There’s a lot at stake in the fast-approaching midterm elections. The federal elections will determine control of the House and the Senate—and the future of the federal government’s approach on everything from abortion rights to gun control.
But, when it comes to climate policy, it’s worth taking a closer look at the high-stakes local races that will shape the trajectory of the country’s efforts to address the issue. In Joe Biden’s first two years in office, the federal government has approved hundreds of billions of dollars in funding to address climate change. States will be responsible not just for spending much of that money but also for creating the local policy environments needed for renewable energy and other emissions-reducing technology to thrive.
The three dozen races for governor—a third of which are in battleground states—and competitive races to control state legislatures will shape just how far the U.S. can go on climate. “The only place the rubber meets the road is in the states; the only place things get built is in the states,” says Fred Krupp, president of the Environmental Defense Fund. “So to decarbonize our economy, we need renewed efforts in the states.”
A new analysis shared exclusively with TIME shows that the midterm elections are likely to put about half of U.S. states in a stronger position to do just the opposite, and roll back climate policies. As the below map shows, the midterm elections put climate policy at risk in 24 states while making them likely to advance in 20 states. (Six states are likely to remain unchanged.) The projections, determined by international business consulting firm Baringa, account for candidate platforms, pending legislation, and polling data.
But the situation is more complicated than the topline numbers suggest, largely because states don’t have a uniform starting line; every state enters the midterms with a different set of existing climate policies. Baringa dove deeper into these policies, scoring them based on emissions targets, power generation standards, transportation policies, and building efficiency.
When states are grouped by their existing policies and their projected election shift, as shown in the chart above, it’s clear that most of the states where climate policy rollbacks are likely don’t have particularly strong climate policies to begin with (lower left of the chart). In many of these states, the “rollback” risk is that they might ban pro-climate policies. For example, at least 20 states have passed laws preventing local governments from banning the use of natural gas in buildings, and the issue remains in play in places like Nebraska and Virginia. Conversely, the states with the greatest potential for climate advancement this election are already climate leaders (top right). Connecticut, for example, has a plan to put 500,000 electric vehicles on the road by 2030—a goal that Governor Ned Lamont, who pollsters expect to be reelected, should be able to facilitate.
Where climate policy might regress
There are exceptions to these trends, though. Three states with relatively stronger climate policies—North Carolina, Oregon, and Virginia—are facing a very likely rollback scenario.
North Carolina’s Democratic governor isn’t up for reelection, but his climate initiatives would face challenges if voters elect a Republican supermajority in the state assembly. Right now, he can veto regressive climate legislation (and has, in the case of one such bill that would prohibit local gas bans). But an assembly supermajority would have the power to override a governor veto.
Oregon has a very tight governor’s race, and Republican candidate Christine Drazan has advocated against restrictions on gas-powered vehicles and other climate policies. In an October interview she promised to “tear up” an executive order that created the state’s cap-and-trade program—a policy that caps emissions for big businesses and penalizes them if they pollute more than their allowance.
Virginia, like its neighbor North Carolina, doesn’t have a governor’s race, but the state legislature is up for grabs. Republican Governor Glenn Youngkin has pushed for rollbacks—including to leave a regional initiative to reduce emissions in the power sector—that were blocked by Democrats who controlled the state Senate. A Republican senate would provide a boost to his efforts.
Beyond any single policy, filling state capitals with leaders opposed to climate policy sends a signal to companies considering investing in renewable energy and other climate technology in that state that the local government might not have their back. “It’s the state-level policy which creates the investor environment needed to take the bigger, longer-term risks towards decarbonization,” says Caspian Conran, an economist at Baringa Partners who led the research.
Where climate policy might improve
On the flip side, eight states in Baringa’s projections with weak-to-moderate climate policies are projected to shift in a more climate-friendly direction this election cycle. In Pennsylvania, for example, Democrat Josh Shapiro is widely expected to defeat Doug Mastriano, a far-right Republican. That victory would likely give Shapiro the authority to remake the state’s Public Utility Commission, and appoint regulators committed to advancing clean energy. Indeed, across the country, such commissions play a key role shaping the local energy mix, and they will be largely determined by local midterm races.
All of these policies add up. At the highest level, the Biden Administration has set a target of cutting U.S. emissions in half by 2030 compared with 2005 levels. But any analyst, economist, or scientist who watches the country’s emissions trajectory closely will tell you that to get there, states need to execute.
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