The New Politics of Climate Change

The dust is settling on the 2018 midterms—and no plan to fight global warming has emerged unscathed.

A collage of images of Nancy Pelosi, Carlos Curbelo, and Jay Inslee
Republican Representative Carlos Curbelo (left), House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, and Governor Jay Inslee of Washington State (Jonathan Ernst / Leah Millis / Alex Wong / Getty / The Atlantic)

There were some elections last week in the United States.

The results were pretty good for the climate-concerned. Democrats swept into the House of Representatives, winning nearly 40 seats in the chamber. For the first time since 2010, the chair of the House Science Committee will affirm the reality of human-caused climate change.

It was a fine Tuesday, in other words, for the day-to-day climate advocacy of the Democratic Party. And since Democrats also won a majority of state attorney-general slots, it was an even better Tuesday for their power to fight Donald Trump’s climate agenda in court. In fact, it’s entirely possible that for Americans who care about climate change, it was the best Tuesday since November 8, 2016.

But it wasn’t perfect. Climate change needs more than day-to-day partisan advocacy. As I’ve written before, Democrats lack a climate strategy: While the party’s leaders preach about the problem’s urgency, it’s unclear what they actually want to do next time they control Congress and the White House. Democrats have also allowed nonpartisan economists to dominate climate-policy conversations, leading to proposals that inspire nobody but other nonpartisan economists. Democrats also lack an obvious path to near-term power in the Senate, making sweeping climate legislation unlikely.

Democrats have many problems, in other words. Meanwhile, Earth will keep warming.

But Democrats are not the only ones flailing. In the wake of President Trump’s victory, climate advocates across the political spectrum have cast about for paths forward—and they have assembled (loosely) into a few different teams. Each is built around what might be called a theory of change: If we only got everyone on board with this plan, then we could finally pass a big climate policy in the United States. These camps make up the climate battle that happens behind the scenes.

Last Tuesday was only one election, encompassing thousands of candidates who campaigned on issues that mostly weren’t climate change. It would be ludicrous to try to extract lasting takeaways for the climate movement from that range of specific, never-to-be-repeated contests. It would generate some flawed conclusions. It might even be a fundamentally silly exercise. But let’s try it anyway. I looked closely at climate advocates’ theories of change to see which could claim vindication from the midterm results, and I’m not sure a single one emerged looking vastly stronger and more obviously correct than it did before.

Theory 1: Team Bipartisan

One popular argument holds that climate change will only be solved by working across the aisle. This camp has long rallied around the Climate Solutions Caucus, a group of House members that has stayed perfectly bipartisan by design: A Democrat can only join the group if he or she convinces a Republican to join too (and vice versa). Though committed to no particular policy, the caucus is affiliated with the Citizens’ Climate Lobby, a similarly nonpartisan association that calls for a carbon fee. The caucus has never passed legislation, but it has seemed popular, and by last month it boasted 90 members.

Yet in the election, it hemorrhaged members—and lost one of its co-founders. Carlos Curbelo, a moderate Republican from southern Florida, helped establish the caucus two years ago; he also proposed a symbolic carbon-tax bill this summer that, while criticized by many environmentalists, would have allowed the United States to meet its commitments under the Paris Agreement. Curbelo lost his election, and a Democrat will represent his district next year.

He isn’t the only climate moderate gone. Twenty-two of the Climate Solutions Caucus’s 43 voting GOP members will be out of the next Congress; at least 21 of their districts will be represented by Democrats. Caucus members who survived the election look a little less like Curbelo and a little more like Matt Gaetz: a Fox News regular who occasionally talks about climate change but who once sought to “terminate the EPA.

This destruction doesn’t bode well for #TeamBipartisan. Curbelo’s apparent concern for the climate did not help him last Tuesday—nor did it make the Democratic Party less aggressive about pursuing his seat. So barring something unprecedented—like a bunch of Republicans from deep-red districts suddenly deciding to address climate change specifically—the results suggest that a bipartisan, caucus-based approach to fixing climate change is unstable. Democrats will always try to pick off the GOP’s moderates, on climate change or any other issue. And as the Republican Party becomes even Trumpier and the number of moderates in Congress continues to decline, a bipartisan caucus seems far more likely to provide flimsy cover for endangered suburban Republicans than to lead to substantive legislative opportunities for climate-concerned Democrats.

Theory 2: Think Globally, Act Municipally

Over the past two years, powerful progressives have insisted that cities and states—and especially blue states—are now leading the fight against climate change. Twenty states and 50 major cities have vowed to honor the Paris Agreement and attempt to cut their carbon emissions. Michael Bloomberg even sorta, kinda represents this group internationally, as the United Nations special envoy for climate action. “We’re going to do everything America would have done if it had stayed committed,” he said last year.

Yet last week, one of the most progressive and outdoorsy states in the country defeated a ballot question that would have established America’s first carbon tax. Initiative 1631 in Washington State would have charged companies $15 for every ton of carbon pollution they emit, then spent the windfall on solar and wind energy, new transit projects, and wilderness conservation. It was endorsed by every major environmental group, every major civil-rights group, 19 local tribal nations, Bill Gates, and—in case liberals weren’t convinced—REI.

