This November, voters rejected many parts of the Left’s agenda. Perhaps the biggest loser, other than President Obama, was the environmental sustainability campaign. Environmental groups poured upwards of $85 million—more than they have ever spent on an election before—into green-minded candidates who lost. That’s a stunning rejection of the green agenda by the American people, on the heels of increasingly frantic warnings from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and various United Nations (UN) agencies pronouncing global environmental doom.
But don’t write off the environmental movement too quickly. For years it has been building a substantial grassroots network by campaigning on cultural, moral, and educational issues. Backed by millionaire sustainability crusaders and given a warm welcome in American higher education, environmental activists have vowed to make significant political inroads come 2016.
It is a plausible threat. Already President Obama has forged a new climate agreement with China, which the New York Times headlined, “In Climate Deal with China, Obama May Set 2016 Theme.” Environmentalists have the resources, the organization, and the will to succeed. Their policies will do little to help the earth. But never mind: the movement has the magic of thriving on its own failures. When Solyndra folded after wasting $535 million in federal loans, sustainability activists didn’t reassess solar technology as a favorite government “investment.” Instead, they moved right along to a $60-million “SunShot” federal solar grant program and the $2.2 billion Ivanpah Plant in California, which not only incinerates wildlife but also produces electricity at four times the cost of a natural gas plant. Expect the equivalent of Ivanpah in the next electoral cycle.
Renewable Energy, Unrenewable Candidates
But let’s savor the moment. This year, green agendas went over like the Howard Dean scream. In Iowa, Bruce Braley, whose Congressional voting record aligned 88 percent with the lefty League of Conservation Voters’ agenda and who voted against the Keystone XL pipeline, lost a Senate race to Joni Ernst, who advocates abolishing the EPA in favor of state-led efforts to curb pollution. Colorado Sen. Mark Udall, who named developing renewable energy and increasing energy efficiency “two of my top priorities,” lost his seat to Cory Gardner, a two-term congressman who declined, in a debate with Udall, to give a yes-or-no answer whether “humans are contributing significantly to climate change.” In Florida, Charlie Crist—who cited Republicans’ skepticism on climate change as one of the factors influencing his defection to the Democratic Party—lost to Rick Scott, who says “he has not been convinced” of global warming. And in Maine, Republican Gov. Paul LePage held his seat after a 2013 speech in which he ventured that climate change might benefit his state by opening the Northwest Passage for shipping. His opponent, Mike Michaud, ran unsuccessfully on a platform that involved shrinking Maine’s carbon footprint by expanding wind, tidal, solar, biomass, and geothermal energy.
Environmentalism’s failure to resonate with voters was not for lack of funding. Environmental groups spent upwards of $85 million, concentrated on six Senate races and five gubernatorial races, including each of the campaigns above. In the Senate, only two of the six environmentalist-backed candidates won: Jeanne Shaheen in New Hampshire, and Gary Peters in Michigan. Braley and Udall, in addition to North Carolina’s Kay Hagan and Alaska’s Mark Begich, lost to their Republican opponents despite massive green contributions. Environmentalists backed five gubernatorial candidates—Mary Burke in Wisconsin, Charlie Crist in Florida, Mark Schauer in Michigan, Mike Michaud in Maine, and Tom Wolf in Pennsylvania—but only Wolf won his election.
Meanwhile, Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu, rallying for a December 6 run-off to defend her Senate seat, suddenly decided to champion the Keystone XL pipeline and has been pushing the Senate to approve it immediately, in time to energize her pro-oil constituents.
Big Spending, Little Results
Environmentalists had staked this midterm election as a battleground to entrench sustainability interests as key issues for the 2016 election. “We want 2014 to be a pivot year for climate—the year we can demonstrate that you can use climate change as a wedge issue to win in political races,” veteran Democrat strategist Chris Lehane told reporters in May. Lehane was hired by Tom Steyer, a California-based billionaire with a penchant for green policies, to head his PAC, NextGen Climate Action Committee, which spent $57 million on midterm races, including those listed above. Steyer, who retired as manager of a hedge fund in 2012 at age 55 to focus full-time on environmental activism, donated nearly $75 million to candidates and PACs, including $66.9 million to NextGen.
