Ep. 52: America Voted. How did the Environment Fare?

A diver at the Seattle Aquarium advocates for Washington’s proposed carbon fee on October 25, 2018. The measure was defeated on Tuesday, November 6th.  (AP / Ted S. Warren)

A diver at the Seattle Aquarium advocates for Washington’s proposed carbon fee on October 25, 2018. The measure was defeated on Tuesday, November 6th. (AP / Ted S. Warren)

You might have heard that there was an election. And it was a midterm like no other. It was hyped in the media for weeks in advance like a feature film -- the drama of big Senate seat showdowns, the anticipation of a surge of voters at the polls, and the controversial starring role of someone who wasn’t even on the ballot.

President Donald Trump’s performance and policies were front and center in many races across the country--whether candidates were for or against them--and the environment was on the ballot, too...in some cases, literally. A least nine states had ballot initiatives focused on environmental issues from banning offshore drilling to ramping up renewable energy.  

To get a post-election take on how the environment played into the midterm elections --and what’s next --we talked to George Cahlink, congressional reporter for E&E News.

Cahlink said with Democrats taking back the House, there will likely be renewed focus on climate change. Nancy Pelosi, who is expected to be the next House speaker, has said that she'd like to bring back the select committee on climate change, which was disbanded when the Republicans took over. And Democrats taking back the House will mean an increase in oversight of the Trump White House.

“That means hearings on what EPA is doing or not doing on climate science,” Cahlink said. “It might be looking into Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and his travel spending. And that's an issue that Pelosi repeatedly emphasized --oversight and the need for Congress to serve as a check and balance to the Trump administration, so I think you'll see that.”

Cahlink said the renewed focus on climate change could build momentum for state ballot initiatives like the one defeated in Washington state. Voters there rejected initiative 1631 which could have established the first carbon tax in the U.S.

“I just think it's a very tough sell to convince voters,” Cahlink said. “I think a lot of voters care about the environment but when it comes to saying things like, ’Are you willing to accept a tax that will ultimately impact you, whether it's on you directly or on services or products that you use’ -- I think that's a much harder sell.”

There were some wins for the environment on state ballots. In Florida, voters approved a ban on offshore drilling and vaping at indoor workplaces. Those two things were coupled, which has a lot of people outside of Florida scratching our heads.

But generally speaking, polls show that only 7 percent of midterm voters ranked climate change or the environment as their top issue. We asked Cahlink if he thought that was because voters don't necessarily see the link between the issues that are more important to them - like health care, the economy, national security --  and climate change.

“I think that voters care about climate change in the abstract, but they don't necessarily understand the link.” Cahlink said. “But when you tie it to sea levels rising and the impact on your property values; or if you tie it to emissions that create more cases of asthma...I think that impacts voters. And when you talk to environmental advocates, that's really the argument they prefer to make. If people can see the real world impacts of it, they're much more likely to want action.”

LISTEN to the entire episode to hear more about how the environment fared in the midterm elections:

This episode is hosted by Kara Holsopple and produced by Andy Kubis. Trump on Earth is a production of The Allegheny Front, a Pittsburgh-based environmental reporting project.

Follow George Cahlink on Twitter and read his reporting here.

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