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‘A renewed sense of urgency’: climate on the ballot in US midterm elections | US midterm elections 2022


Climate is on the ballot in a big way this November, despite the fact that it is not front and center in any of the campaigns. Even when it comes to voter turnout, the mood of climate voters has been a topic of conversation among political consultants for months.

“Several months ago I was very concerned about the apathy we were seeing in young climate voters because of Democrats’ failure to even talk about the successes they have had,” Rania Batrice, political strategist and founder of Batrice & Associates, says. “But I do feel like there’s been a little bit of a renewed sense of urgency. In Georgia, for example, early voting just started and it’s already breaking all kinds of records.”

Batrice says the fallout from the supreme court decision in Dobbs, which overturned the Roe v Wade precedent on abortion, is a big part of that urgency, but that the Biden administration’s increased action on climate this year plays a role too.

For the campaigns she’s working on this midterm cycle – Beto O’Rourke for governor of Texas, John Fetterman for Senate in Pennsylvania, Charles Booker for Senate in Kentucky and Mandela Barnes for Senate in Wisconsin – Batrice says her advice on climate is simple: “Meet people where they’re at, and talk about climate in ways that relate to people’s daily lives.”

Jamie Henn, co-founder of 350.org and founder of the non-profit climate communications organization Fossil Free Media, echoes that advice. He says progressive candidates have been telling the right story on high gas prices – “They’re set by oil and gas companies, period, not by Congress” – but that many in the Democratic party have ceded the narrative to their Republican opponents, who push a simple, false message that the price at the pump is caused by pro-environmental policies.

“Big oil has just pulled off one of the biggest heists in American history and no one is talking about it,” Henn says, referring to the $70bn in profits that just six oil companies booked in the past 90 days. “Those profits just came out of the pockets of average people. It’s a major transfer of wealth, and people should be just as pissed at Exxon as they were at Wall Street during the financial crisis.”

Henn points to candidates like Fetterman, who has been leaning into the idea of accountability for fossil fuel executives, rather than a fracking ban in Pennsylvania, as striking the right note. “Even in the general election two years ago the conventional wisdom was you can’t say anything about fracking in Pennsylvania and get elected,” Henn says. Now you have both Fetterman and the attorney general, Josh Shapiro, who is running for governor in the state, talking about holding fracking companies accountable for poisoning water and land. “In both cases they’re saying we won’t shut it down immediately but we will hold these guys accountable for poisoning your water. That’s a really interesting turn in Pennsylvania,” Henn added.

Attorneys general races could also affect, and in many cases impede, climate policy. The high-profile West Virginia v EPA case earlier this year, which curbed the Environmental Protection Agency’s ability to regulate greenhouse gas emissions, for example, was brought by the attorney general of West Virginia with the support of the Republican Attorneys General Association (Raga). Missouri’s attorney general is spearheading an investigation of banks that have adopted net-zero policies, with 14 other Raga members signed on as part of a new but swiftly increasing push against environmental, social and corporate governance investment guidelines. There are races in 31 of the 43 states with elected attorneys general this year, with tight races in many of the battleground states for climate action, including Arizona, Georgia, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, Texas and Wisconsin.

In Minnesota, the Democratic attorney general Keith Ellison’s challenger is using climate as a campaign talking point, referring to the climate fraud case Ellison launched against ExxonMobil, the American Petroleum Institute and Koch Industries in 2020 as a “frivolous” ploy to “please one side of the political aisle”. The Texas attorney general’s office has also long been a staunch defender of the oil and gas industry, and the state’s current attorney general, Ken Paxton, is no exception, regularly intervening on behalf of ExxonMobil in climate litigation and suing the Biden administration in 2021 to stop the government’s use of “social cost of carbon” as a metric to calculate potential climate damages. That makes Paxton’s tight race against Democratic challenger Rochelle Garza one to watch.

Wisconsin Republican gubernatorial candidate Tim Michels, left, and Democratic governor Tony Evers.
Wisconsin Republican gubernatorial candidate Tim Michels, left, is challenging the state’s Democratic governor, Tony Evers, who has declared: ‘Science is back.’ Photograph: Morry Gash/AP

Thirty-six states will elect governors in the midterms, and those elections could have major climate consequences within and beyond state borders. In Wisconsin, Governor Tony Evers has made climate policy a focus of his administration since his election in 2018, after which he declared: “Science is back.” To keep science in the governor’s mansion in Wisconsin, Evers will need to beat Republican challenger Tim Michels, who denies the validity of climate science and blames Democrats for high gas prices. Oregon, a longtime climate leader, could see some of its recent policies rolled back if either Republican candidate Christine Drazan or independent Betsy Johnson is elected governor. Drazan and Johnson will face longtime speaker of the house Tina Kotek, who would continue Governor Kate Brown’s policies. In Texas, Beto O’Rourke is challenging the Republican incumbent, Greg Abbott, who, in addition to regularly going to bat for ExxonMobil, has overseen the passage of oil-friendly legislation like SB13, which bars the state from doing business with any firm that “boycotts energy companies”, a list that includes 10 companies and 348 investment funds.

Lesser-known positions on utility commissions could also bring some interesting changes this election cycle. Two seats are open on the Arizona corporate commission, for example, and if the Democratic candidates win, clean energy advocates would hold majority power on the commission and have said they would expand the state’s renewable energy industry. The Louisiana public utilities commission also has two seats open, and if two clean energy advocates win the trajectory of the commission would change in a state that has enormous influence over the oil and gas industry as a whole.

A seat on the Texas railroad commission (RRC) is up for grabs, too, and Democrat Luke Warford is hoping to unseat Republican incumbent Wayne Christian to become the first non-Republican on the commission, which regulates oil and gas in the state, in 25 years. Warford’s campaign focuses almost entirely on the commission’s role in the state’s 2021 electrical grid failure. Although tasked with monitoring and regulating oil and gas in Texas, since the 1970s the commission has been seen as more of an extension of the industry than a regulator, often declining to enforce regulations on things like methane leaks and oil spills. “By their own admission the RRC doesn’t track the vast majority of flaring in the state,” Sharon Wilson, a local environmental advocate with the non-profit Earthworks, wrote about the commission last year.

The most important midterm outcome for climate may well be control of the US House of Representatives, but Batrice says climate voters shouldn’t give up hope there just yet, while Henn says those who are worried about it should focus both on down-ballot races and on the wins that progressives have delivered.

“If the worst case comes to pass and the GOP does get the House, what should the strategy be? It should not be to cower and cling to the middle, it should be to go after corruption,” he says. “Eighty-seven per cent of voters want the government to crack down on big oil, and 80% of voters support the windfall tax on fossil fuel companies – I don’t know why more candidates aren’t running on accountability.”



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