The Republicans vs. Climate Change

Climate change is a topic that is growing increasingly political. Andrew Stretton explores the future of President Obama’s environmental policy in light of the Republican Senate victory in the recent US mid-elections. 

Last week, the Republicans won control of the US Senate, meaning they now control both chambers of Congress. While this power shift won’t result in the Republicans having significantly more direct power, it will allow them additional influence over Barack Obama’s policies and agenda in his final two years as President. There will be meaningful changes to the chairs of several Senate committees and this is likely to have substantial effects on US climate, energy, and environmental policy.

Obama’s green credentials seemed assured in his first term, being perceived as America’s first ‘green president’ shortly after taking office. He spoke about the development of green energy as a way to transform the economy and protect US security, asking Congress to provide legislation to allow him to put a cap on carbon emissions and drive production of renewable energy. $100 billion dollars were put towards making private homes and government buildings more efficient, developing wind and solar power and improving public transport.

©Gage Skidmore/ Creative Commons license

Jim Inhofe ©Gage Skidmore/ Creative Commons license

For all of Obama’s attempts, the expected appointment of Republican Jim Inhofe as chair of the Environment and Public Works committee, which is in charge of climate change legislation, is likely to limit further progress. Inhofe, who chaired the committee from 2003 to 2007, is a prominent climate change denier. He has written a book claiming that climate change is a hoax and even compared the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which develops and enforces environmental regulations, to the Gestapo. He has also claimed that it is impossible for human caused climate change, or Anthropogenic Global Warming (AGW), to be true because “God’s still up there.” Inhofe cited evidence in the Bible and declared that humans should not be “able to change what He is doing in the climate”.

This expected appointment comes at a time when the scientific opinion on AWG has reached a consensus that is endorsed by over 97% of scientists who have written on the topic. It has also been revealed that the number of papers that rejected AWG has decreased over time and “is a vanishingly small proportion of the published research. A few days before the elections, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released their fifth comprehensive assessment report on the latest climate science and technical and socio-economic aspects of climate change. The report, written by over 800 expert authors, warns that should no action be taken on climate change “severe, widespread, and irreversible impacts” will be inflicted on both humanity and the natural world. At the report’s launch, UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, said “Science has spoken. There is no ambiguity in the message. Leaders must act. Time is not on our side”.

Given the conclusive verdict passed by scientists, it would be reasonable to expect that politicians would follow the strong recommendations and cap fossil fuel emissions and turn to renewable energy as soon as possible. However, for various reasons, a political consensus to pursue such strategies has yet to be established. In the US Senate, Inhofe is not alone in refusing to accept the overwhelming evidence of AWG. Come next January, Ron Johnson, Mike Enzi and Ted Cruz, all fellow climate change deniers, are expected to be the chairs of key Senate committees.

©Playing Futures/Creative Commons license

©Playing Futures/Creative Commons license

Why the denial?

A quick look into who funds politicians like Inhofe reveals the likely source of such widespread denial. Inhofe raised $4.6 million dollars for re-election in 2014, over ten times the amount of his closest challenger. His top contributors were Devon Energy (oil & gas), Boeing Co (aviation) and Murray Energy (coal mining), followed by many other fossil fuel companies including Koch Industries. It is a similar case for other deniers. Should Inhofe and his fellow climate change deniers have a change of heart, it is safe to assume that their considerable funding would diminish.

This round of US midterm elections saw a record $85 million pledged by environmental organisations and individuals such as Tom Steyer. However, this unprecedented spending still resulted in defeat at the ballot box. The harsh reality is that for every dollar environmental groups will spend, the fossil fuel corporations will always have a dollar more. For instance, the political network backed by the Koch brothers (owners of Koch Industries) was estimated to have spent over $300 million on the midterms, buying over 44,000 TV ads in the process.

What next for America and the World?

Despite Obama’s 2009 plea, Congress has proven to be uncooperative with his green policy attempts. As recently as May 2014, the Senate blocked an $85 billion tax cut which would have helped wind energy. It is now increasingly likely that successful climate change action in America will have to occur at a local level. World leaders have a self-imposed deadline to agree a new global climate deal by the conclusion of the Paris 2015 summit. With the current lack of political consensus, it will take a combination of strong leadership and public pressure, through protest or ballot box, to instigate real change.


The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.

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