Photograph by Ted S. Warren, AP
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A number of climate- and environment-related initiatives failed in the 2018 midterm election, like Washington state's I-1631 proposal, which would have put a price on carbon emissions.

Photograph by Ted S. Warren, AP

What do the 2018 midterms say about climate action in the U.S.?

Voters sent mixed messages about how ready they are to tackle these urgent issues.

Over the past few years, as hurricanes have sent floods through North Carolina, Florida, and Texas, and megafires have burned across the West, the reality of climate change has snapped into focus for many people in the U.S.

On Tuesday, the U.S. midterm elections gave voters a chance to weigh in on environmental and climate issues—and they sent a very mixed message.

Many of the candidates who won, from local-level positions to governorships, specifically addressed climate and environmental issues in their campaigns. But several ambitious climate-focused ballot initiatives were rejected—often, paradoxically, in states where the climate-friendly candidates claimed victory.

Here are some of the key outcomes.

Congressional oversight will change

Democratic candidates won at least 30 new seats in the House of Representatives—a few races are still undecided as of November 9—giving them control of the House for the first time since 2010.

Over the past two years, the Trump Administration has suspended, weakened, or replaced important environmental policies and regulations, such as the EPA’s rules on mercury and and other toxic air pollutants, or the Department of the Interior’s enforcement of parts of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Now that Democrats have control of the House, “we expect to see intense oversight of the executive actions at the EPA and [the Department of the] Interior,” says Gene Karpinski, president of the League of Conservation Voters.

Already, leaders of House committees are contemplating hearings into the rolled-back EPA regulations under the Toxic Substances Control Act and into President Trump’s decision to shrink the size of the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase/Escalante National Monuments.

Talking about climate again

Democratic control of the House will also mean control of key committees influencing climate and environmental issues, most notably the House Committee on Space, Science, and Technology. One of the biggest changes, says Vicki Arroyo, the executive director of the Georgetown Climate Center, will be “the ability to have meaningful discourse on climate change, both the science and what do we do about it” in the halls of Congress.

Republican climate skeptics have led the science committee since 2011. The outgoing chairman, Lamar Smith (R-TX), frequently attacked climate scientists, tried to decrease funding for climate science research, and intervened in climate-related grant decisions.

In contrast, the likely incoming chair, Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), has affirmed her interest in “address[ing] the challenge of climate change, starting with acknowledging it is real, seeking to understand what climate science is telling us, and working to understand the ways we can mitigate it.”

A boost to state action

Many successful gubernatorial candidates made climate change or clean-energy policy part of their campaign platforms. Democrats won in Maine, Nevada, and New Mexico—states whose legislatures had approved forceful renewable-energy policies in the past, only to have them vetoed by Republican governors. Their new leadership makes it more likely that such policies will be approved in their states going forward, says Leah Stokes, a political scientist at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Meanwhile, some Republican governors who were re-elected, like Massachusetts’s Charlie Baker, Maryland’s Larry Hogan, and Vermont’s Phil Scott, have supported climate projects such as a carbon cap-and trade program operating in nine eastern states.

The newly elected governors in Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois, and New Mexico all pledged to join the United States Climate Alliance, a group of governors who have committed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in their states in accordance with the Paris Climate Agreement. And now Democrats will hold trifectas—i.e. they will control both the governor’s office and both houses of the legislature—in 14 states, which bodes well for getting climate legislation passed.

What do voters want?

Climate-related questions showed up directly as ballot initiatives from Florida to Washington State. The results, according to Rebecca Bromley-Trujillo, a political scientist at Christopher Newport University in Virginia, were “decidedly mixed.”

Millennials for Carbon Pricing Nikki Reed discovers that a movement calling for a price on carbon is spreading, and millennials are at the forefront.

In Washington State, voters rejected an initiative that would have imposed the U.S.’s first-ever carbon fee on greenhouse gas emissions. (California and nine northeastern states impose a price on carbon through so-called cap-and-trade programs.) The program would have funneled the proceeds—estimated at more than $1 billion a year by 2023—back into projects that would reduce the state’s emissions. It garnered a broad coalition, but fossil fuel companies poured more than $30 million into ads and outreach opposing the initiative, and it lost by a large margin.

This failure does not spell the end of carbon pricing schemes, though, which many policy experts and economists think are essential for decreasing global carbon emissions. Public opinion polls show that well over 50 percent of U.S. voters support some kind of carbon tax.

Arizona and Nevada both fielded ballot initiatives that would aggressively increase the fraction of power generated from renewable sources, aiming to hit 50 percent by 2030. Nevada voters overwhelmingly supported their initiative, while Arizonans rejected theirs. The Arizona public utility—which would have been in charge of making the switch to renewable power—strongly opposed the measure.

In Florida, a ballot initiative to permanently ban offshore oil drilling passed resoundingly. (Strangely, it was bundled with a ban on vaping—that is, using smokeless tobacco products—indoors.)

In contrast, a Colorado initiative that would have required oil and gas developments to stay more than 2,500 feet away from buildings or protected lands failed to pass. The rule would have greatly limited fracking in the state and was strongly opposed by energy companies.

At the same time, Colorado voters elected a Democratic governor, Jared Polis, who wants the state to get 100 percent of its power from renewable sources by 2040.

Renewable energy remains popular nationwide, and many of the candidates that won campaigned on clean-energy agendas, says Karpinski, of the League of Conservation Voters. And in states where Democrats now hold governorships as well as the state legislatures, renewable energy is an easy target for new policy.