Let’s get right to it: Come January, Republicans are likely to control both houses of Congress. The signs are lining up. The light is dimming after a summer in which Democrats had hoped for some hope and seemed to be likely to keep the Senate, but that was a short-lived period. GOP control of the House of Representatives seems all but assured, and as of yesterday, prediction models suggest that the Senate will tip as well. A Republican Congress could be disastrous for climate policy, as history has shown. Since the early 1990s, when the GOP took a turn toward climate-change denialism, the party has been one of the world’s top enemies of climate policy. For years, it was one of the few major political parties in a developed country that rejected the reality of human-caused climate change. When Republicans won the House in 2010, two years into Barack Obama’s presidency, it set back American climate politics for years, putting a generation of open climate-science doubters in Congress. They tried to fire White House climate advisers, hectored environmental officials, shut down the House’s global-warming committee, and doomed what had been a bipartisan effort to tax carbon pollution.
Of course, plenty of congressional Republicans–more than 130, by one count–still deny the reality of human-caused climate change. But some members of the party claim that they’ve evolved since then. House Republicans this year unveiled a new Conservative Climate Caucus which, in an interesting circumlocution acknowledges that fossil fuels cause the planet’s warming. The group stated .) that the climate is rapidly changing and that decades of global industrialization have also played a role in that. The caucus now has 74 members, including Representative Frank Lucas of Oklahoma, who is likely to lead the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee next year. Lucas has called “the need to address global climate change” one of that committee’s “two most immediate challenges.” (Not that he’s a dyed-in-the-fleece environmentalist: He also has a 5 percent lifetime score from the League of Conservation Voters. )
What does the new Republican Congress mean for climate policy in America? What will happen next depends on three factors.
First, and most crucial, the party will want to own Joe Biden–to defeat him, humiliate him, smash his presidency into bits. As my colleague Barton Gellman has reported, the House might impeach Biden at some point in the next year, simply because its rhetorical groundwork will leave it no other choice.
These same dynamics seem likely to all but force the party to target the president’s climate policy as well, because climate policy has been so central to Biden’s presidency. Three major bills that the president signed, including the bipartisan Infrastructure Law, CHIPS and Science Act and the Inflation Reduction Act, are all about cement emissions reduction. It would be reasonable to expect Republicans attack the policies and officials who implement them. Many Republicans will want to turn the IRA, which got zero Republican votes, into Biden’s Obamacare: a legislative boondoggle that stands for the broader problems of his presidency. The IRA funds two public-financing agencies to help create more green industry in the U.S. Both will be natural targets of aggressive, and even destructive, Republican oversight in the coming Congress.
But that will be tricky because the public doesn’t seem to hate the IRA like it disliked the Affordable Care Act. Republicans will also have to navigate that the IRA isn’t so far from the climate policies that they have recently mooted; certainly, it’s much closer to their views than Obama’s 2009-era climate policies were. In 2011 and 2012, for instance, conservatives hammered the Obama administration for making a high-profile $535 million loan to the solar-panel manufacturer Solyndra, which later went bankrupt. The episode represented all the failures of liberal economic planning, Mitt Romney said on the presidential-campaign trail: Democrats used taxpayer money to pick winners and losers in the economy, and those winners didn’t even succeed.
But since then, Republicans have warmed to similar industrial policies because they will, at least in theory, help the American economy better compete with China’s. “We need capitalism,” Senator Marco Rubio of Florida said last year. However, “if the market’s best outcome is one that is bad for our people or for our security and national interests, then that is bad news for America. In those cases, we need targeted industrial policy to help our people and protect our country and future.” China’s policies allowed its factories to produce solar panels at a much lower cost than U.S. ones. The second is economic incentives. The GOP has historically been close to the fossil-fuel industry: Since 1990, more than two-thirds of the oil-and-gas industry’s donations to candidates and party committees have flowed to Republicans, according to the watchdog group OpenSecrets. There’s no reason to expect that trend to slow.
The green transition also has benefits for rural areas. This is due to the increasing urban-rural division in the United States. It’s an opportunity for Republican-led districts. As the analysts Liam Denning and Jeff Davies have shown, most of the country’s new zero-carbon energy infrastructure is getting built in securely GOP districts. Kevin McCarthy, the likely next Speaker of the House is actually from the No. 1 district for planned and operating grid-scale battery projects. Nine of the 10 congressional districts with the most planned or operating renewable capacity, in fact, are held by Republicans. As the IRA invests more money in zero-carbon infrastructure, this concentration will increase. Ford’s four new electric-vehicle and battery factories, for instance, are being built in deep-red Kentucky and Tennessee.
For this reason, Credit Suisse analysts concluded in a recent report that the GOP is unlikely to repeal the IRA even if it clinches a trifecta in 2024. The question in the short term is whether that political concern changes the party’s oversight agenda.
Finally, the party has long-term electoral concerns to consider. Combatting climate change is far more popular than it was in 2010. According to Christopher Barnard (the policy director at the American Conservation Coalition), McCarthy is keen to win the House speakership, and he understands that climate change and other environmental issues must be included in the party platform if they want a long-term majority. That group has helped establish new pro-climate GOP efforts, framing its work as crucial to reaching the voters of the future, including women, independents, and younger voters.
Perhaps the most catastrophic outcome for the climate is not that the GOP targets Biden’s climate policy, specifically, but that it takes aim at his whole government through budgetary showdowns or by letting the government lapse into endless shutdowns. That would sap some of Biden’s power, and some of his precious days in office, to implement the IRA’s powerful tax provisions.
There are lots of good reasons–economic, political, and electoral–that it might be unwise for Republicans to try to smash Biden’s climate policy. These may seem insignificant compared to what is almost certain to be the ultimate goal of every Republican majority: To oppose Biden using all means.
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