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How Will the Midterm Elections Affect Climate Justice? Member Scholars Offer Expert Insights

Climate Justice Climate

It’s all over but the shouting. 

The results of this year’s much-discussed midterm elections are finally (almost fully) in: the U.S. House is now controlled by a Republican from California, President Biden now faces a divided Congress, control of several state legislative chambers switched hands, and voters in 32 states weighed in on 137 ballot measures on issues ranging from abortion to voting rights.

We asked our Member Scholars how the election outcomes will affect policy going forward in our three priority policy areas. Today’s post covers the implications for climate justice; additional posts in the series look at public protections and regulatory democracy.

Q: How will the midterm election outcomes affect climate justice policies?

A. New agency nominees can advance climate justice while keeping an eye on House GOP efforts to chill agency initiatives

President Biden’s Justice40 Initiative (which seeks to steer 40 percent of federal climate investments to disadvantaged communities) is set to move forward now that agencies have identified their covered programs and begun to implement the many climate-oriented provisions in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs ActInflation Reduction Act, and the agencies’ other statutory authorities. Carrying out this work requires adequate leadership, time, and funding — all of which may be impacted by the recent election.

Regarding leadership, the good news is that many of the top positions have been filled, and those appointees are already having an impact on Justice40. Further, the Democrats’  majority in the Senate means that the 124 nominees for Senate-confirmed appointments have a chance at making it through the process in the coming months. For the 79 positions that still lack a nominee, however, time is running out to ensure that these positions are filled in time to further the administration’s policy agenda.

With the House under Republican leadership, however, time and funding will prove challenging. We should expect a host of oversight hearings exploring Justice40 that question the scope of agency authority to carry out this important effort and threaten budget cuts. Those hearings are time-consuming in and of themselves: Time spent preparing for hearings, responding to questions for the record, and maintaining follow-up efforts is time not spent on the actual work of climate justice. But they are also time-consuming in that they can have a chilling effect: slowing agencies down, promoting caution rather than ambition, and sometimes even dooming initiatives that would have made an impact. 

It is up to advocates and allies to keep the pressure on — whether engaging with agencies or members of Congress — to keep climate justice at the top of the priority list and ensure accountability for doing so. This is an opportunity we can’t afford to miss.

—  Emily Hammond is a vice provost and professor at the George Washington University School of Law

A: Federal laws could jumpstart climate justice even in “red” states

Given the relatively slight prospects for further dramatic federal climate legislation, the states will likely remain the primary drivers of climate change policy in the near term. The federal hand is not absent, however: the federal Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) and the earlier Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) could jumpstart climate justice results across the states. 

By giving out money, these bills neatly sidestep politics and could result in climate justice benefits even in states where Republicans and others hesitant to take climate action have prevailed.

Take the IRA’s High-Efficiency Electric Home Rebate program, for example, which is designed to help households electrify and, in turn, eliminate the health and climate change impacts of residential natural gas usage. $4.3 billion will flow to state energy offices, to be targeted to low- and moderate-income households and residential buildings.  

Under the IIJA, $3.5 billion in weatherization assistance will flow. Federal tax credits for electric vehicles (EV) will no longer be available to wealthy households, while the IIJA’s $7.5 billion for EV charging infrastructure will take rural and disadvantaged communities into account.  

The new Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund provides $15 billion in loans or grants for projects that will benefit disadvantaged communities, while $2.8 billion in community block grant funding can assist greenhouse gas and air pollution reduction projects.

While the IIJA and IRA funding programs cannot make up for the kind of comprehensive climate legislation needed at both federal and state levels, these programs will have nationwide impacts. Sometimes, money talks.  

—  Alice Kaswan is a professor at the University of San Francisco School of Law

A: U.S. climate justice policies will influence global climate justice agenda

As the recent election in Brazil makes clear, domestic politics are frequently of great significance not only for the population within a given country, but also for the rest of the world.  

Disruption of the climate system is just one example of the many global risks that we face in an increasingly intertwined world, as brought into sharp relief by recent events from the COVID-19 pandemic to the heightened threat of nuclear war and global food and energy crises as a result of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the ongoing war.  

And, as at the domestic level, those risks and harms are disproportionally borne by populations in countries that have been historically marginalized and disempowered in international decision-making fora. 

Just as Brazil’s control of two-thirds of the Amazon rainforest makes its elected leaders’ domestic policies impacting the forest critical to domestic as well as global climate justice, the United States’ status as the highest historical carbon emitter, and relatedly, as a nation with tremendous economic and geopolitical clout, mean that its elected leaders’ climate policies matter for the possibility of securing domestic as well as global climate justice.  

For such global risks, domestic policies must be designed to support the collective efforts of the international community to forge security and justice. It is thus essential not only to vote for candidates who will advance policies that reflect the inextricability of domestic and global security and justice, but also to understand that the work of democratic governance doesn’t end at the ballot box and to continue to advocate for such policies even when, as now, the prospects of securing them in the current Congress appear dim. 

—  Karen Sokol is a visiting research scholar at the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs and professor at Loyola University New Orleans College of Law

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