Scholars: Midterm Elections Critical for Progress on Climate Change

National, state and local efforts dependent on Nov. 8 outcomes, experts say

Midterm Elections Critical for Progress on Climate Change
Geoffrey Henderson and Kay Jowers briefed the media Wednesday

DURHAM, N.C. – The upcoming midterm elections could have a massive impact on this country’s ability to make progress on climate change, two Duke experts said Wednesday.

These impacts could be felt on local, state and federal levels, especially in places where Republicans edge closer to taking control of power levers. A shift in Congress, for example, could imperil the recently approved Inflation Reduction Act, which includes a great deal of funding for climate-related issues.

Duke scholars Kay Jowers and Geoffrey Henderson discussed these and many other issues during a virtual briefing with journalists. (Watch the briefing on YouTube.)

Here are excerpts:

ON IMPORTANCE OF MIDTERMS TO CLIMATE ISSUES

Geoffrey Henderson, climate policy scholar

“This is a very high stakes election for climate change. If history is any guide, congressional Democrats are facing headwinds as the incumbent president’s party. And if the Republican party wins a majority in the House of Representatives, Congress is going to lose its ability to enact climate policies that have solid majority support in every single congressional district.”

“Climate is really on the ballot in the fall. Many voters are more focused on things like inflation, understandably, because people are struggling to get by in this economy. But it’s worth noting that the paradigm that we have to have a tradeoff between the environment and the economy is something that has actually really shifted. The conversation has changed in recent years in large part due to the great organizing that has been done around the Inflation Reduction Act.”

“The Democrats are running on the benefits of climate policy for the economy in terms of job creation, in terms of public health, and also in terms of utility bills. There’s sort of a different conversation starting to brew around climate change that could see climate change move up into that category of economic issues that typically are top of mind for voters in midterm elections.”

ON ELECTION’S CONSEQUENCE

Kay Jowers, environmental policy scholar

“If there is a landslide victory for Republicans, if they overtake a majority in the House, it’s possible that the Inflation Reduction Act could be at risk. We tend to see that when major bills like this are put in place and are in place for a while and have begun to be implemented, it’s difficult to completely overturn them. But they certainly could throw up road blocks and barriers.”

ON WHERE AND HOW CLIMATE IS ON THE BALLOT

Kay Jowers

“We’re seeing things showing up on the ballot in interesting ways. Policy that is at risk are things like the Inflation Reduction Act. We also are seeing some policy proposals. California and New York both have important propositions on the ballot this year.”

“Climate change shows up in so many policies that we don’t think. There’s so many issue areas that are affected by climate. Immigration policy is related to climate because climate is driving a great deal of migration across the world and even across the United States.”

“The Inflation Reduction Act – it doesn’t even have ‘climate’ in the name but it’s probably one of the most important climate policies today.”

ON POLITICAL MOVEMENT AROUND CLIMATE CHANGE

Kay Jowers

“There’s been quite a bit of mobilization in civil society, everyday organizations and advocacy groups. Youths in particular are mobilized around climate. We also saw a lot of mobilization during the pandemic that related to climate issues. We tend to think very narrowly about climate, but it is related to public health and pandemics and heat and a lot of the economic development issues people have been mobilizing over worldwide.”

Geoffrey Henderson

“In 2018, a group of climate activists staged a sit-in in the office of Rep. Nancy Pelosi, who was about to become speaker of the House. That really projected climate change onto the map in terms of major political issues. Newly-elected Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez joined them, and that was a big part of it, emphasizing that climate change was a litmus test for progressives.”

“In the following year’s Democratic presidential primary, we actually saw every single presidential candidate including Joe Biden endorse the Green New Deal. So there was this really, really big shift from 2016 to 2020 in terms of climate’s prominence on the national political agenda. It’s worth noting that wasn’t a blip. We’ve actually seen a movement of activist groups across the country.”

ON PREDICTING VOTER TURNOUT

Geoffrey Henderson

“There are so many issues in this election that could be very mobilizing for voters. On the one hand there’s the fundamentals that pollsters and political scientists typically focus on, like the approval rating of the incumbent president and consumer confidence in the economy.”

“But with the Dobbs decision earlier this year, half of America lost a fundamental right. That’s not a usual thing. So if you look at what past elections show us about the present, it’s hard to extrapolate.”

“It’s also not a usual thing that we see a violent insurrection. So a lot of the conventional wisdom about midterm elections is a little bit clouded by these unusual historical times.”

ON CONSEQUENCES IN NORTH CAROLINA

Geoffrey Henderson

“The (Republican majority) legislature is just five seats away from reaching a veto-proof majority that would actually allow them to pass legislation that has been passed in many Republican-controlled states that would curb the ability of cities like Durham to take the initiative in addressing climate change. Specifically, the American Gas Association is sort of behind this campaign to ensure states don’t allow their cities to shift away from natural gas for heating. North Carolina is very close to passing a similar law. So in terms of control of the North Carolina General Assembly, that’s one of the climate battlegrounds at the state level.”

“Another interesting state is Minnesota, which has been trending blue for a long time. The State Senate there is two seats away from shifting to a Democratic majority that would allow Gov. Tim Walz to enact a pretty significant slate of climate policies that would boost electric vehicles and public transit. So state-level races are very important to watch as well.”

ON HOW CANDIDATES DISCUSS CLIMATE

Kay Jowers

“I hear candidates talking about climate issues for sure. Mostly that’s because I see climate as so intricately interwoven with so many other policies. Anyone who is talking about jobs, economic development, energy, national security issues, can be affected by climate.”

