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The United States presidential race is still up in the air, and the battle for control of the Senate appears far from over. But one thing is clear the day after Election Day 2020: The “green wave” that environmentalists had hoped for failed to materialize.
There were bright spots for the environment. In the Senate, two Democrats, John Hickenlooper in Colorado and Mark Kelly in Arizona, have defeated incumbent Republicans who have received poor marks from environmental and conservation groups for their voting records.
Mr. Kelly was endorsed by Climate Hawks Vote, a progressive group that promotes candidates who promise to take action on climate change. Mr. Hickenlooper was not. While he declared during the campaign that action on climate change was urgently needed, his past ties to the oil and gas industry in Colorado made some groups wary.
Mr. Hickenlooper could turn out to be the greenest of green lawmakers, but if Democrats don’t win control of the Senate it might make little difference. While the House looks certain to remain in Democratic hands, in the Senate the party needs more victories: Two, if Joseph R. Biden Jr. wins the presidency, which would allow Kamala Harris to break tie votes; or three, if President Trump is re-elected. Even two more Democratic victories seemed less likely on Wednesday than they did before the vote count began.
Climate and the environment were front and center in several state and local elections, and the outcomes appear certain in a few of those.
In a Texas race that was closely watched by environmental groups, a Democrat, Chrysta Castañeda, appears to have lost her bid to serve on the Texas Railroad Commission, the state’s oil and gas regulator. The Republican candidate, Jim Wright, led by nearly 10 percentage points, with most of the votes counted, according to Decision Desk HQ.
As my colleague Lisa Friedman wrote recently, Ms. Castañeda’s campaign received an infusion of $2.5 million from the billionaire Michael Bloomberg in hopes that a Democrat would win a seat on the three-member commission for the first time in the 21st century and prompt more oversight on climate-related issues like methane flaring. Mr. Wright, who was supported by the oil and gas industry, was criticized by environmental groups for promoting fringe theories about climate change and renewable energy.
In Arizona, early returns had Democrats with slight leads for two of three open seats on the state’s utility regulator, the Arizona Corporation Commission. The Democratic candidates pledged to push utilities toward developing more solar energy; they will have a majority on the five-member commission if they win at least two of the seats.
In Denver, voters approved a measure to increase the local sales tax to raise money for efforts to reduce the city’s greenhouse gas emissions. The measure will raise taxes by a quarter of 1 percent, resulting in an estimated $40 million a year for initiatives including training for clean-energy jobs and investing more in renewables.
The outcome was less clear, however, for a statewide measure in Colorado to reintroduce gray wolves in the state. As my colleague Veronica Penney wrote a few weeks ago, the last native gray wolf was killed more than seven decades ago, and despite widespread public support for reintroducing them, farmers and ranchers have long been opposed because the animals prey on livestock.
As of Wednesday morning, with about 85 percent of the votes counted, yes was leading by only 10,000 votes, according to The Associated Press.
America is out of the Paris Agreement
On Wednesday, the United States became the first country to formally exit the Paris Agreement on climate change.
That’s when the formal withdrawal process started by President Trump one year ago officially ended. It’s not the first time America has been outside a big climate pact — that was when we left the Kyoto Protocol in 2001 — and, depending on the final outcome of last night’s presidential election, America could return to the Paris process as early as February next year.
If Mr. Trump prevails it will seal the United States’ fate as an international outlier on climate change as other nations move ahead with greenhouse gas cuts.
Either way, the American habit of quitting global climate agreements has already had consequences, experts on climate diplomacy said.
“The international community has seen the United States walk away twice,” said Todd Stern, who served as climate change envoy under former President Obama. Countries, he said, would rightfully be wary of America if it opted back in to the international fight against climate change.
Mr. Stern said that rebuilding trust would be hard for the United States, but not impossible. It would require, he said, a broad diplomatic outreach effort and early legislative and executive actions that show Americans really are prepared to undertake steep emissions cuts.
“We have to demonstrate that this really is a very high priority and that the new president is moving full speed ahead,” Mr. Stern said.
But experts agreed, the loss of America’s global leadership and diplomatic expertise would be severe.
“Even during the bluster of the last four years, America has retained a shred of influence thanks to the professionalism and expertise of the U.S. negotiating team,” said Nathaniel Keohane, a senior vice president at the Environmental Defense Fund who served as a special adviser to President Barack Obama on energy, in a recent blog post.
But, he wrote, a further United States retreat “would see any residual respect evaporate.”
Theresa Ribera, Spain’s environment minister, said other countries had already demonstrated — first after the Kyoto Protocol, and later in the years after President Trump announced that the United States would leave the Paris Agreement — that they remain committed to addressing climate change no matter which way America sways.
“The world has demonstrated that we can do many things without the United States,” Ms. Ribera said. But she added, “It is not to say we don’t need you, because that is not true.”
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