The midterm elections are coming on the heels of two major announcements: The UN Report on Climate Change, which paints a dire picture of a warmer, wetter future; and the Nobel Prize for Economics, divided equally between economists William D. Nordhaus for integrating climate change into long-run macroeconomic analysis, and Paul M. Romer for integrating technological innovations into long-run macroeconomic analysis.
These midterm elections could have a massive environmental impact as elected officials take cues to either advance the Trump administration’s platform of environmental deregulation or to challenge it and use state and local jurisdiction to fight climate change and protect future generations.
Despite the news from the UN, the environment has taken a back seat to other political and social issues in national politics. Studies of voter priorities often list healthcare, the economy, women’s rights, and immigration ahead of the environment. The good news is that polling shows that US voters across parties understand climate science, and are increasingly worried about it.
But on the regional scale, environmental issues are forefront in many states and cities as voters go the polls. Global warming truly is the cause of our time, so I’d like to shine a light on a few key issues and trends in the upcoming election.
Latinx voters care about the environment.
Latinx voters have manifested a demographic surge that is sporadically distributed, geographically speaking. Polls reveal a strong pro-environment preference among Latinx voters, with the environmental issue often holding the same importance as immigration. Latinx voters concerned about climate change may shift outcomes in states like Nevada, Arizona, Colorado, Florida, New Mexico, Maryland, and Connecticut.
African American voters care about the environment, but it is not a leading concern.
It’s unclear whether environmental issues will motivate black voters in the same way that other social issues do. There’s some evidence that it’s a factor – for example Roy Moore was facing pressure for his climate change denial from black voters before other scandals took over the narrative. A 2015 Beneson Strategy Group poll found that 85 percent of African Americans supported global commitments on climate; and an EcoAmerica metrics report from 2017 reinforced the finding.
While there is an extraordinary link between pollution and poverty, that link isn’t as top of mind as it ought to be with black voters. I’m particularly curious to see the impact that African American voters have in Michigan where the Flint water crisis was the burden of the black community.
Offshore Drilling and Coal produce strong opinions.
Most coastal voters oppose offshore drilling. The majority of voters in California, Oregon, Maryland, New Jersey, Maine, Delaware, North Carolina, and others have a strong opposition to offshore oil drilling. There are exceptions – Louisiana voters are less hostile to offshore drilling because of the job surge that it brings; and some Alaska voters want to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling. While the decision to drill ANWR requires an act of Congress, the voter inclinations will impact other elections and initiatives.
Similarly, pro-coal campaigns in West Virginia, Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Kentucky get voters excited about jobs. Will environmentally conscious candidates in those states be electable on a clean energy platform? The consensus is that the coal promise of greater jobs and prosperity won’t play out, and the miners will be left underemployed, with minimum benefits, and no pensions – but not until the midterms have passed.
Texas is making the notable shift from an oil state to a wind state, so this GOP stronghold is looking at renewable energy more favorably. In fact, the Texas economy depends more on renewable energy than it does on oil now – which would make JR Ewing dizzy.
Washington State eyes a carbon fee:
One high profile initiative in Washington State is Initiative 1631, which proposes a carbon fee that is charged to polluters for the right to emit carbon dioxide and other potent greenhouse gases. This initiative will reverberate outside of Washington State because if it is passed, Washington will be the first state in the union to adopt a carbon price by ballot. Washington governor Jay Inslee is a strong proponent, who has worked diligently and passionately to build momentum for it.
Ballot measure 1631 attempts to calculate the colossal costs of climate change – hotter days, higher seas, more volatile weather – into the price of fossil fuels. Major polluters would be required to pay $15 for every ton of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere. The state estimates that the carbon tax would generate more than $2 billion in its first five years. That revenue would be used to protect the environment, replenish communities harmed by climate change or the shift to renewable energy.
The proposal is one of the most ambitious climate policies advanced since Trump took office, and it would strengthen Washington’s position at the front of the fight against climate change, on par with California’s leading efforts.
Washington state is notoriously tax averse, and this is being offered as a fee, rather than a tax – which may be the distinction that makes the difference.
As I write this, Florida is experiencing mass evacuations because of Hurricane Michael, just as beaches were shut down en mass because of a toxic algae bloom that’s choking sea life. Florida’s relationship with the ocean is paramount – fishing, tourism, and the state’s economy are tied to environmental health.
Florida’s Governor Rick Scott’s environmental track record is complicated at best, and he is running against Senator Bill Nelson, who argues for greater federal accountability in environmental issues. Nelson is directly citing Scott’s environmental record as a prime reason to vote Scott out of office.
California and the federal government have been singing from different environmental playbooks, to say the least. Auto emissions, offshore drilling, COP21 commitments, and response to wildfires have put the state and feds at odds. Californians are indicating that the environment is a top priority, with a record number of registered voters saying that the gubernatorial candidate’s position on the environment is a very important factor in their vote.
Termed out governor Jerry Brown will be replaced by either Gavin Newsom or John Cox. While both candidates drive zero-emissions Teslas, their similarities on environmental issues end there. Newsom is a strong believer in climate change, which he calls an existential threat, and wants California to continue its leadership on the environment. John Cox was previously unwilling to link people to climate change, but has since changed his position to directly connect human activity to global warming. This change in perspective won’t come with policy changes – Cox prioritizes economic issues such as costs in gasoline, utility bills, and food prices over climate legislation.
Adding it all up
In closing, there will be no shortage of political ads, social media posts, and neighborhood rallies to draw your attention to the many critical issues that we need our public officials to address. Do not lose sight of the environmental issue – the planet is changing and as building designers and developers, we have the power to draw attention to this very important issue. And maybe to protect future generations from serious harm.
The good news is that voter registration is soaring with more than 800,000 new registered voters on National Voter Registration Day alone. Regardless of your political ideation, increased voter engagement is a good thing.