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The Best and Worst Midterm Results for the Environment

Politics
With her win, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez became one of four Democrats heading to Congress to push for a Green New Deal. Rick Loomis / Getty Images

Results from the U.S. midterm election are mostly in, and, when it comes to what they mean for the environment, they're a real mixed bag.


On the plus side, the Democrats took the House of Representatives, which, as BBC News pointed out, means that President Donald Trump can't pass any more major legislation without their approval. Since big legislative pushes in the Republican controlled House over the past two years included an attack on the Endangered Species Act and a Farm Bill that would have limited controls on toxic pesticides and water pollution, this can only be an improvement.

On the minus side, the Republicans increased their majority in the Senate. Since the Senate is the body that confirms all of the president's judicial and political appointments, there will still be nothing blocking Trump from appointing more judges like Brett Kavanaugh with a dubious environmental record. They will also be able to sign off on whoever Trump finally chooses as Scott Pruitt's permanent replacement at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The House is more likely now to investigate corruption-prone, industry-friendly Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, but the Senate could go right ahead and confirm a replacement equally likely to sell out public lands to fossil fuel interests.

When it comes to the environmental implications of individual races and ballot measures, the night was about equally full of gains and losses. But it's important to remember that no matter who wins, popular movements can always make a difference. So whether your favorite candidate won or lost last night, you can and should continue fighting to halt climate change and ensure a healthy, thriving environment for all life on earth.

That said, here are a few of the key takeaways from last night.

1. Big Oil's Big Spending Paid Off

A graphic showing the results of Washington state's voting on I-1631 pbs.twimg.com

Probably the most disappointing result from a climate change perspective is the fact that Washington's Initiative 1631, which would have created the nation's first fee on carbon emissions, was defeated in the polls. Colorado's Proposition 112, which would have banned oil and gas drilling on 85 percent of the state's land, also failed. The fossil fuel industry put more than $73 million into defeating the two initiatives, the Huffington Post reported, so in this case money power was sadly stronger than people power.

In terms of the other ballot measures EcoWatch was tracking, Arizona's Proposition 127, which would have upped the state's renewable energy target to 50 percent by 2030, was also defeated, as was Alaska's Ballot Measure 1, which would have imposed new restrictions on projects that threaten salmon habitat. Florida's unusual Amendment 9, banning both offshore oil drilling and indoor vaping, was the only one to succeed.

2. Climate Change Tipping Point

Climate change was also a campaign issue in several key races, and, while it's hard to pinpoint what issue tipped a candidate over the edge to victory, there were some wins where it might have made a difference.

Before the election, Grist assembled an analysis of five hotly contested races in districts where more than two-thirds of residents were worried about climate change. Turns out, all of the Democrats in those races won or are currently leading in the polls, according to The New York Times.

  • Anti-pipeline and offshore drilling Democrat Tom Malinowski beat Republican incumbent Leonard Lance in New Jersey's seventh district.
  • Democrat Colin Allred, who wants to rejoin the Paris agreement, defeated incumbent Republican Pete Sessions, who wants to scale back the EPA. This is in Texas' 32nd district, which saw unusually deadly storms and flooding this fall.
  • Also in Texas, Republican incumbent John Culberson lost to Democrat Lizzie Pannill Fletcher in the seventh district that includes parts of Houston deeply impacted by Hurricane Harvey last year.
  • Florida's 26th district is its southernmost point, already grappling with tidal flooding due to sea level rise. Republican incumbent Carlos Curbelo was not a climate denier, and in fact founded the bipartisan Climate Solutions Caucus. But Democrat Debbie Mucarsel-Powell promised more environmental action and won.
  • The race between Republican incumbent Dana Rohrabacher and Democratic challenger Harley Rouda for California's 48th district, which includes parts of coastal Orange County at risk from sea level rise, is still too close to call. But Rouda, who opposed offshore oil drilling and promised clean energy, is leading.

3. Rise of the Green New Deal:

The Green New Deal: fixing climate and the economy? www.youtube.com

The brightest glimmer of hope to come out of the midterms is the fact that there are now four Democrats in the House who are calling for a Green New Deal, a massive government push to turn away from fossil fuels and build renewable energy infrastructure, The Huffington Post reported.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez confirmed her win after her surprise primary victory in New York's 14th district this summer, and she is joined in championing the issue by the first two Muslim women in Congress: Ilhan Omar in Minnesota's 5th District and Rashida Tlaib in Michigan's 13th. Antonio Delgado beat Republican John Faso in New York's 19th district to round out the group.

While some influential champions of the idea, like Florida Democratic gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum, lost their races, Penn State University climate scientist Michael Mann said it was important that the idea was gaining ground given the dire warnings of the most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report on limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.

"This is the sort of bold and audacious thinking that we need when it comes to confronting the ever-pressing challenge of averting catastrophic climate change," Mann told the Huffington Post.

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If people in three European countries want to fight the climate crisis, they need to chill out more.

That's the conclusion of a new study from think tank Autonomy, which found that Germany, the UK and Sweden all needed to drastically reduce their workweeks to fight climate change.

"The rapid pace of labour-saving technology brings into focus the possibility of a shorter working week for all, if deployed properly," Autonomy Director Will Stronge said, The Guardian reported. "However, while automation shows that less work is technically possible, the urgent pressures on the environment and on our available carbon budget show that reducing the working week is in fact necessary."

The report found that if the economies of Germany, Sweden and the UK maintain their current levels of carbon intensity and productivity, they would need to switch to a six, 12 and nine hour work week respectively if they wanted keep the rise in global temperatures to the below two degrees Celsius promised by the Paris agreement, The Independent reported.

The study based its conclusions on data from the UN and the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) on greenhouse gas emissions per industry in all three countries.

The report comes as the group Momentum called on the UK's Labour Party to endorse a four-day work week.

"We welcome this attempt by Autonomy to grapple with the very real changes society will need to make in order to live within the limits of the planet," Emma Williams of the Four Day Week campaign said in a statement reported by The Independent. "In addition to improved well-being, enhanced gender equality and increased productivity, addressing climate change is another compelling reason we should all be working less."

Supporters of the idea linked it to calls in the U.S. and Europe for a Green New Deal that would decarbonize the economy while promoting equality and well-being.

"This new paper from Autonomy is a thought experiment that should give policymakers, activists and campaigners more ballast to make the case that a Green New Deal is absolutely necessary," Common Wealth think tank Director Mat Lawrence told The Independent. "The link between working time and GHG (greenhouse gas) emissions has been proved by a number of studies. Using OECD data and relating it to our carbon budget, Autonomy have taken the step to show what that link means in terms of our working weeks."

Stronge also linked his report to calls for a Green New Deal.

"Becoming a green, sustainable society will require a number of strategies – a shorter working week being just one of them," he said, according to The Guardian. "This paper and the other nascent research in the field should give us plenty of food for thought when we consider how urgent a Green New Deal is and what it should look like."

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