What the Midterm Election Results Mean for Climate Action and the Environment

Hope for a greener future survives the “red wave” that wasn’t

By Jason Mark

November 10, 2022


Massachusetts governor-elect Maura Healey (center) and lieutenant governor-elect Kim Driscoll (center, right) on stage during a Democratic election-night party on November 8 in Boston. | Photo by AP Photo/Michael Dwyer

This story has been updated since its original publication to reflect the latest election results. 

To the immense surprise of pollsters and pundits, the Republican wave that they predicted for the 2022 midterm election fizzled. Across the country, climate champions up and down the ballot scored unpredicted victories.

Climate change didn’t influence the campaigns in the same way that the economy and reproductive rights did. Yet given the high stakes of this election cycle, “the planet was on the ballot,” as Sierra Club president Ramón Cruz said on Wednesday morning.

How will the 2022 elections influence climate action and environmental protection in the next two years? Here are five takeaways.

1. Even with a GOP House, federal climate action will roll on

Even though the GOP tsunami turned out to be little more than a trickle, Republicans still appear to have an inside track to taking control of the House of Representatives. In comparison to the midterm blowouts in 1994, 2010, and 2018—during which the president’s party lost 52 seats, 63 seats, and 40 seats, respectively—President Biden and Democratic candidates beat the odds and made a bit of history. That said, even a narrowly Republican-controlled House will put an end to any major climate legislation for the next two years.

During a post-election press conference Wednesday, leaders of the country’s most politically potent environmental groups acknowledged as much. That’s not the end of the world, they said, since Congress just months ago passed landmark climate legislation in the form of the Inflation Reduction Act. “We are going to keep making progress by making sure the [Inflation Reduction Act] is implemented well, push President Biden to do executive actions on climate, and continue to make progress in the states,” said Gene Karpinski, president of the League of Conservation Voters, which spent $100 million to elect climate champions in state and federal races.

At best, a GOP-controlled House would likely be a no-show on climate change and other environmental protections. Republicans will likely abolish the Select Committee on the Climate Crisis; there will be no more House Oversight Committee hearings probing the decades-long disinformation campaigns by Big Oil and company. Representative Raúl Grijalva, chair of the House Natural Resources Committee and a stalwart conservationist, will have to hand his gavel over to Representative Bruce Westerman, who has a lifetime score of 4 percent from the League of Conservation Voters.

At worst, a Republican-controlled House will try to manufacture a bunch of phony scandals to try to hamstring the implementation of the IRA. Expect to see House hearings that will concoct all sorts of make-believe outrages about IRA investments, à la the Obama-era uproar about Department of Energy loans to Solyndra.

But here’s the thing: It may very well be that House Republicans won’t have much of an appetite for going after the IRA. And that’s because the politics of climate and clean energy are changing.

2. Climate change is no longer a weapon for Republicans

What a difference 12 years makes. Back in the 2010 midterms, Republicans and their fossil fuel corporate allies spent tens of millions of dollars on attack ads slamming Democratic candidates for supporting a modest cap-and-trade climate bill that didn’t even manage to pass Congress. This election cycle, in contrast, Republican candidates said close to nothing about the far more ambitious Inflation Reduction Act—the first major federal legislation on climate change.

For some climate-action advocates, the Republican silence on the IRA was deafening—and telling. “This year, we passed major climate legislation, and you didn’t see anything as far as attack ads,” Jamal Raad, the cofounder and executive director of Evergreen Action, told Sierra. “In fact, not only was it [the IRA] not a negative, but many Democrats running for election in Minnesota and Michigan and Wisconsin leaned into clean energy and climate, including talking about the investments in their states.”

The politics of climate change are shifting. Renewable-energy development and clean-technology manufacturing are poised to create a constituency of voters who—regardless of their political affiliations and partisan identities—will support climate progress. The reason is jobs. “Everyone is wondering how we get independents and Republicans on board with clean energy. The fact is, there is a pretty proven path forward on that,” Raad said. “Once the investments and the jobs exist, then people are like, ‘Oh, I see that in my community.’ And then it becomes popular.”

By way of example, Raad pointed to the Republican primary in the Georgia governor’s race, during which MAGA Republican David Perdue tried to make an issue out of the state’s support for a Rivian truck plant there—and incumbent Republican governor Brian Kemp proudly defended his administration’s role in bringing the EV manufacturer to the state.

