US President Donald Trump has withdrawn from the Paris Agreement, cut the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) budget and staffed it with climate skeptics, and ditched Barack Obama’s national Clean Power Plan.
He and his allies at the EPA, the Department of Energy and the Department of the Interior have scrapped climate policy put in place by previous administrations, even as record-breaking hurricanes, wildfires and heat waves hit the US.
But with the Democrats taking control of the House of Representatives for the first time in eight years, his opponents could thwart the president’s determination to silence climate science and weaken environmental protections.
Thanu Yakupitiyage of environmental organization 350.org says last night’s result was a win for the environment, despite Trump’s claims of victory.
“The win means we’re not dealing with climate denial anymore and that could have lasting impacts,” she told DW.
Fresh focus on the environment
According to a survey by The Associated Press (AP), 26 percent of voters rated healthcare, and 23 percent immigration, as the most important issue facing the country during the first nationwide election under the Trump presidency.
The environment was the top priority for only 7 percent of voters. But a poll by Yale Univeritsy found that several US districts were deeply concerned with climate change and climate policies.
According to their data, around 67 percent of residents in California’s 48th district, which includes coastal Orange County, were worried about the impacts of flooding.
For resident of two districts in Texas — the 7th that includes Houston, and the 32nd that includes suburbs north of Dallas — extreme drought and heat waves were major concerns.
And a majority of Florida residents in district 26 — the state’s southernmost region — were concerned about “climate gentrification” and rising sea levels. They voted to oust incumbent House Republican Carlos Curbelo in favor of Democrat Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, who campaigned heavily on healthcare and environmental protection.
For a democrat, Curbelo has been seen as relatively supportive of climate protection, opposing Trump’s exit from the Paris Agreement. But his controversial vote to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil exploration may have spelled his doom.
Still, it wasn’t all good news for the environment.
Big oil wins voters
Voters in Washington State also had the chance to vote for state-wide carbon tax, but following heavy campaigning by the fossil fuel industry that claimed consumers would be left out of pocket, voters rejected the plan.
Big Oil convinced voters in Colorado to vote ‘No’ on increasing the setback distance between drilling operations and neighborhoods.
Utility also successfully campaigned in Arizona, where the electorate voted against plans to force energy companies to source at least half their electricity from renewables.
These setbacks proved that the fossil fuel industry is still a powerful force in US politics, says Yakupitiyage: “They poured $100 million dollars into stopping progressive climate initiates and essentially won.”
Now that they have a House majority, the Democrats must stand up for the interests of people and planet over rich companies, she added.
“The Democrats in Congress need to hold the fossil fuel industry accountable and show just how dangerous they are,” Yakupitiyage said. “By winning the House, the Democrats can keep Trump in line by enacting a system of checks and balances.”
Steven Cohen, executive director of Columbia University’s Earth Institute, agrees and pointed to the fact that revenue and spending starts in the House.
“Many of Trump’s executive actions received little oversight and scrutiny, but with the Democrats now in control, they’ll finally have the leverage they need to provide scrutiny into Trump’s climate-denying administration,” he told DW.
Before it’s too late
Ahead of the vote, leader of the House Nancy Pelosi promised that climate change would become a major issue if the Democrats took back the House.
In a New York Times interview, she said she would revive a special committee to develop climate change legislation to curb the effects of greenhouse gases, which was effectively shut down by the Republicans.
Cohen pointed out that Pelosi’s party still had limite powers “The Democrats don’t have the White House or the Senate, so they’ll still face problems.”
“But with the newly gained leverage, they’ll be able to delegate funding and oversight to enact climate change policies,” he added.
Yakupitiyage says this kind of action needs to include incentives for a rapid shift to cleaner energy.
“We’re pumped about the Democratic win,” she said. “But Democrats need to rapidly enact change at the local level to transition to renewables.”
Not doing so could have catastrophic effects on the climate, as outlined in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s recent report, she added. The report warned that the world needs to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 45 percent on 2010 levels, by 2030 or face ever-more extreme drought, floods, wildfires and food shortages across the globe.
“We have little time to avoid a disastrous future. We need our politicians to enact change now,” Yakupitiyage said.
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