“We’re hearing lots of opposition to the programs the Biden administration has proposed and to the cost that will come with the investments the government is going to make. Whether it’s related to climate specifically or just the cost in general and wanting to take more conservative approaches, we do hear that opposition.”

“In the same way that I hear climate in some of the campaigns that are promoting climate issues, I also hear things that are anti-climate when we are talking about a variety of issues as well.”

“I do think the Democrats have been smart this time around in putting the climate change policy in the Inflation Reduction Act, in infrastructure bills. The dialogue during the last presidential election was very much about the Green New Deal. And the Green New Deal was visionary; it was a complete shift and change in thinking about how we provide social welfare and how we approach climate. It was pretty resoundingly attacked. It was going to have a high cost. There were many benefits as well but it left the Democrats pretty vulnerable in defending the policy of the Green New Deal. This time around, because it is tied into these infrastructure deals … I think Democrats are less vulnerable.”

Geoffrey Henderson

“There really has been a pervasive narrative in American politics for a long time about the costs of acting on climate change. Essentially you can either choose the economy or the environment.”

“That paradigm is starting to shift thanks to the fact that the cost of solar and wind are falling really rapidly, making them, in a lot of cases, favorable options to fossil fuel for electricity generation.”

ON WHETHER CLIMATE CHANGE CAN BE A NON-PARTISAN ISSUE

Geoffrey Henderson

“The usual story about climate change during campaign season is that its Democrats vs. Republicans. But it’s actually worth breaking that down to politicians and voters. Republican politicians have historically over the last few decades have had a pretty close relationship with the fossil fuel industry, which directly or indirectly funds many of their campaigns.”

“But that sort of dynamic belies the support among Republican voters for policies that would make an impact in reducing carbon pollution.”

“The average Republican voter … agrees that climate change is happening and that human activity contributes to it. There’s a major disconnect between what constituents want and what elected officials think they want. Part of that is because of these close ties between interest groups and elected officials. Interest groups stand in for the preferences of constituents even when their preferences and their priorities differ pretty significantly from the median voter.”

“While the Republican Party in government has not shifted that much, with a few notable exceptions, the grassroots Republican Party is starting to change. There is a growing constituency of Republican climate advocates. We see unlikely alliances between environmentalists and libertarians trying to scale back regulations on rooftop solar.”

“Public attitudes are shaped in large part by the leaders of the party they identify with. So to fully understand Republicans’ climate attitudes, we need to think about the information environment ... a Republican voter occupies. So if we consider the coverage climate change typically receives on conservative outlets, Republican voters’ openness to climate action is actually pretty remarkable.”

ON ONE THING VOTERS SHOULD KNOW REGARDING CLIMATE AND THE ELECTIONS

Geoffrey Henderson

“Voters’ voice matters. Voting is just the beginning. It doesn’t actually send a specific signal to policymakers about which issues voters are most concerned with. The best way to do that is to get involved in a grassoots organization. Members of Congress don’t really know what their constituents want. A large part of that is that they’re most responsive to large donors and interest groups. So essentially they aren’t following public opinion polls and they don’t know what the public wants unless we tell them.”

“But my research shows that when a significant share of constituents are sort of calling congressional offices, emailing, writing to those offices, and are saying they’re concerned about an issue, that registers with congressional offices. That registers.”

“Joining an organization then becomes really critical because collective action is what drives change. A lot of folks feel they are alone in this political system. They think their voice doesn’t matter. Because, understandably, our democracy is awash with money from corporations and wealthy donors. It’s beholden to interest groups. But at the end of the day, we’re a democracy. Whoever gets the most votes wins.”

“Most campaign dollars go into advertising. The reason this is important is in general elections there’s very little evidence to suggest that advertising makes a big difference either in getting voters to the polls, or persuading them. So a large enough group of organized people with an effective strategy can beat organized money.”

Kay Jowers

“The phone calls (to lawmakers) are really impactful. The fact that you will pick up the phone and call really does matter. Those other ways of advocating for change matter as well, but we see that postcards and petitions are sometimes less impactful than picking up the phone and being willing to call. I hate voicemail and phones as much as anyone, and yet I think people know you really care if you go that far and make a phone call.”

“Also just recognize climate is just interwoven with everything. It’s big, and it’s easy to get apathetic. But people getting apathetic doesn’t mean they don’t care about it. It means they don’t necessarily see a way of affecting change. But you can affect change on climate through immigration policy, through local implementation of funds around affordable housing. You can incorporate climate into many of those issues because it is inextricably linked with them.”

“And also making sure that the people who have been historically disenfranchised and not able to vote, have access to the vote and demanding we make sure we are not unduly restricting voting rights. That’s important as well.”

Briefing Participants

Geoffrey Henderson
Geoffrey Henderson is a postdoctoral associate at Duke’s Sanford School of Public Policy, where he examines how to make democracy work better in the context of major societal problems like climate change. His research looks at state- and federal-level coalitions of environmental and labor groups advocating for policies to address climate change. 

Kay Jowers
Kay Jowers is director for Just Environments at Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Energy, Environment and Sustainability and the Kenan Institute for Ethics. Her work focuses on analyzing state regulatory and policy approaches to addressing environmental issues and engages with environmental equity, ethics, and justice in particular. She co-directs the Environmental Justice Lab, a collaboration with the Duke Economics Department.

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