America Just Shrugged Off Biden’s Big Climate Law

Probably the best day for climate action in American political history was August 7, 2022, when the Senate overcame 30 years of sclerosis and passed the Inflation Reduction Act, the country’s first comprehensive climate bill. After that day, the bill’s adoption into law was all but assured, and it sailed through the House and reached the president’s desk.

But perhaps the second most important day for American climate policy was this past Tuesday. Democrats’ surprisingly strong showing in the midterm elections will prove to be a landmark in the history of how the country has handled global warming. It will help ensure that the IRA can transform American industry and boost renewables, electric vehicles, and other sources of zero-carbon energy. There will still be bumps on the road to implementing the law, of course. And Biden’s policy may yet prove insufficient to the task of reducing carbon pollution. But the game has changed nonetheless. American  climate policy will never be the same.

Why is that? Well, first, because Democrats bucked the cardinal rule of American politics—that the president’s party almost always hemorrhages seats in the House in its first midterm election: Republicans lost 41 seats in the 2018 midterms, for instance, and Democrats lost 63 seats in 2010. Although control of the House is still being decided, the most likely outcome as of this writing is that Republicans will win a tiny majority, perhaps as small as one seat. That majority will be wobbly, and the new speaker of the House will have very little margin for error.

Democrats, meanwhile, seem likely to retain control of the Senate, perhaps even growing their majority by a seat. There’s more precedent for that in the midterms: The GOP successfully defended its Senate majority in 2018 as well.

The significance of these two results—the first a spiritual victory for Democrats, the second a literal one—becomes clear once you fit it into the broader sweep of American environmental history. Since global warming became a national issue in the late 1980s, Democrats have struggled to fight it without facing electoral blowback. In 1993, President Bill Clinton tried and failed to pass a “BTU tax,” a surcharge on energy production that would have boosted renewables and resembled a carbon tax in some ways. That proposal never became law—it passed the House and died in the Senate—but many lawmakers who voted for it got tossed in the 1994 midterms anyway. In 2009, a Democratic House majority again considered the pro-climate cap-and-trade bill. That proposal, too, passed the House, died in the Senate, and then cost some House members their seats anyway.

The IRA had already defied the examples here, of course, because it passed into law. But its passage also appears to have not cost Democrats in the midterms. That sets the IRA apart not only from previous climate proposals but from previous laws of all sorts. The 2010 and 2018 midterms were powered in part by public revolt at the incumbent president’s major piece of legislation: the Affordable Care Act in the first case and President Donald Trump’s tax-reform bill in the second. Yet voters did not rise up in the same way against the IRA, even though it is at least as central to Biden’s legacy as tax reform is to Trump’s. As E&E News noted last week, relatively few GOP ads even mentioned the IRA in the run-up to the election.

The climate law did not appear to hurt Democrats even in particularly rural or fossil-fuel-dependent areas. Look at New Mexico, for instance, which recently supplanted North Dakota as the country’s No. 2 oil-producing state. Going into the election, the state was represented in the House by two Democrats and one Republican, Representative Yvette Herrell, who came from the state’s oil-rich southeast. Voters not only reelected the two Democrats (both of whom had backed the IRA) but replaced Herrell with a Democrat (who got some help from a friendly gerrymander). Or look at Colorado’s Eighth District, comprising Denver’s north suburbs and much of the state’s oil country, where the Democrat Yadira Caraveo eked out a win against the Republican Barbara Kirkmeyer.

The party also likely held on in Maine’s rural Second District, one of only eight Democratic-held districts nationwide that backed Trump in 2020. The incumbent Democrat there, Representative Jared Golden—who rejected earlier climate proposals but voted for the IRA—seems to have won reelection.

The IRA’s lack of electoral penalty is only part of the good news for Biden. The fruits of the election—likely a fractious Republican House and a narrowly Democratic Senate—will significantly boost the president’s ability to implement climate and energy policy in his second term.

Over the next two years, the Biden administration will implement the IRA, translating its tax credits into policy and instituting new programs in the Department of Energy and the Environmental Protection Agency. His party retaining control of the Senate means that Biden will be able to staff and run the government as normal, submitting judges and executive-branch nominees for confirmation for the duration of his term. And if the slim Republican majority in the House is especially ungovernable, that will give Biden even more clout in budget negotiations to push for more climate funding.

He will also be better able to defend the IRA itself. By 2024, the IRA will be harder to undo—it will already have led to the construction of more hard infrastructure and even subsidized new factories across red states, getting “steel in the ground,” as Ali Zaidi, Biden’s domestic climate czar, says.

A few weeks ago, the investment bank Credit Suisse published a report saying that if the IRA was implemented successfully, it could unleash more than $800 billion in spending and turn the U.S. into the world’s “leading energy provider.” The midterm election was the great threat to that outcome. Now the threat has passed.