The Climate Fight Will Only Intensify After the Midterms

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- The climate war was in full swing during Tuesday’s midterms. And the result, as with so much else, is greater polarization.

The most obvious battlegrounds were those states with energy or climate-related initiatives on the ballot. Both sides took some hits, but environmental activists were more bloodied come Wednesday morning. In particular, Colorado’s Proposition 112 setting distance limits on drilling and Washington’s Initiative 1631 to set up a carbon fee were the most hotly contested. Both went down to meaningful majorities. Victories in Florida (banning offshore drilling) and California (holding the line on gasoline taxes) were of much less consequence. Meanwhile, a win for renewable-energy advocates in Nevada must be set against a loss in neighboring Arizona. We can debate the magnitude of the vaunted blue wave, but there was definitely no green wave.

At the national level, the Democrats flipping the House is a plus for environmentalists. Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi, the front-runner to be Speaker, has said she would like to revive the committee focused on climate change that was defunded after Republicans took the House in 2010. And oversight of key committees can, in general, restrain agencies pushing President Donald Trump’s broad campaign of undermining action on climate change.

Even so, issues such as ethics and campaign laws, voting rights and whatever results from the Mueller investigation are likely to dominate House Democrats’ agenda. Along with the fact that Republicans strengthened their grip on the Senate, don’t expect any sweeping environmental legislation emanating from the House any time soon.

That’s even before considering the loss of Republican House members that were part of the bipartisan Climate Solutions Caucus. I was greeted this morning by an emailed announcement from the pro-fossil fuels Heartland Institute, telling me about the GOP element of the caucus getting “slaughtered” due to their “climate alarmist policies” (NB: Always keep lobbyists away from the thesaurus.) However, of the slaughtered 11, virtually all were in the sort of suburban districts that swung away from Trump and Republicans in general. Immediately blaming their stance on climate rather than, say, healthcare concerns or simple association with the president’s party is dubious indeed.

Nevertheless, the loss of any Republicans showing some semblance of concern from climate change — including Florida’s Carlos Curbelo, who actually introduced legislation to tax carbon emissions this summer — will serve to widen the divide in the House.

The upshot is that, despite the defeats inflicted on various environmental initiatives, the state level will still be the key climate battleground for the next two years at least.

While the ballot initiatives in Colorado and Washington were defeated, these fights may not be over yet, as ClearView Energy Partners, a D.C.-based research firm, has pointed out. Colorado’s next governor, the newly elected Jared Polis, has previously backed drilling constraints similar to Prop 112 (though he opposed this particular one). The question of how he might deal with a renewed push in 2020 may yet prompt legislative action to defuse the issue. Meanwhile, Washington’s peculiar mix of relatively high average incomes, low carbon intensity, and Democratic political control mean there will likely be another run at carbon pricing. And the California-D.C. face-off will continue.

In other words, America’s prevailing climate-policy cocktail of national gridlock and local unrest just got more potent.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Liam Denning is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering energy, mining and commodities. He previously was editor of the Wall Street Journal's Heard on the Street column and wrote for the Financial Times' Lex column. He was also an investment banker.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.