Most environmental progress in the next two years will have to come from the White House
Environmentalists had particular reason to celebrate as outgoing lawmakers handed in the keys to their congressional offices. “We’re really, really happy,” says Tiernan Sittenfeald, senior vice president for government affairs at the League of Conservation Voters (LCV). “We view the 112th Congress as the most anti-environmental in history.”
Sittenfeld isn’t the only green with a grievance against the outgoing class of lawmakers. A recent Sierra Club analysis found that almost a fifth of all votes held by the Republican-controlled House of Representatives over the past two years included measures designed to undermine environmental protections.
Of 247 anti-environmental votes held by mid-June 2012, more than three dozen sought to block climate action, and 77 aimed to undermine America’s clean-air protections — worse even than the record achieved by then-Speaker Newt Gingrich during his “war on the environment” in the mid-90s, notes the Sierra Club’s Paul Rauber.
Congress’s abysmal record helped environmental groups raise millions of dollars and mobilise thousands of volunteers in the run-up to the 2012 election. The results speak for themselves, says the LCV’s Sittenfeld: while the GOP kept control of the House, 11 out of 12 politicians targeted for their anti-environmental voting records ultimately lost their races.
Defeated candidates included ex-Sen. George Allen of Virginia, a Republican with a 1% lifetime rating on the LCV’s environmental scorecard?; Rep. Dan Lungren of California, who denied climate change in a debate with his Democratic rival; and Rep. Joe Walsh of Illinois, who had called for the abolition of the Environmental Protection Agency.
Meanwhile, pro-environmental candidates performed strongly across the board — perhaps most notably in the Senate, where outspokenly green candidates such as Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Martin Heinrich of New Mexico, and Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin all won closely contested races.
The influx of eco-friendly senators is especially important, Sittenfeld says, because it gives Democrats “a firewall of environmental support” that should help ensure House-enacted anti-environmental measures aren’t passed into law.
It will be harder, though, to pass positive legislation or to enact sweeping climate reforms. “There are still a lot of climate deniers in the House,” Sittenfeld says. “It’s not like we think that we’re going to be passing all kinds of great environmental legislation through the House anytime soon.”
That legislative stalemate leaves the ball firmly in President Barack Obama’s court, agrees David Goldston, director of government affairs at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “Our view is that most environmental progress in the next two years will have to come from the White House, using the authority it has under existing law,” he says.
That’s a strategy the Obama administration has been following since 2010, when Congress failed to pass a major cap-and-trade bill. Convinced that legislative efforts were a dead end, Obama began using the executive branch’s regulatory authority to unilaterally tackle issues such as automobile fuel efficiency and power-plant mercury emissions.
If Obama and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) continue in that vein, the next few years could see some big environmental wins even without fresh legislation, Goldston says. Greens are particularly eager to see new rules tackling greenhouse emissions from power plants, a move that could significantly shrink America’s industrial carbon footprint.
“The fact is the administration has the bully pulpit,” Goldston says. “Done the right way, power plant limits can actually make a significant cut in carbon pollution at an affordable cost.”
The executive branch can’t solve America’s climate crisis alone, but by taking the first steps Obama might convince voters — and eventually even Republican lawmakers — that environmental issues can be addressed effectively without tanking the U.S. economy.
That’s been the case in areas such as California, where once-controversial environmental efforts have gradually won broader support, Goldston says. “It gets demystified, and can’t be demonised in the same way,” he says.
Even so, breaking congressional gridlock will be a slow process. The rise of the Tea Party has left Congress more polarised than ever, with many moderate Republicans worried that they could face right-wing primary challenges if they speak out on environmental issues, says Rob Sisson, president of conservative pressure group ConservAmerica.
“I firmly believe that a majority of Republicans in Congress believe that climate change is a serious issue … but the landscape needs to change to make it safe for them to talk about that,” Sisson says.
That could take years — and in the meantime, nobody’s expecting the 113th Congress to start passing meaningful environmental legislation. At best, says the LCV’s Sittenfeld, the House will find its environmental attacks blocked by a revitalised Senate and White House, prompting Republican leaders to look for easier victories elsewhere.
“Hopefully they can be slightly less crazy than they were over the last two years,” she says.
When it comes to American environmental politics, that’s about as optimistic as it gets.
Ben Whitford is the Ecologist’s U.S. correspondent. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.