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Governors could drive the next wave of climate change action

With Congress divided, newly elected Democrat governors are poised to charge ahead with clean energy.

Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D-NM) speaks during a news conference on immigration to condemn the Trump Administration’s “zero tolerance” immigration policy, outside the US Capitol on June 13, 2018 in Washington, DC.
New Mexico Governor-elect Michelle Lujan Grisham ran for office on her environmental record and her plans to fight climate change.
Toya Sarno Jordan/Getty Images

Environmentalists lamenting that a green wave didn’t wash over Congress can find a glimmer of hope in the results of several key governor races.

As of Wednesday, it looks like Democrats committed to fighting climate change gained several key governorships that could accelerate local and national progress in clean energy.

Democrat Stephen Sisolak won in Nevada, Democrat Janet Mills won in Maine, and Democrat Michelle Lujan Grisham won in New Mexico. In the past two years, these states all passed renewable energy bills through their legislatures that were vetoed by Republican governors.

But with these Democrats now heading into the governors’ mansions, it’s very likely that these states will take another run at clean energy legislation.

Sisolak, for example, campaigned on his support Question 6, one of the few state clean energy ballot initiatives that passed on Tuesday. This is a ballot measure that commits Nevada to getting 50 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2030. “In fact, as governor, I would like to get us on the road to 100 percent,” Sisolak said in a campaign ad.

Meanwhile Mills’s platform included cutting Maine’s greenhouse gas emissions 80 percent by 2030. And Grisham advocated new rules to regulate methane, a potent greenhouse gas, and has a long voting record in the House as a representative of New Mexico in favor of bills to address climate change.

Democrats flipped executive offices in other states as well. Democrat Tony Evers, Wisconsin’s governor-elect, defeated incumbent Scott Walker on a platform that included a pledge to join 17 other governors committed to the goals of the Paris climate agreement.

These wins are critical because governors have executive authority that allows them to dictate some state energy priorities. They also play a huge role in how federal environmental laws like the Clean Air Act are enforced.

We saw this play out in North Carolina after the last election. The state passed a law in 2012 preventing the government from even considering the latest climate change science in its planning. Then Democrat Roy Cooper was elected and pulled an aggressive U-turn, going as far as to sign an executive order committing the state to cutting its greenhouse gas emissions 40 percent below 2005 levels by 2025.

In 38 states, governors also appoint utility commissioners, who shape investment in energy infrastructure and can help decide whether to keep an aging coal plant online or to rapidly deploy renewables. That gives states like Nevada another lever to drive climate policies.

Legislatures in several states — Maine, Colorado, New Hampshire, Connecticut, New York, Minnesota — also saw at least one chamber flip in favor of Democrats. In 13 states, Democrats now control the governorship along with upper and lower legislative chambers. This would allow them to pass aggressive renewable portfolio standards and greenhouse gas targets.

The midterms were still bruising for climate change activists

But other governors races did not go as well — one high-profile candidate who made climate change a key part of his platforms, Democratic Florida gubernatorial contender Andrew Gillum, lost.

As for national-level candidates, several House members who deny climate change like California Republican Devin Nunes held on to their seats. And Carlos Curbelo, a House Republican who proposed a carbon tax, was outflanked by his Democratic opponent Debbie Mucarsel-Powell. Curbelo also chaired the House Climate Solutions Caucus. The 90-member group counted 45 Republicans as members, but just 24 of them will return in January. (Since the caucus hadn’t come up with many concrete solutions yet, it’s unclear what it will do going forward.)

Several state clean energy and environmental ballot initiatives were also thwarted at the polls. Measures like Colorado’s anti-fracking Proposition 112 and Washington state’s Initiative 1631 to price carbon emissions were defeated in part due to a firehose of money being unleashed by fossil fuel interests.

What that means is that the bulk of climate change and energy advances we’re going to see in the United States over the next two years will come up through state legislatures and governors’ offices. But don’t expect too much from a divided Congress and a president who is lackadaisical about whether climate change is even a problem.