The Biggest Environmental Wins and Losses of the 2020 Election
By Tara Lohan
Election Day 2020 — the day before the United States officially left the Paris climate agreement — didn't deliver an immediate rebuke to President Trump or relief for environmentalists.
That would have to wait.
"The election hasn't produced the outcome that the planet badly needed," Bill McKibben of 350.org summed up in The New Yorker the following day.
But as the votes continued to be counted in battleground states, the mood shifted from despair to hope, and finally, on Nov. 7, to celebration when Joe Biden and Kamala Harris were pronounced victors.
So much was riding on this election — and not just in the United States.
"There is no pathway to meaningful global climate action without our federal government playing a prominent part," wrote Mary Annaïse Heglar in The New Republic just before the election.
A Biden-Harris victory doesn't undo all the environmental harm caused by the Trump administration and its 125 rollbacks of environmental protections, but it provides a much-needed opportunity to restore scientific integrity and take action on climate change, environmental justice, biodiversity and other pressing concerns.
That's good news. And looking down the ballot there were also other environmental victories — as well as some places where ground was lost. Here are the biggest takeaways:
The Good Stuff
Few big-ticket wins were clear early except for the fact that Democrats held onto the House of Representatives — an expected but not inconsequential victory. And although their majority slimmed, several new additions will be a boon for environmental issues.
One of those is progressive Cori Bush, who cruised to victory in Missouri's 1st congressional district. She's the first Black woman from the state to be elected to Congress. The nurse, pastor and Black Lives Matter activist is also a Green New Deal supporter.
In gubernatorial fights, Washington's climate champion Jay Inslee won re-election. So did Democrat Roy Cooper in North Carolina, which E&E News called a significant victory in the state's push for clean energy.
Mark Kelly flipped a Senate seat blue in Arizona, and so did John Hickenlooper in Colorado.
Hickenlooper, a booster of the fracking industry during his time as Colorado governor, is not exactly beloved by environmentalists in the state. But his defeat of Cory Gardner was hailed by the League of Conservation Voters, which called Gardner one of "worst anti-environmental candidates" running this year. It was also the first time in 84 years that Democrats swept all statewide races in Colorado.
Along with those victories came one for wolves, too. Colorado voters passed Proposition 114, which will require the state Parks and Wildlife department to develop a restoration and management plan for the reintroduction of gray wolves. It comes less than a week after the Trump administration removed federal protection from gray wolves across the country.
Photo by Steve Felberg/Pixabay (CC)
In other statewide races, Nevada's Question 6, which would require electric utilities to get 50% of their electricity from renewables by 2030, was approved by voters. But how much that helps the state's clean energy future is a matter of debate. Nevada has already passed similar legislation. Enshrining this benchmark into the state constitution could help protect it from future rollbacks — or it could make efforts to raise the target even harder.
Much further down the ballot, climate champions made gains in city council positions in major cities such as Los Angeles, Phoenix, San Diego, San Jose, San Francisco and Portland.
Denver also approved an increase in sales tax to help fund climate and clean energy initiatives. And Columbus, Ohio passed a measure that would help the city secure more locally sourced renewable energy.
"City leadership is important for advancing climate action but new research finds U.S. cities falling behind," Daniel Melling, communications manager for the UCLA Emmett Institute on Climate Change and the Environment, wrote for Legal Planet.
The Bad Stuff
An anticipated, decisive retaking of the Senate by Democrats never materialized, and whether it remains in Republican hands won't be decided for a bit. Two Georgia races are headed to a January runoff.
If Republicans do hang on to the Senate, that will mean any bold new climate legislation — or likely any meaningful environmental legislation at all — coming out of the House will be stymied, especially if Mitch McConnell retains his role as Senate leader.
Meanwhile several Republican senators with dismal environmental records will be back, including Iowa's Joni Ernst, Mississippi's Cindy Hyde-Smith, Alabama's Tommy Tuberville and Roger Marshall from Kansas. Lindsay Graham, who has a mixed at best record when it comes to climate legislation, also returns.
While Colorado may have seen a blue wave, Montana was awash in red. A Republican sweep across the state included a victory by coal-industry ally Greg Gianforte, who took the governor's mansion out of control of Democrats for the first time in 16 years.
Coal train loading at Spring Creek mine, Montana. Photo: WildEarth Guardians, (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).
"Montana didn't just go Republican on Tuesday," wrote Gwen Florio in The Nation. "It went deeply conservative Republican." The effect of that will be felt not just on energy policy, but the fate of public lands and wildlife, including sage grouse and grizzlies.
