Monday, November 8, 2010

US Climate Policy with a Republican House

Below is a blog post from IISS intern, Marie Steinrucke, with a good analysis of how climate policy affected the elections, and what that means for policy going forward.  I’ve presented it mostly unchanged.   I’m hopeful that there’s space for agreement and compromise on climate policy in the next Congress, but certainly there is some reason for pessimism. 

Since the Republicans regained control of the house on November 2nd, newspapers and blogs have been debating to what extent the GOP victory will affect possible climate change legislation. Opinions are sharply divided between those who believe that the election outcome will be detrimental for climate change action and those who say that the election was only marginally about the issue.

In analysing the possible effects of the GOP wins it is useful to look at how voting on the Waxman-Markey climate bill affected candidates’ re-election. In his blog for the Council on Foreign Relations, Michael Levi asserts that the issue of cap-and-trade mattered only in individual races, but did little for the overall victory of the Republicans in the house. Furthermore, when the bill did matter in individual races, it tended to be in those battles where the Democratic candidate was already in deep trouble. Samuelson and Bravender of Politico argue on the contrary, saying that many incumbent Democrats, particularly from rural, suburban and industrial districts lost their seats in part due to their vote on the climate bill.

The big question remains: how does all this affect President Obama’s big plans for energy reform? The truth may be that Obama has already accepted some degree of defeat on the energy front and realizes that sweeping reforms in the energy sector fall in the category of wishful thinking in the current political climate. The New York Times recently quoted him saying: “Cap and trade was just one way of skinning the cat; it is not the only way.” He was open to introduce smaller policy ‘bites’ in order to attract Republicans. Obama probably knew that any cap-and-trade policy was impossible, at least for now, when it failed to pass in the Senate this summer. The question will be whether Republican members of Congress will accept even small concessions on the energy front or whether they will categorically oppose reform suggestions in a harsh economic climate. President Obama is facing a new Congress in which many newly-elected members do not believe in the concept of global warming caused by humans and the new speaker of the house, John Boehner (R-OH) has labelled energy reform solutions as “job-killing energy taxes.”

Proponents of climate change action do have one victory to flaunt after the November 2nd slaughter. In California, voters vehemently opposed proposition 23, a ballot initiative that would have reversed state-wide clean-energy requirements. In its reporting on the issue, the Christian Science Monitor called this rejection a sign that the election was about housing and jobs, not about energy issues.

Although one may argue about the importance of energy reform legislation in the 2010 midterm election, it remains to be seen how the shift towards a Republican controlled house will affect President Obama’s energy agenda. Will he be able to frame the debate in a way acceptable to Republicans or will they form a wall of resistance? The change certainly means that he will have to unite his own party on energy issues, a difficult task in itself. One can hope that the Obama administration will see its party’s losses as an incentive to re-frame the energy debate to make it more appealing to conservative leaders.  

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