In rapid succession, the results of this month’s election and the release of blockbuster new scientific studies are widening the distance between the politics and science of climate change.
The massive new study released by federal scientists Friday, like another landmark analysis in October from the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, identified an accelerating convergence of risks from a changing climate. Those threats range from heavier rainfall and deadlier heat waves to increased coastal flooding, transformed agricultural growing patterns and potentially severe reductions in economic growth.
In just the past few months, historically deadly wildfires in California and unusually powerful hurricanes in the Southeast have punctuated the message that climate change is shifting from something that will disrupt American life to something that already is doing so.
Yet the results in this month’s election underscored the political standoff that has blocked a federal response to the gathering threat.
On one side, Democrats mostly committed to action against climate change regained the majority in the House of Representatives and recaptured control of several governorships and state legislatures. They made those gains largely by expanding their support in well-educated suburbs where more voters tend to express concern about the changing climate. The increasing tilt of their caucus into those suburban areas could even make it easier for the party to reach consensus for action than in 2009, when the House Democratic majority narrowly passed “cap and trade” climate legislation that sharply divided urban liberals from rural and exurban moderates.
But simultaneously, Republicans this month expanded their hold on Senate seats from the states most heavily invested in the existing fossil fuel economy, both as energy producers and consumers. With their power reinforced by the filibuster rule that allows 41 senators to block any bill, those high-carbon states now constitute a seemingly impregnable brown barricade against federal legislation to reduce the carbon emissions linked to climate change. Those same states have provided the core of the Electoral College support for President Donald Trump, who said Monday that he doesn’t believe the climate change report and who has systematically moved to rescind former President Barack Obama’s regulatory initiatives to reduce carbon emissions.
These divergent electoral trends frame the likelihood that even as the scientific consensus solidifies on the dangers of climate change, the US political system will further splinter in its response to it.
With control of the House, Democrats are planning a quick flurry of hearings to highlight climate change questions and are debating whether to re-establish a special select committee to explore responses to the issue. Action in blue-leaning states is also likely to intensify. California Gov. Jerry Brown signed legislation this fall committing his state to 100% carbon-free energy by 2045, and other newly elected Democratic governors ran on similar commitments this year, including not only candidates in Southwestern states such as Colorado, New Mexico and Nevada but also Rust Belt battlegrounds including Michigan, Wisconsin, Illinois and Maine, according to the League of Conservation Voters, which promoted the pledge. Fifty-five newly elected Democratic House members also signed the pledge for transitioning to carbon-free energy sources.
But in the Senate, where the Republican majority is centered on states that emit the most carbon, there appears to be no prospect for action. A succession of Republican senators responded to the blockbuster federal report last weekend with what amounted to shrugs of dismissal. And the Trump administration effectively has disowned the report, which was the product of a massive federal interagency effort.
Patterns of energy use reinforce the general trend of American politics over the past quarter century toward an overlapping demographic and geographic resorting of the two parties’ coalitions. In all corners of the country, Democrats now run best in metropolitan areas that are experiencing high levels of demographic and cultural change and advancing fastest in the transition toward a digital, information-age economy. Simultaneously, Republicans have been consolidating their hold on non-metropolitan areas that remain preponderantly white, religiously and culturally traditional, and more rooted in the dominant 20th-century industries of manufacturing, energy production and agriculture.
The carbon divide
Carbon emissions, measured either per person or per dollar of economic activity, have emerged as one of the most revealing measures of that separation. Republicans now dominate almost all of the states that emit the most carbon per dollar of economic activity, most of them in the nation’s heartland. Meanwhile low-emitting states, primarily along the East and West coasts, have become the backbone of Democratic strength in Congress and the Electoral College. Carbon emissions thus follow the tracks of other divides between states that lean toward each party, such as the share of immigrants, college graduates or white Christians in the population.
That pattern is especially consequential in the Senate, where the two senators per state rule magnifies the influence of smaller, heavily rural states, which include many of the nation’s largest energy producers.
The federal Energy Information Administration ranks the states by the amount of carbon each emits to produce one dollar of gross domestic product. Even before November’s election, Republicans controlled 32 of the 40 Senate seats from the 20 states that emit the most carbon per dollar of economic output.
Then in the election, Republicans ousted three of the Democrats on that small list: Sens. Heidi Heitkamp in North Dakota (ranked second), Joe Donnelly in Indiana (ranked 10th) and Claire McCaskill in Missouri (ranked 18th). The only Democratic senators left from these 20 high-carbon states are Joe Manchin and Jon Tester, who won tough re-election campaigns in West Virginia and Montana, respectively; Doug Jones, who faces an uphill re-election in Alabama in 2020; and Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich in New Mexico.
In a mirror image, before the election Democrats controlled 32 of the 40 Senate seats from the 20 largely coastal states that emit the least carbon per dollar of economic output. Those numbers didn’t change in November, as Democrats gained one Senate seat from these lower carbon states (in Nevada) while surrendering another (in Florida). After the election, as before, Democrats control all 28 Senate seats in the 14 states that emit the absolute lowest amount of carbon per dollar of economic output – a list topped by New York, Massachusetts, Connecticut, California, Maryland, Washington, Oregon and Rhode Island.