“This is by far the biggest investment that the environmental community has ever made in politics,” Gene Karpinski, president of the League of Conservation Voters, commented on the wave of environmentalist political action. The League of Conservation Voters spent about $25 million on environmental candidates—up from $5 million in 2010 and $15 million in 2012—footing the bill for a slew of smear ads attacking Ernst, Gardner, Tillis, and New Hampshire’s Scott Brown for supporting oil interests and “denying” climate change. The LCV Action Fund (a PAC) also raised $5 million to go directly to candidates, “more than double” the amount raised in 2012, according to an LCV strategic planning document. There’s also the Sierra Club PAC with about $1.5 million, and the Environmental Defense Action Fund, at about $3 million.
Voters’ Chill on Environmental Agenda
Voters’ tepid midterms reception of the green narrative is striking, given increasingly loud proclamations of environmental doom from the IPCC and from most major media. Take, for instance, the New York Times headline two days before the elections: “U.N. Panel Issues Its Starkest Warning Yet on Global Warming.”
But with 16 years of steady or declining global temperatures, Americans are growing weary of hyperbolic claims of inevitable, catastrophic global warming. A September Pew Research Poll showed the environment as eighth among 11 issues most important to voters. The election results indicate that the majority of Americans disapprove of measures that stymie economic growth and threaten the booming domestic oil and natural gas industry. They are skeptical of anti-climate change efforts that carry high sticker prices but dubious environmental benefits.
The Republican takeover of the Senate settles Oklahoma Sen. James Inhofe, a forthright skeptic of global warming, as chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, and Alaska’s pro-oil Sen. Lisa Murkowski as chair of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee. Mitch McConnell, Kentucky’s outspoken defender of coal, will be the new Senate Majority Leader. That dramatically increases the chances of reasonable public policy that preserves economic sanity over feel-good environmental fantasies.
Already Republicans have pledged to approve the Keystone XL pipeline, and 12 Democrats have lent support to the pipeline in the past, supplying a filibuster-proof majority in the new Senate. Both McConnell and Republican Sen. John Thune have suggested they may aim to reduce Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations on power plants, spurring cheaper energy production. Funding for the IPCC will also likely get nixed; in June, the Democrat-controlled Senate approved nearly $12 million for the IPCC and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. The current House version of the bill specifies that none of the funds may be used for the IPCC, and with Republican control of both houses of Congress now, that’s not likely to change.
The Big Green Grudge Match
Yet environmentalists, spurred by a religious devotion to Mother Earth and flush with cash thanks to activists like Steyer, are not going to quit. Steven Hayward and others have pointed out the movement’s glee at having laid the foundation for a broader environmental campaign moving forward. President Obama has already staked his party on green ground and has announced plans to bypass Congress and wield his executive power to curb carbon emissions by further regulating power plants, truck exhaust, and oil refineries, and increasing incentives for renewable energy.
National Public Radio, never a slouch in advancing the green agenda, followed up the election with a story touting the supposed successes of the Department of Energy’s $34.2 billion “loan” programs to clean-energy technology companies. NPR reports that the loan program is now “turning a profit.” The assertions might benefit from the gimlet eye of an accountant familiar with the creative bookkeeping of government pork-barrel projects, but even if the numbers are taken at face value, the timing of the story—coincident with the announcement of President Obama’s China “deal”—suggests the eagerness of the press to return to the narrative of environmentalist triumph.
Grassroots groups vow to come back stronger next election. Sierra Club President Michael Brune released a blog post three days after the midterms titled “That Which Doesn’t Kill Us…” that pledges to induct a new generation into the ranks of environmental voters. Bill McKibben, founder of the radical grassroots organization 350.org, gave a speech at the London School of Economics shortly after the election, warning, “Our job is to build a big movement that changes the zeitgeist enough to make politicians of whatever stripe feel the need” to take action against climate change. At the top of McKibben’s list is demonizing the fossil fuel industry, which he views as a collection of “rogue companies” that have singlehandedly bought the American political system. “The idea is to rob the legitimacy of these companies, that gives them the social license, the ability to damage our politics,” he declared. Never mind that the fossil fuel industry gives more than 215,000 Americans will well-paying jobs (average hourly wage: $40.70) and provides cheap energy that all but disproportionately aids the poor.
