As Americans go to polls for midterm Congressional elections, shift away from environmental concerns looms

Publish date: November 1, 2010

WASHINGTON – With Republicans expected to make gains in today’s midterm elections to US Congress, environmental fears centre on how difficult the loss of a democratic majority could make it for President Obama to pass climate legislation, and where that will leave the United States as a player in the upcoming climate negotiations in Cancun beginning late this month.

US Mid Term elections – Republicans likely to make gains

Many Congressional seats are up for grabs. Republicans are expected to make big gains – especially in the House of Representatives, where they need to pick up a net 39 seats to win back the majority. In the Senate, Republicans need to pick up 10 seats to take control of the upper chamber. Most pundits believe they will fall a little short in the Senate, but since 1930, the House has not changed party control without the Senate changing at the same time – so for the Republicans, there is some hope.

Predicting who will win and by how much is a difficult art but that isn’t stoping the political commentators from trying to do so. Tonight, polls will start closing earlier in the eastern USA and the results will sweep across the country from east to west. Some predictions by Bellona USA will help give a little flavour of what the rest of today will be like.

In the Midwest, Republicans are likely to make gains in Indiana and Kentucky (coal states) where some House Democrats hold thin majorities that were won in 2006. If these seats flip to the Republicans, that will be a good sign for the Republicans for the rest of the night. If the incumbent Democrats manage to hold off the republican challenge, word of the Democrats’ demise may have been exaggerated.

In the South, the polls close early in Florida, Georgia, South Carolina and Virginia. Each state has Democratic House incumbents who are in serious trouble. If the Republicans are victorious in these states, it will be a sign that a republican tsunami is in progress.

There might be more damage for Democrats into the evening. In Pennsylvania, Republicans have seven pick-up opportunities, with a similar type of pattern likely in Illinois, Missouri, Arkansas and North Carolina.

In the Senate, there will be some very close contests. But close Senate races seem to move almost uniformly in one direction, so it is safe to assume that much of the momentum this evening will be with the Republicans. The senate elections in Kentucky, West Virginia, Illinois and Pennsylvania will be close. In Arkansas and Wisconsin, incumbent Democratic senators look like losers.

There might be surprises, but things look gloomy for the Democrats.

Election results could make life more difficult for US officials in Cancun

So how is all of this going to affect the US position in the international climate change negotiations? Broadly, it’s not going to make things easier for the administration, which will find itself in an awkward position in Cancun.

In Copenhagen, US negotiators were able to tout the success of the House climate bill, which – although disappointing to Bellona and other environmental groups – was a glimmer of hope for the negotiations. But that legislation died in the Senate. The candidates poised to win this week are more likely to focus on immediate economic concerns than long term environmental and energy benefits.

“The US Administration can’t promise more than Congress is willing to deliver so it is disappointing that climate change legislation failed to pass the Senate,” said Jonathan Temple, Director of Bellona USA.

“But it is encouraging that climate change is at least being seriously discussed on Capitol Hill. We hope that Congress will return to the issue after the elections. Tackling climate change is something that cannot wait,” he said.

In Cancun, US officials might not be able to deliver on all the climate assistance they have promised to give poor countries by 2012. They are considering whether to challenge China’s renewable energy subsidies as violating international trade rules, and have objected to Europe’s plan to force airlines operating there to pay for their carbon emissions.

European observers are critical of the US. Reinhard Butikofer, a member of the European Parliament who co-chaired the German Green Party until last year said “the yardstick I would measure the Obama administration against has been set by the President himself, when he said in the early days of his administration he wanted to make the United States a leader in international climate policy. This is a test in which the US is failing by far.”

Connie Hedegard, the European Commissioner for Climate Action said “of course, from a European perspective, it’s regrettable the administration could not get legislation through the Senate. That makes it easier for other parties to hide behind the back of the United States.”

Chief US negotiator Todd Stern has said that the US will not back away from its pledge to cut the nation’s overall emissions by 17 percent from 2005 levels although negotiators from developing countries have asked the administration to provide more detailed accounting on how it will accomplish that goal.

“I’d like the United States to put more on the table in terms of government performance on climate change,” said Brazil’s environment minister, Izabella Teixeira.

Stern said that the United States has no plans to do that. “We’re standing behind what we put in last year,” he said. Critics of the United States like Bolivia’s UN ambassador Pablo Solon are already preparing to blame Washington for derailing the upcoming talks.

“If the US doesn’t make any positive move before Cancun, and during Cancun, we will have a big failure in Cancun,” he said.

But others such as Norway’s Minister of the Environment and International Development Erik Solheim, said negotiators from all sides will have to recognize the current political realities in the United States and elsewhere, and strike the most meaningful compromise they can.

“The house cannot be built in one day,” Solheim said. “The house has to be built floor by floor.”

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