Democrats also gained one Senate seat (in Arizona) from the 10 states that rank 21st through 30th in carbon emissions per dollar of economic output. Perhaps even more important for the party, four Democratic incumbents from these states who had appeared vulnerable after 2016 all won re-election: Sens. Sherrod Brown in Ohio, Bob Casey Jr. in Pennsylvania, Debbie Stabenow in Michigan and Tammy Baldwin in Wisconsin. The two parties now split the 20 Senate seats from these middle tier states exactly in half.
For 2020, the Democratic Senate targets are concentrated on relatively lower-carbon states. The Democrats’ two top targets in 2020 are likely to be Republican incumbent Sens. Cory Gardner in Colorado (which ranked 30th in carbon emissions per dollar of GDP) and Susan Collins in Maine (which ranked 28th). (On Monday, Collins, referencing the new federal report, tweeted out concern about climate change.) Other top Democratic targets will include Republican-held Senate seats in Arizona (26), Georgia (31) and North Carolina (36). Texas (at 19) and Iowa (at 15) are the high emitting states most likely to reach the upper tier of the Democratic target list, though both could also fail to develop into serious races.
The Electoral College largely follows these same lines. In 2016, Trump won 19 of the 20 states that emit the most carbon per dollar of economic activity (with New Mexico as the only exception.) His Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton, won 16 of the 20 states that emit the least carbon (with Georgia, Idaho, Florida and North Carolina as the exceptions.) Trump won all seven states that ranked 21st through 27th in emissions per dollar of economic activity, while Clinton carried the three states that ranked 28 to 30.
For 2020, the three states Democrats are most hoping to recapture from Trump are all in that middle group: Michigan (22), Wisconsin (23) and Pennsylvania (24). The party’s other top targets to flip cluster toward the bottom of the list, including Florida, North Carolina and possibly Georgia; among high-emitting states only Iowa, Ohio (21) and perhaps Texas might draw much Democratic interest in 2020, and none of those are guaranteed targets.
No cracks in the brown blockade
Despite their urban-rural split, Democrats passed a “cap and trade” bill to limit carbon emissions in 2009 the last time they controlled the House. But that bill could not advance in the Senate, and Republicans have rejected action on the issue since they regained the House majority in 2011.
Whatever the Democratic House majority does now, it is virtually certain Washington will not act on climate issues while Trump, who has at times called climate change a “hoax,” holds the White House. But even if Democrats can oust Trump in 2020, the high-carbon blockade in the Senate looms as an enduring challenge for any federal legislation to confront climate change, such as a “cap and trade” program, a tax on such pollution or federal requirements on states to generate more of their power from renewable clean-energy sources.
Just the 35 Senate seats Republicans now control in the 20 states that emit the most carbon per dollar of economic output, combined with their six from the states that ranked 21 to 26 on that list, would be enough to sustain a filibuster against climate legislation. These higher emission states could tilt even further toward the GOP in the coming years: In 2020, Democrats will face a tough fight to hold their Senate seat in high-emitting Alabama (ranked ninth), as well as a competitive, if less immediately threatening, contest for Sen. Gary Peters in Michigan. And few Democrats are sanguine about their long-term prospects in West Virginia or Montana after Manchin and Tester someday leave office.
In the report released Friday, the federal agencies painted a dire picture of mounting risk to all areas of the country from the changing climate.
“High temperature extremes, heavy precipitation events, high tide flooding events along the US coastline, ocean acidification and warming, and forest fires in the western United States and Alaska are all projected to continue to increase, while land and sea ice cover, snowpack, and surface soil moisture are expected to continue to decline in the coming decades,” the authors wrote.
The report forecasts that the most severe changes could be felt in some of the regions, particularly the Southeast and upper Midwest and northern Plains, that emit the most carbon per dollar of economic activity and elect many of the members of Congress most resistant to acting on climate change.
These increasingly tangible disruptions might create more political pressure in those states for action on the climate. More likely, any federal initiative to combat climate change for the next several years will need to find ways to circumvent the Senate’s brown blockade.
Ways around the filibuster
One option is executive branch regulatory action from a future president, like the rules on automotive fuel economy and power plant emissions that Obama imposed. But the five Republican-appointed Supreme Court justices, who are generally suspicious of federal regulation, might limit the scope of such unilateral executive action. It’s also easier for a succeeding administration to undo regulations than it is to rewrite laws – as demonstrated by the contrast between Trump’s success at thwarting Obama’s climate agenda and his inability to repeal the Affordable Care Act.
These considerations explain why talk is quietly increasing among environmental groups about exploring ways a future Democratic Senate majority might use the reconciliation process, which allows legislation to pass with 51 votes, to address climate change. The reconciliation process is limited to bills with impact on the federal budget, but it provided the vehicle for two of the most sweeping legislative initiatives of recent years, the GOP tax plan approved last year and the ACA.
It’s possible that parliamentary obstacles could block the reconciliation route as well, leaving climate legislation still dependent on 60 votes to clear the Senate. That prospect raises a final option for how the climate debate could unfold in the years ahead. If the brown blockade continues to stalemate federal action even as the risks surge from rising seas, deadly wildfires and intensifying hurricanes, it may be that climate change is the issue that eventually causes the Senate to sweep away the venerable institution of the filibuster itself.