"I am vindicated," says Republican Senator James M. Inhofe of Oklahoma, who was ridiculed by environmentalists in 2003 when he declared that [catastrophic] man-made global warming was the "greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people." He has reason to crow: His party's sweep of the midterm elections will bring into office almost four dozen new lawmakers (11 senators and at least 36 House members) who share his skepticism about climate change, according to ThinkProgress, an arm of the Center for American Progress Action Fund, a Washington research group allied with Democrats. They join a smaller group of Republican incumbents, some of whom will assume powerful committee positions in January, who also reject that global warming is an immediate threat.
Their influence could be felt soon. When Obama Administration negotiators arrive in Cancun, Mexico, on Nov. 29 for 12 days of climate-change talks, they will no longer be able to claim that their policy agenda—to push for global action on climate change—has the full backing of Congress.
The day after the Nov. 2 elections, President Barack Obama acknowledged that the new balance of power requires him to scale back his environmental agenda. The President has all but scrapped plans for legislation that would require companies to buy and sell pollution allowances, a so-called cap-and-trade system. Even modest goals could be tough to realize. Republicans say they will seek to roll back Environmental Protection Agency rules, set to take effect in January, limiting carbon emissions, as well as restrictions on coal mining. They also may try to block billions of dollars in federal funds the Administration has directed to wind, solar, and other alternative sources, as well as electric-car technologies, areas Obama pitches as the manufacturing engines of the future.
"It's hard to spin that it's a good thing," says Gerard Waldron, a partner with Washington-based law firm Covington & Burling, referring to the elections that gave Republicans control of the House and more seats in the Senate. "We're going to focus on our domestic situation, and we'll have to explain to the world what American democracy looks like." Companies that have invested in renewables are disappointed. "Climate change isn't going away," says Lewis Hay, CEO of NextEra Energy, the largest U.S. producer of wind and solar energy. "We're going to have to take action sooner or later."
As an aide to Representative Edward Markey (D-Mass.), who heads a House panel on global warming, Waldron helped write cap-and-trade legislation. The House passed a bill in 2009, but it died earlier this year in the Senate. The bill's demise led the Chicago Climate Exchange, a voluntary U.S. carbon trading market acquired this summer for $600 million by Atlanta-based IntercontinentalExchange (ICE), to announce in October that it planned to shut down at yearend for lack of activity.
Meanwhile, the number of Americans who agree the earth is warming because of man-made activity has been in free fall, dropping to 34 percent in October, from 50 percent in July 2006, according to a poll by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press. Now lawmakers who reject the notion that there is ironclad evidence of global warming are rising in seniority in the House.
Representative Ralph M. Hall, a Texas Republican, is in line to chair the House Science and Technology Committee, which oversees numerous federal agencies conducting climate-change research. "Reasonable people have serious questions about our knowledge of the state of the science," Hall says. Representative John Shimkus of Illinois is vying to become chairman of the powerful House Energy and Commerce Committee. At a March 2009 hearing, he said the Bible teaches that climate change won't destroy the planet.
Such statements could make it more difficult for the U.S. to convince other countries that it can meet its goal, pledged a year ago in Copenhagen, of cutting emissions to about 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020. The U.S. will join about 190 countries in Cancun for U.N.-led talks aimed at drafting a new treaty. Obama's lead negotiator, Todd D. Stern, has said the U.S. will stand behind the target. It's probably a waste of time, says Inhofe. With Congress unlikely to adopt any carbon limits, negotiators will have little to do "other than swim," he says.
The U.S. insists it will reduce emissions by raising fuel-efficiency standards and through EPA regulation. The new Congress, however, could vote to delay the EPA rules or prohibit the agency from spending any money to implement them, which would have the same effect. With 9.6 percent unemployment, now is not the time to put new conditions on business, says Representative-elect Joe Walsh (R-Ill.), a skeptic. "We can't be put in a position where we are going to rush headlong into a policy that is going to tax our businesses and our families," says Walsh, a Tea Party favorite.
The bottom line: Numerous global-warming skeptics taking office in the next Congress will try to undo President Obama's environmental initiatives.