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What the midterms mean for the climate movement

(Facebook / Frack Free Denton)

Denton, Texas residents promote a ban on fracking within city limits. (Facebook / Frack Free Denton)

The 2014 midterm elections weren’t all bad news for the climate movement. There are certainly a few things to be happy about: Denton, the Texas city where fracking was practically invented, passed an unprecedented ban barring the practice within city limits. In Richmond, Calif., the home of one of the country’s largest oil refineries, progressive candidates for local office won despite Chevron pouring some $3 million into the election. In other progressive arenas, voters moved to legalize marijuana in Alaska, Oregon and the nation’s capital, and pass minimum wage hikes in a number of other cities and states. These are victories that can and should be celebrated.

All that said, there needs to be some real talk about what the results of Tuesday’s elections mean for climate organizers, especially in light of last week’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, which said that emissions need to fall 42 to 71 percent below 2010 levels in order to prevent “severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts for people and ecosystems.” The threat that Tuesday’s election results pose to the movement is even more bleak than Congressional gridlock, which — unfortunately — is nothing new in Washington. The 2013-2014, or 113th, Congress is on track to be history’s least productive: just 185 bills became law this session. In other words, it’s not as if the midterms wiped some miracle climate legislation off the table.

Newly re-elected Kentucky Congressman Mitch McConnell — who will now become Senate Majority Leader — has pledged both formally and informally to gut the Environmental Protection Agency. Other GOP winners in hotly contested senate races vowed to do the same. In Iowa, Republican Joni Ernst wants the department eliminated flat out, stating in a debate with opponent Bruce Braley, “I do believe our states know best how to protect their natural resources.” Republican Sen. Dan Sullivan, a former commissioner with the Alaska’s Department of Natural Resources, said that he’ll challenge the EPA and federal mine permitting process on the grounds of promoting economic growth.

Exit polls collected by the New York Times found that, overall, just 15 percent of voting Republicans believe that climate change is a “serious issue.” To top that off, climate denier and Oklahoma Sen. James Inhofe will now become chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. Inhofe suggested in 2003 that global warming might actually benefit Americans’ quality of life. As recently as 2012, he argued that the “arrogance of people to think that we, human beings, would be able to change what [God] is doing in the climate is, to me, outrageous.”

This round of midterms further demonstrated how intertwined the climate is with issues of economic and racial justice. Scott Walker and Rick Snyder were each re-elected as governor in Wisconsin and Michigan, respectively. Both made headlines in the past several years pushing through “right to work” mandates, which all but dismantled organizing infrastructure for public sector unions. Betsy Woodruff wrote for Slate that Walker’s re-election was one of the country’s most important for the GOP, which — aside from grooming him for a 2016 presidential run — hopes that Walker’s risky attack on organized labor can serve as a model for other conservative governors. If there’s any hope of making good, green jobs a reality, a national political environment hostile to unions will make that process even harder.

In ways that might be unexpected, voter suppression, too, has become a climate issue. Al Jazeera reported earlier this week that climate is a high-priority issue for voters of color, in no small part because communities of color have been some of the hardest hit by the impacts of climate change and extraction. Harry Enten at FiveThirtyEight.com found that non-white voters were almost twice as likely to see climate change as a “top priority,” skewing traditional perceptions of climate as a white issue. Unfortunately, voters of color, who tend to vote for Democrats, are also those most likely to face challenges getting to the polls. The Supreme Court’s repeal of Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 last summer opened the floodgates for even more brash gerrymandering and voter suppression by conservatives this election cycle.

So what could all this mean for organizers? The climate movement should be thinking at least as strategically as its opponents, who’ve managed to build a massive base and consolidate power at the highest reaches of government. Poking fun at climate deniers’ religion and folksy accents hasn’t won the movement many friends over the years. Republicans wield real power, and confronting that will mean building a popular movement capable of challenging austerity, extraction and privatization — among other forces — in the court of public opinion.

If the last six years are any indication, resolving to transform the economy deeply enough to avert the worst of the climate crisis isn’t likely to come singly from either the Oval Office or the ballot box. The climate movement needs an “all of the above” organizing strategy to match the country’s reckless energy policy: Engage with electoral politics, sure, but build with people in schools, in churches, in workplaces, in the media and in the streets. As law professor and former New York gubernatorial candidate Zephyr Teachout said recently, “Don’t leave power on the table.”