US midterms: What will matter most for climate action?

4 November 2014

NEW YORK: With little at stake in the Congressional elections, gubernatorial races hold the most promise for climate action, writes Evan Juska, Head of US Policy, The Climate Group.

On the eve of the 2010 midterms, there was a lot on the line for US climate policy. Earlier that year, Democrats in Congress had tried and failed to pass comprehensive climate and energy policy, which would have mandated an 80% cut in US GHG emissions by 2050. Retaining their majority would have meant another chance at achieving that goal. While losing it meant the divided government and subsequent gridlock that would follow.

There’s less at stake in today’s Congressional elections. If Republicans win control of the Senate, as expected, the currently divided government will get a little more divided, with little impact on the prospects for new climate legislation. (Can they get worse?)

A Republican Congress will force President Obama to use his veto power to protect climate policies that are currently on the books, such as new carbon regulations for power plants. But if the President is willing to veto attempts to delay, defund, and desist from existing policies, they will continue to move forward.

Today’s governor elections, known as gubernatorial elections, on the other hand, could have important and long-lasting implications.

Over the next several years, as the US energy system continues to undergo momentous transformation, US states are positioned to lead on the development and implementation of new energy policies.

States will be responsible for determining how to meet new national targets for reducing carbon emissions in the power sector, as outlined in Obama’s Clean Power Plan. This policy is essential to the US meeting its short-term emission reduction goal, and states will ultimately decide how effective it will be.

Governors can decide to comply with the targets by adopting new policies that increase energy efficiency and transition to natural gas, solar and wind power. Or they can decide to oppose the targets all together, as some have already done.

In addition, with no concrete national plans for reducing US emissions beyond 2020, states will also be best positioned to experiment with new policy models that demonstrate how deeper emission reductions could be achieved.

This includes technology policies, such as California’s zero emission vehicle mandates and energy storage requirements, as well as finance policies, such as Connecticut’s Green Bank, New Jersey’s Energy Resilience Bank and Massachusetts’ green bonds. These policy experiments will provide insights into which policies work, and which don’t; and can help build the political constituencies needed for further action.

With state leadership committed to cleaner, more efficient energy, the US will be well positioned to meet its short-term emissions reduction targets, and build the foundation for deeper reductions in the future.

And with more than a dozen gubernatorial races expected to be close, a quarter of that leadership will be decided today.

By Evan Juska

Visit Evan Juska's US policy blog

Interested in how US states are innovating on climate policy? Read our latest report: Age of experiments: How states and regions are developing the next generation of climate and energy policies

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