, however, is unimpressed with how House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi (CA) and the rest of the Democratic leadership have failed to put together a comprehensive strategy to combat climate change.
“To Pelosi and the new Democratic leadership in the House: we hear you have no plan to combat climate change. This is unforgivable,” Sunrise Movement founder Varshini Prakash said Wednesday in a statement. “Our generation will no longer tolerate empty promises or words without action.”
Prior to the midterms, Pelosi told The New York Times that she will seek to bring back the Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming, which existed under Democratic control from 2007 through 2011. Republicans disbanded the committee when they regained control of the House in the 2010 midterm elections.
Prakash also said her group fully understands the Republican Party will work hard to stall any progress on climate action, especially since the GOP maintains a lock on the Senate.
“We know that sweeping change isn’t possible until Trump is gone — but we need to start laying the groundwork now,” she emphasized. “We’re asking Pelosi and Democratic leaders to take up this fight alongside us, or step aside and make way for new leadership who will.”