Let’s get right to it: Come January, Republicans are likely to control both houses of Congress. The signs are lining up. After a summer when Democrats saw glimmers of hope—and when they seemed likely to retain the Senate—the light has faded. GOP control of the House of Representatives seems all but assured, and as of yesterday, prediction models suggest that the Senate will tip as well.
If history is any indication, a Republican Congress could spell doom for climate policy. Since the early 1990s, when the GOP took a turn toward climate-change denialism, the party has been one of the world’s top enemies of climate policy. For years, it was one of the few major political parties in a developed country that rejected the reality of human-caused climate change. When Republicans won the House in 2010, two years into Barack Obama’s presidency, it set back American climate politics for years, putting a generation of open climate-science doubters in Congress. They tried to fire White House climate advisers, hectored environmental officials, shut down the House’s global-warming committee, and doomed what had been a bipartisan effort to tax carbon pollution.
Of course, plenty of congressional Republicans—more than 130, by one count—still deny the reality of human-caused climate change. But some members of the party claim that they’ve evolved since then. This year, House Republicans unveiled a new Conservative Climate Caucus that, in a fascinating circumlocution, sort of recognizes that fossil fuels are causing the planet to warm. (“The climate is changing, and decades of a global industrial era that has brought prosperity to the world has also contributed to that change,” the group has said.) The caucus now has 74 members, including Representative Frank Lucas of Oklahoma, who is likely to lead the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee next year. Lucas has called “the need to address global climate change” one of that committee’s “two most immediate challenges.” (Not that he’s a dyed-in-the-fleece environmentalist: He also has a 5 percent lifetime score from the League of Conservation Voters.)
So what will this new Republican Congress actually mean for climate policy? Three factors will help determine what could happen next.
First, and most crucial, the party will want to own Joe Biden—to defeat him, humiliate him, smash his presidency into bits. As my colleague Barton Gellman has reported, the House might impeach Biden at some point in the next year, simply because its rhetorical groundwork will leave it no other choice.
These same dynamics seem likely to all but force the party to target the president’s climate policy as well, because climate policy has been so central to Biden’s presidency. The president’s three big bills—the bipartisan infrastructure law, the CHIPS and Science Act, and especially the Inflation Reduction Act—cement emissions reduction as a core goal of American economic policy. On the face of it, you would expect Republicans to attack these policies and the officials implementing them. Many Republicans will want to turn the IRA, which got zero Republican votes, into Biden’s Obamacare: a legislative boondoggle that stands for the broader problems of his presidency. The IRA funds two public-financing agencies to help create more green industry in the U.S. Both will be natural targets of aggressive, and even destructive, Republican oversight in the coming Congress.
But that will be tricky because the public doesn’t seem to hate the IRA like it disliked the Affordable Care Act. Republicans will also have to navigate that the IRA isn’t so far from the climate policies that they have recently mooted; certainly, it’s much closer to their views than Obama’s 2009-era climate policies were. In 2011 and 2012, for instance, conservatives hammered the Obama administration for making a high-profile $535 million loan to the solar-panel manufacturer Solyndra, which later went bankrupt. The episode represented all the failures of liberal economic planning, Mitt Romney said on the presidential-campaign trail: Democrats used taxpayer money to pick winners and losers in the economy, and those winners didn’t even succeed.
But since then, Republicans have warmed to similar industrial policies because they will, at least in theory, help the American economy better compete with China’s. “We need capitalism,” Senator Marco Rubio of Florida said last year. But “in those instances in which the market’s most efficient outcome is one that’s bad for our people, for our national security, for our national interest, bad for America—in those instances, what we need is targeted industrial policy to further the common good and to protect our people, our country, and our future.” It’s also clear now that Solyndra failed in part because China’s policies enabled its own factories to spit out solar panels far more cheaply than U.S. factories could.
The second factor is that economic incentives will pull the party in two directions. The GOP has historically been close to the fossil-fuel industry: Since 1990, more than two-thirds of the oil-and-gas industry’s donations to candidates and party committees have flowed to Republicans, according to the watchdog group OpenSecrets. There’s no reason to expect that trend to slow.
But the green transition is also a windfall for rural areas, and that means—given the country’s increasing urban-rural polarization—it’s a windfall for Republican districts. As the analysts Liam Denning and Jeff Davies have shown, most of the country’s new zero-carbon energy infrastructure is getting built in securely GOP districts. For instance, Kevin McCarthy, who in all likelihood will be the next speaker of the House, actually lives in the country’s No. 1 district for planned and operating grid-scale battery projects. Nine of the 10 congressional districts with the most planned or operating renewable capacity, in fact, are held by Republicans. This concentration will only intensify as the IRA pumps more money into zero-carbon infrastructure. Ford’s four new electric-vehicle and battery factories, for instance, are being built in deep-red Kentucky and Tennessee.
For this reason, Credit Suisse analysts concluded in a recent report that the GOP is unlikely to repeal the IRA even if it clinches a trifecta in 2024. The question in the short term is whether that political concern changes the party’s oversight agenda.
Finally, the party has long-term electoral concerns to consider. Combatting climate change is far more popular than it was in 2010. “Obviously McCarthy wants to win the midterms and become the speaker of the House, but he also understands that if he wants a longer-term majority for Republicans, then climate change and environmental issues broadly have to feature as a part of the party platform,” Christopher Barnard, the policy director of the American Conservation Coalition, told me. That group has helped establish new pro-climate GOP efforts, framing its work as crucial to reaching the voters of the future, including women, independents, and younger voters.
Perhaps the most catastrophic outcome for the climate is not that the GOP targets Biden’s climate policy, specifically, but that it takes aim at his whole administration through budgetary showdowns or by letting the government lapse into endless shutdowns. That would sap some of Biden’s power, and some of his precious days in office, to implement the IRA’s important tax provisions.
There are lots of good reasons—economic, political, and electoral—that it might be unwise for Republicans to try to smash Biden’s climate policy. But they may pale in comparison with what’s virtually certain to be the supreme goal of any Republican majority: opposing Biden by any means possible.