In a new low, Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia became the first QAnon conspiracy theory believer elected to Congress. In addition to a record of racist statements, she ran on a platform that included blocking the Green New Deal.
Democrats had hoped to make a small gain in Texas. But even $2.5 million in backing from Michael Bloomberg couldn't get Democrat Chrysta Castañeda elected to the Texas Railroad Commission, which oversees issues related to oil and gas — a state race that has worldwide impact.
The race was won by Jim Wright, whom the Huffington Post describes as "a hardcore climate change denier and owner of an oil-field services company."
The oil industry may have also garnered a victory in Alaska. There Measure 1, which would raise taxes on some North Slope oil companies, is trailing by a wide margin.
But when you tally it all up at the end of the day — or week, really — even McKibben had to concede that overall things are looking up.
"It could have gone much better," he wrote on Nov. 7. "(Specifically, a deadlocked Senate will make action on the dominant issue of our lifetimes, climate change, more difficult to address than it should be.) But it went."
Tara Lohan is deputy editor of The Revelator and has worked for more than a decade as a digital editor and environmental journalist focused on the intersections of energy, water and climate. Her work has been published by The Nation, American Prospect, High Country News, Grist, Pacific Standard and others. She is the editor of two books on the global water crisis. http://twitter.com/TaraLohan
Reposted with permission from The Revelator.
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A Game of Jenga<p>Think of it as a game of Jenga and the planet's climate system as the tower. For generations, we have been slowly removing blocks. But at some point, we will remove a pivotal block, such as the collapse of one of the major global ocean circulation systems, for example the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC), that will cause all or part of the global climate system to fall into a planetary emergency.</p><p>But worse still, it could cause runaway damage: Where the tipping points form a domino-like cascade, where breaching one triggers breaches of others, creating an unstoppable shift to a radically and swiftly changing climate.</p><p>One of the most concerning tipping points is mass methane release. Methane can be found in deep freeze storage within permafrost and at the bottom of the deepest oceans in the form of methane hydrates. But rising sea and air temperatures are beginning to thaw these stores of methane.</p><p>This would release a powerful greenhouse gas into the atmosphere, 30-times more potent than carbon dioxide as a global warming agent. This would drastically increase temperatures and rush us towards the breach of other tipping points.</p><p>This could include the acceleration of ice thaw on all three of the globe's large, land-based ice sheets – Greenland, West Antarctica and the Wilkes Basin in East Antarctica. The potential collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet is seen as a key tipping point, as its loss could eventually <a href="https://science.sciencemag.org/content/324/5929/901" target="_blank">raise global sea levels by 3.3 meters</a> with important regional variations.</p><p>More than that, we would be on the irreversible path to full land-ice melt, causing sea levels to rise by up to 30 meters, roughly at the rate of two meters per century, or maybe faster. Just look at the raised beaches around the world, at the last high stand of global sea level, at the end of the Pleistocene period around 120,0000 years ago, to see the evidence of such a warm world, which was just 2°C warmer than the present day.</p>
Cutting Off Circulation<p>As well as devastating low-lying and coastal areas around the world, melting polar ice could set off another tipping point: a disablement to the AMOC.</p><p>This circulation system drives a northward flow of warm, salty water on the upper layers of the ocean from the tropics to the northeast Atlantic region, and a southward flow of cold water deep in the ocean.</p><p>The ocean conveyor belt has a major effect on the climate, seasonal cycles and temperature in western and northern Europe. It means the region is warmer than other areas of similar latitude.</p><p>But melting ice from the Greenland ice sheet could threaten the AMOC system. It would dilute the salty sea water in the north Atlantic, making the water lighter and less able or unable to sink. This would slow the engine that drives this ocean circulation.</p><p><a href="https://www.carbonbrief.org/atlantic-conveyor-belt-has-slowed-15-per-cent-since-mid-twentieth-century" target="_blank">Recent research</a> suggests the AMOC has already weakened by around 15% since the middle of the 20th century. If this continues, it could have a major impact on the climate of the northern hemisphere, but particularly Europe. It may even lead to the <a href="https://ore.exeter.ac.uk/repository/handle/10871/39731?show=full" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cessation of arable farming</a> in the UK, for instance.</p><p>It may also reduce rainfall over the Amazon basin, impact the monsoon systems in Asia and, by bringing warm waters into the Southern Ocean, further destabilize ice in Antarctica and accelerate global sea level rise.</p>
The Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation has a major effect on the climate. Praetorius (2018)
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