January’s special elections for the senate in Georgia will have major impact on future US climate policy

How people in Georgia vote for their Senators on January 5 will decide how much the US can again become a serious and influential world player in the fight to combat the threat of climate change. Andrew Warren, former special advisor to the House of Commons environment select committee, argues that the high profile re-run election for Georgia’s two Senate seats could yet determine the direction of US – and by extension global – climate efforts for years to come. This article was originally published on the Business Green website.


Why anyone who cares about climate action should have Georgia on their mind

Everyone now knows that, come January 20, America will have a new President, Joe Biden. Everyone that is except perhaps an increasingly eccentric and litigious hotel and country club developer, with curious orange hair and a penchant for wearing red caps.

President-elect Biden has made it plain that, on taking office, he will immediately ensure the US re-enters the Paris Agreement on climate change. He can make that decision without recourse to Congress, very simply because up until a few days ago, his country was already a member. The necessary constitutional procedures had been completed back in 2016.

But as things stand, his room for manoeuvre on driving forward dramatic action on climate change will be restricted. Whilst his party, the Democrats, hold a substantial majority in the House of Representatives, it currently has two fewer members of the Senate than the Republicans. That party has held the Presidency for the past four years, as well as a majority in the Senate, during which almost nothing positive, and much negative, has happened to combat the threat of climate change.

The negative list is long (more than 100 by The New York Times’ count). But the number of President Trump’s regulatory rollbacks isn’t actually the biggest impact of his presidency. It is lost time. “The impact of the Trump administration on emissions has been significant, but the actual regulatory rollbacks were only part of it,” said Trevor Houser, partner at the research firm Rhodium Group. “The bigger impact was four years of lost federal policy action.”

New Environmental Regulations

Biden is poised to leverage every inch of the federal government to act on climate change. There are likely to be new financial rules, new environmental regulations, and unprecedented limits on fossil-fuel leasing on federal lands and waters, to name just a few of the dozens of probable actions.

Amongst the immediate actions he can take without recourse to Congress is to make progress on offshore wind permits. Both the EU and the UK have been betting heavily on  large offshore projects. For instance, the Vineyard Wind 1 project at 800MW is set to be the country’s first super-sized offshore wind project and will be located off of Massachusetts. But instead of construction starting last year, as developers had hoped, the project has been put on hold because federal regulators controlled by Trump, decided they needed more time to review the environmental implications. The Trump administration has been conducting a slow-moving and thorough review of offshore wind development at precisely the same time that it has worked to expedite approvals of fossil fuel projects.

The slow process with Vineyard Wind 1 has led to a logjam for other projects along the East Coast that are waiting for clearance to take the next step. The delays are concerning, because offshore wind is an important part of how East Coast states intend to meet goals for cutting carbon emissions, with 30GW of projects in some stage of development.

Biden can expedite these investments. As he can with permitting the Governors of individual States to take action to reduce vehicle emissions. When the Trump administration took steps to roll back rules on such emissions, California leaders said they would continue to impose their own, stricter standards. Trump’s people revoked the state’s powers to set its own standards, a conflict that now is in federal court.

Then, in September, California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed an executive order that banned petrol and diesel car sales from 2035. The Trump administration bristled at the move and said California was again overstepping its bounds.

A Biden administration could change this impasse by dropping challenges to California’s authority, and granting waivers to other states that take similar actions. Hopes the incoming president will pursue such a strategy received a significant boost last week, when General Motors (GM) announced it was pulling its backing for the Trump administration’s legal fight to deny California the right to set more ambitious emissions standards and pledged to get behind Biden’s plans to accelerate the shift to electric vehicles (EVs).

Trump’s strange phobia

The President-elect could also reverse one of Trump’s stranger phobias, which saw him object to improvements in any and all energy efficiency standards for equipment. He resolutely opposed intended moves away from incandescent lightbulbs to LEDs, maintaining in one of his infamous Tweets: “Remember, new ‘environment friendly’ lightbulbs can cause cancer -the idiots who came up with this stuff just don’t care”.

He scrapped water efficient technologies for shower heads , after seeing in a daytime TV re-run of the 25-year-old TV comedy show Seinfield a character complaining his shower no longer worked so well.

Even after he knew he had lost to Biden , Trump fired the respected Chair of the powerful Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) chairman, Neil Chatterjee, for being too pro-renewable energy and anti-coal. He had been seeking to promote a carbon weighting into decisions for new power stations. Again, a new line-up at FERC could work wonders in moving towards a carbon-free electricity grid.

The Green New Deal 

But the fact remains that Biden is unlikely to be able to achieve his biggest goals on climate change, without major new laws in Congress.

Can this happen? There are worrying signs already in the Senate. The Republicans this month nominated John Barrasso to chair the Energy and Natural Resources Committee. He comes from Wyoming, where coal is still very much king. His opposite number from the Democrats is to be Joe Manchin, from West Virginia. The move will put Senators from the two leading coal-producing states in charge of the powerful energy committee, presenting a potential barrier for any aggressive legislation to enact Biden’s climate change policies.

A rainy night in Georgia?

One possible chink of light for Biden is that there are still two vacancies in the Senate. Both are in Georgia, both have re-run elections on January 5.

The results of these two elections will be critical for Joe Biden’s climate policy. Were the Democrats to win both, they would then have an effective majority in the Senate. Were the Republicans to win either of them, past experience is that Biden could well find any and all of his initiatives that require Congressional backing blocked on a partisan basis, almost regardless of the issue.

Already these January elections are set to be the most expensive single state elections ever. Since the Presidential election, over $150m has been spent; some are forecasting that approaching half a billion dollars will be lavished upon seeking votes in this medium-sized but now pivotal state. A large chunk of the Republican money is coming from the climate change denying Koch Foundation, called “Americans for Prosperity”. And the message being promoted?

One ubiquitous advertisement has the Republican leader in the Senate, Mitch Mc Connell, warning that: “If Democrats win these two elections in Georgia, Republicans will lose control of the Senate. This means that radical liberal policies like the Green New Deal… could become reality”.

The inference is clear. If the status quo remains, the anti-environment dogma of McConnell will ensure there is little or no progress for anything radical that requires Congressional approval.

For once, the rhetoric is not overblown. How people in Georgia vote for their Senators on January 5 will decide how much the US can again become a serious and influential world player in the fight to combat the threat of climate change. It is as clear cut, and as important, as that.

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