Statewide, Democrats trounced in last week’s elections: Almost 59 percent of voters reelected the Democrat Maria Cantwell to the U.S. Senate. Yet nearly the same number, 56 percent, rejected the carbon-tax measure. It doesn’t exactly inspire confidence in the “states and cities” plan.

Now, Washington is not necessarily an ideal test case for carbon-tax advocates. Even among progressives, there’s a high degree of opposition to any kind of taxes in the state: Washington is one of seven states in the union that does not levy an income tax. In the past century, its voters have rejected revenue-raising ballot questions 75 percent of the time.

But at the same time, it’s not like the state is a crimson-red redoubt full of hippie-hating shut-ins. The state gives Trump some of his worst approval numbers. “Doing fun stuff in nature” is basically the Evergreen State’s unofficial civic religion. Washingtonians are slightly more likely than Americans as a whole to express concern about global warming. Yet three times in the past two years its voters or legislators have nixed an innovative new climate law.

Nearly two years after Trump’s inauguration, there’s still only one state—California—that can claim to have anything like a robust, economy-wide climate program. And while California’s policies have been expanded and strengthened by a Democratic “trifecta,” one of its most important climate laws was signed into law in 2006 by a moderate Republican governor. (Albeit a very unusual Republican—a former movie star who would probably not be a Republican today.)

Nick Abraham, who organized the ballot campaign in Washington, told me that the difficulty lay in converting urban support for climate policy into state-level victories.

“The wider you go, the harder this thing is,” he said. He pointed to a successful ballot question in Portland, Oregon, that imposed a new tax on large retailers to fund wind and solar projects. “I’m sure we won Seattle by the same margin that Portland won their initiative,” he said.

Theory 3: The Exxon of My Enemy Is My Friend

Some have argued that fossil-fuel companies are key to combatting climate change. ExxonMobil, Shell, and BP have all called for a carbon tax in the United States. Last month, Exxon even donated $1 million to the nonprofit that supports their preferred plan; BP’s chief executive has promised to cut emissions and made concerned noises about climate change to The New York Times.

“A company getting behind its product being taxed is a very rare thing,” remarked Lawrence Summers, a Harvard economist and former treasury secretary, after the Exxon news broke. “This reflects a new and important awareness that we have to do big things about climate.”

Yet those same fossil-fuel companies bankrolled the campaign against Washington’s proposed carbon tax. BP dumped $13 million into the state in order to block the measure—even though it claims to support a carbon tax. Overall, a handful of oil companies spent $31 million to defeat the initiative, making it the most expensive ballot-question fight in Washington State history.

The scale of that spend will only increase suspicions that the oil industry’s claimed support for climate policy is not in good faith. And it will intensify pressure on Democrats to swear off all donations from fossil-fuel companies.

Theory 4: A Tax by Any Other Name Would Be More Sweet

For decades, economists have favored carbon prices because they create disincentives for carbon emissions without picking technological winners and losers among alternate energy sources. The most famous scholar of carbon taxes won a Nobel Prize in economics this year. But American voters have not had the same ardor for the idea, even when they love renewable energy (which carbon taxes will support) and want to regulate carbon emissions (which carbon taxes do). And some critics, especially on the left, have recently grown skeptical of the policy as a cure-all for climate change. They do not reject carbon taxes entirely, but insist that they should be one small aspect of a much more ambitious platform.

Truth be told, carbon-tax opponents probably had the best night of anyone last Tuesday. Americans seem to prefer climate “kludges”: policies that obviously help one technology or explicitly ban another. Economists can lament all they want that these policies waste money compared with a carbon tax; for now, voters don’t seem to care. In Nevada, voters passed a measure to require power companies to get half of their energy from renewables by 2050. In Florida, voters opted to ban all offshore drilling—while simultaneously banning all indoor vaping. (That is not a joke.)

These policies were not victorious everywhere. A pro-renewables measure failed in Arizona after the state utility spent $54 million to oppose it. Yet at least for now, climate kludges seem to be more popular than carbon prices. And researchers are adapting. On the morning after the election, the Carnegie Mellon University energy economist Costa Samaras rattled off a long list of policies on Twitter that he implied would now take center stage in a climate policy. They included new tax credits, loan guarantees, and the subsidized purchase of electric-vehicle fleets.

“It’s sub-optimal,” he said, “but so are most sandwiches and I still eat them.”

So where does all this lead? I suspect we already have a preview. Exactly one week after the election, nearly 200 activists held a demonstration at Nancy Pelosi’s office on Capitol Hill. They called for House Democrats to begin generating a “Green New Deal”: a comprehensive strategy on climate change that would rival “Medicare for all” in its aspirational but policy-dense pithiness. They demanded broad but often easy-to-visualize goals, like generating 100 percent of U.S. electricity through renewable sources. They also demanded the full decarbonization and repair of transportation infrastructure, as well as a “massive investment” in technology that can remove greenhouse gas from the air.

Not once did they mention a carbon tax: a market-based solution that had once been the gold-standard policy for an earlier generation of climate leaders, like Al Gore. The era of proud climate kludging has begun.