At the heart of McKibben’s radical sustainability campaign is the college campus, where more than 400 student groups have allied with McKibben’s 350.org to push their institutions to divest their endowment holdings in oil, gas, and coal. Their movement centers on a deep-seated distrust of the American political tradition, which students are taught to view as thoroughly polluted with oppressive, patriarchal tendencies that extend to raping and pillaging the environment. Investors Charles and David Koch are seen jointly as public enemy number one. 350.org swiftly released a press statement after Tuesday’s election, accusing the fossil fuel industry of fighting “fiercer and dirtier than ever, spending hundreds of millions to put more oil-soaked politicians in office than ever.” (This, despite Steyer’s ranking number 1 on the list of individual disclosed campaign contributions; Koch Industries, a favorite target of 350.org and other environmental groups, ranks sixteenth.)
Targeting The Decarbonated Campus
The college campus is where the environmental movement is being forged—and where political battles may be won and lost over the next two years. I’ve spent the past year investigating the campus sustainability movement from the inside out, and early next year, my report, “Weathering the Storm: Climate Extremism and the Campus Sustainability Movement,” will be published by the National Association of Scholars. Campuses are havens for radical environmentalism, a breeding ground for the movement that Steyer intends to rally in force for 2016. I’ve found that 684 college presidents have publicly pledged to make sustainability the center of their institutions’ mission and curriculum, and to make their campuses 100 percent carbon-neutral within the next few years. Sustainability—usually depicted by a Venn diagram of interlocking circles labeled “environment,” “economy,” and “society”—encompasses broad social and economic goals in addition to traditional environmental ones. Indeed, the closer you get to the movement, the clearer it becomes that the anti-capitalist and “social justice” agendas are more important to many participants than the environmental ones.
Environmentalism for many is just a springboard into radical politics. Students learn to favor managed economies and social reorganization. Efficient light bulbs and reusable water bottles are symbols, not goals. Much of the movement focuses on fostering antipathy among an entire generation towards free markets, individual liberty, and traditional social mores. The strong Republican election results only provide cover for students’ more radical plans to escalate their campus sustainability and divestment campaigns in the spring.
Meanwhile, Washington DC has been nurturing the nascent college campus sustainability campaign by sponsoring federal grants to pay for green curricular makeovers and post-docs in sustainability. National Science Foundation awards cover advocacy against the oil and gas industry thinly veiled as sustainability research.
Prepare to Face the Eco-Worriers Next Time
If sensible policies and sound economics are to prevail, Republicans will need to energize their movement now. The new Republican Senate should revive the Keystone XL pipeline and approve it early next year, and pressure President Obama to concede. Congress should exercise oversight of the EPA, reversing its power grabs for extra-legal authority and quashing its over-zealous regulatory fervor.
Congress should signal support for fracking by easing environmental regulations that impede domestic energy production, providing an impetus for state leaders to approve new fracking permits and to lift rushed, ill-conceived bans on the procedure. National rhetoric and local grassroots efforts should make opposition to fracking a political liability, casting it as an elitist taste for pristine nature reserves at the cost of jobs, rural prosperity, and reliable, affordable energy. New York’s Andrew Cuomo won his gubernatorial race handily, although he vilified fracking and instead pushed money-grabbing casinos as a solution to upstate New York’s dismal unemployment. Republicans should be ready to hang this around his neck if Cuomo follows through on his hints that he may seek higher office.
Finally, the government should quit bankrolling sustainability initiatives on college campuses. Administrators should stop enshrining sustainability advocacy as the cornerstone of their universities’ missions. Professors should push back against the intrusion of sustainability into their courses.
To stop the global-warming extremist movement from rebounding after its 2014 loss in the polls will take more than spiking the three-ring campus sustainability circus. It will require some serious strategizing on the part of conservatives. We were lucky this time. Cold weather has dampened the readiness of Americans to believe the world will end in fire (or flood from melting ice caps) anytime soon.
But the climatistas are night and day refining their just-so stories, and have become expert at selling their secular salvation myth to millions of young people who thirst for a more compelling life narrative than endless consumerism. To combat a compelling narrative with a stirring role for imaginary survivors of the eco-apocalypse, we need a better narrative. Global warming skepticism by itself isn’t enough. If conservatives are serious about beating back this new form of leftist utopianism, they need to convince a generation once again that freedom is a better choice.