The window for climate action is closing—fast. According to the latest UN analysis, the world remains far off track from keeping global temperature rise to 1.5°C (2.7°F) above preindustrial levels, which could spare the planet from irreversible change to the climate system. While reaching that target requires emissions to decrease 43 percent by 2030, emissions are expected to increase more than 10 percent over the next seven years. Other nations view the United States as essential to global efforts to achieve the 1.5°C goal given its position as the world’s largest economy, the largest historical emitter, and the current second-largest emitter after China. But the recent midterm elections will circumscribe the ability of the federal government to deliver on climate.
President Joe Biden has sought to lead globally on climate change, urging passage of the bipartisan infrastructure bill in 2021 and the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) earlier this year. The IRA—the most ambitious climate legislation in U.S. history—provides close to $370 billion in climate-related funding. Through a mix of tax credits and other incentives, the IRA will help the United States meet its commitment to reduce harmful greenhouse gas pollution by 50 to 52 percent from 2003 levels by 2030.
Despite the passage of those bills, climate change remains a polarizing issue in American politics. No Republicans in Congress voted for the IRA. A spokesperson for the U.S. House of Representatives Conservative Climate Caucus, which has over seventy members, deemed it “a bad piece of legislation.” Some Republican members of Congress continue to deny the reality of human-caused climate change.
Leading up to the 2022 midterm elections, pundits had forecast a “red wave” would sweep through both houses of Congress. Yet, as states across the country tallied the votes, the nationwide red wave proved to be more of a ripple. While Republicans narrowly flipped the House, Democrats retained a slim majority in the Senate. Although climate change didn’t have an explicit place on the ballot, the election results affect the likelihood of success for U.S. climate action. The new composition of Congress will subject the Biden administration’s climate efforts to greater scrutiny and blunt attempts to pass new climate legislation.
Republicans have stated they will wield their House majority to increase oversight of federal climate efforts. Ahead of the elections, Republican members promised sweeping investigations into the administration’s climate-related agencies and officials if they secured control of either congressional chamber. Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA), a member of the Conservative Climate Caucus who will likely become the chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, promised to investigate the implementation of the IRA. Republicans also intend to disband the Democrats’ House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis, which provides a forum to highlight climate impacts and discuss solutions.
House Republicans plan to tighten the federal purse strings on climate-related spending. Climate finance to developing nations, which includes a pledge by Biden to deliver $11.4 billion annually by 2024, stands on especially shaky ground. On election day, U.S. Special Envoy for Climate Change John Kerry tempered the expectations of international delegates at the 27th Conference of the Parties (COP27) in Egypt, stating, “If what I think will happen in today’s elections happens and the House is gone, you’re not going to see that money.” The inability of the United States to honor its financial pledges undermines its credibility as a global leader on climate.
A Republican-controlled House will target the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Republicans have already called for greater scrutiny over EPA regulations and decision-making. With control of the House, they are expected to push for probes into the “agency’s actions on air quality, wetlands, pesticides and electric vehicles.”
Republicans will also investigate Wall Street to combat “woke capitalism”—business practices and investments that account for environmental, social, and governance (ESG) factors. Republican-controlled state legislatures nationwide are expected to introduce legislative measures to restrict or prevent the use of ESG criteria in investment decisions. The Security and Exchange Commission’s proposed climate disclosure rule for public companies will face aggressive oversight.
In the Senate, Democrats will maintain at least a 50-50 majority, with Vice President Kamala Harris wielding the tiebreaking vote. This leaves Republicans with insufficient votes to overturn the IRA. If Senator Raphael Warnock (D-GA) succeeds in the December runoff election, a 51-49 Democratic majority would boost President Biden’s efforts to appoint and confirm officials in climate- and environmental-related positions across the federal government.
With environmental legislation stalled at the federal level, state-level climate leadership becomes particularly important to achieve climate goals. Just as under the Donald Trump administration, state and local governments can support ambitious climate action—particularly as they perform an essential role in doling out the funds supplied by the IRA and the bipartisan infrastructure law. Along with picking up two new governorships, Democrats won majorities in state legislatures throughout the country. In four states—Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, and Minnesota—Democrats will control both chambers of the legislature and the governorship. Those victories could pave the way for increased climate efforts even with a divided Congress.
Finally, the outcome of the 2022 midterms could alter how Democrats and Republicans handle climate change in future elections. Many have credited young voters, driven by issues like reproductive health and climate change to overwhelmingly cast their ballots in support of Democratic candidates, for diluting the red wave. Some Republicans seem to have already taken note of the voting preferences of younger generations across party lines. In fact, Representative John Curtis (R-UT), who founded the Conservative Climate Caucus, led a delegation of Republican lawmakers to Egypt this year for COP27.
With Millennial and Gen Z voters set to outnumber older generations in the electorate by 2024—a presidential election year—the Republican Party could face increasing pressure to reexamine its stance on climate change. In the meantime, the IRA, the infrastructure bill, and state and local governments will provide the momentum for U.S. climate action as the world confronts a rapidly narrowing window of opportunity.