While this morning’s headlines naturally focus on the change in leadership in the U.S. Senate, nothing in the results should change anyone’s mind on these clear truths: we know Americans trust science, support cutting global warming emissions, and want help for communities struggling with the very real consequences of climate change.
The fact is, history shows that by the sixth year of a two-term president’s tenure, the party out of power almost always makes strong gains. The gains here (a pick up of seven senate seats as of this writing) are in line with past elections (democrats picked up 13 seats during President Eisenhower’s 6-year mark, 8 during President Reagan’s, and 8 during President George W. Bush’s). And if exit polls are to be believed, voters were registering their concerns about the economy and dissatisfaction with aspects of the Obama Administration that have nothing at all to do with our science-based agenda that focuses on climate change impacts, promoting renewable energy, clean vehicles, healthy food, and nuclear safety.
So what are the implications? One shift is that a divided House and Senate made it easy for politicians to ignore pressing issues and point the fingers of blame at one another. Now, with one party holding a majority in both houses, voters will rightly hold that party responsible for governing, and expect progress, not excuses. So there may be surprising opportunities for progress rather than merely gridlock and lack of accountability.
But there is no sugarcoating this: a more likely result is a heightened risk of “backsliding” on a range of important issues. For example, we’re likely now to see Congressional attempts to delay or repeal rules we are fighting for, such as limits on global warming emissions from power plants or requirements that school lunches include more fruits and vegetables. And these won’t always be easy for the President to veto away—especially if they are attached to “must-pass” appropriations bills.
Congress may also now try to pass laws that handicap our agencies from using the best science to guide decision making, such as the misnamed “Sound Science Act.” And the gridlock we have seen for the past four years may get worse—with more government shut downs, spurious “investigations,” brinkmanship, and inconsequential haggling that divert us from pressing problems we face.
A path forward
The Union of Concerned Scientists has a longstanding reputation for developing and implementing practical science-based solutions to many of the world’s most pressing problems. In the months to come, we plan to:
Explore opportunities for progress. We’re looking for partners to get things done. Some clean energy bills, for example, have overwhelming bi-partisan support, and we will be pushing sensible measures to increase energy efficiency and boost renewable energy. If the new majority is interested in securing some victories, as opposed to just sending bills to the president that they know he will veto, these are appealing possibilities.
But prepare for the worst. If the new Congress does try to roll back protections on clean air, public health, food safety, or other fronts, we stand ready to lead a broad coalition to foil those efforts, knowing that getting new laws passed is always difficult and there are many ways to stop bad legislation. Also, if Congress overreaches, such as by harassing federal agencies through bogus investigations or passing laws that tie scientists’ hands, we will aggressively call out these actions, using them as “teachable moments” to promote the essential role of science in government decision making.
Keep administrative actions moving forward. We’ll push the Obama administration to take action without Congress on crucial issues such as limits on global warming pollutants from power plants, taking nuclear weapons off dangerous “hair trigger” alert, and fuel economy standards to ensure that big-rig trucks and delivery vans can go farther on a gallon of gas.
Ramp up our state and local work. Finally, we are working now to expand our presence in cities and state capitals, where so much progress has been made in recent years, and so much more can be done to ramp up renewable energy, put in place measures to make communities more resilient to climate change, and create local programs to increase access to healthy foods. We know we have to build demand for policies that address climate change, and we will ramp up our efforts to focus attention on the local impacts of global warming. Connecting these impacts to people’s daily lives is the best way to persuade and mobilize. With successes at the state and local level on these and other issues, we can help create a tipping point for action at the national level.
None of this will be easy. The election results require all of us to step up our game, think even more creatively and strategically, and learn how to work more effectively with those who don’t always agree with us. But I can assure you of this: we can and will defend the important gains we have made over the past several years and, as UCS has always done, will continue to find innovative ways to effect change.
Support from UCS members make work like this possible. Will you join us? Help UCS advance independent science for a healthy environment and a safer world.