According to Lori Lodes, executive director of Climate Power, less than 5 percent of GOP campaign spending went toward criticizing Democratic candidates’ climate record. “There were candidates in very few races who ran on attacking climate, or attacking a fictional ‘war on energy’—and those candidates lost,” she said Wednesday. Among those were Republican Senate candidates Don Bolduc in New Hampshire and Jim O’Dea in Colorado. Meanwhile, some threatened Democrats—notably Representative Abigail Spanberger in Virginia—proudly talked about the IRA’s passage on the campaign trail and ended up beating expectations to win.

The refashioned politics of climate action is likely to be the most important long-term takeaway from the 2022 elections. The clean energy transition—and the millions of good-paying jobs that will come with it—is a political winner. Bashing action on climate change now means bashing jobs; it’s a political loser. With their studied silence on the issue, Republican candidates have admitted as much, and that’s a seismic shift in national and state elections.

3. A crew of Democratic governors will advance climate action at the state level

For progressive environmentalists, perhaps the signature victory of this week’s elections was the strong showing by climate champions at the state level. Democrats took over the governor’s mansion in Maryland, where Wes Moore will become the state’s first Black governor. In Massachusetts, voters elected as their new governor Maura Healey, a bold foe of Big Oil who, as Massachusetts attorney general, sued ExxonMobil for deceptive business practices. Environment-friendly Democrats also made a clean sweep in the industrial Midwest and Great Lakes, holding onto the governorships of Michigan, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin.

The Michigan results are especially good news. Governor Gretchen Whitmer, a strong opponent of the controversial Line 5 oil pipeline, won reelection, and Democrats secured both houses of the state legislature, giving them a trifecta for the first time since 1982. Democratic gains in the Minnesota legislature also led to a trifecta there. Democratic victories in the Maryland and Massachusetts governor races mean a total of four new states where Democrats will determine state lawmaking.

The environmental victories in state races have important implications for both national and local climate policies.

Successful implementation of the IRA hinges, in large part, on the ability and willingness of state governments to develop programs to take advantage of the new climate law. “Having those [climate champion] leaders there means those states will be eager and attentive to implementation of the IRA,” Evergreen Action’s Raad said.

There is also a raft of state-level policymaking that can spur climate progress. State legislators and governors can put in place renewable energy standards to move their local utilities to 100 percent clean energy; accelerate the move to electric vehicles by adopting California’s clean car standards; and establish new rules to electrify homes and office buildings. State governments are especially well positioned to ensure that equity is central to the new clean energy economy, said NRDC president Manish Bapna, and to make sure that “the benefits of the transition accrue to environmental justice communities.”

It’s especially important that these climate champion wins came in the industrial center of the country. The Rust Belt is rusty no more. With smart, progressive leadership in place, the region has the potential to become a vast laboratory and workshop for the retooled clean energy economy.

4. The kids are alright—and probably saved the day

The thoroughly discredited political pundits are still trying to read the tea leaves of this election, but at least this much is clear: Young voters played a major role in pushing Democrats to victory, and many of those voters are primarily motivated by their concerns about the climate crisis.

According to CNN exit polls (yeah, you gotta take them with a grain of salt), voters under 30 leaned heavily toward Democratic candidates. Gen Z voters cast their ballots for Democrats versus Republicans by a margin of 28 percent. “Young voters helped stop the ‘red wave’ and the ‘red tsunami,’” Cristina Tzintzún Ramirez, president of Next Gen America, said.

She pointed to John Fetterman’s victory in the Pennsylvania Senate race, where an estimated 70 percent of young voters cast their ballots for the working-class hero. In Arizona, where Senator Mark Kelly currently has a slight lead, her organization contacted nearly two-thirds of all young people who are registered to vote. Altogether, Next Gen America made contact with more than 9 million young voters and had a presence on 245 college campuses, Tzintzún said.

Historically, younger voters have leaned liberal and progressive. What makes today’s young voters unique is the intensity of their passion about the climate crisis. In survey after survey after survey, younger voters say climate change is one of their top issues and say they want elected officials to act boldly to combat the climate chaos.

Like the Republican silence on the Inflation Reduction Act, the rise of the climate voter is likely to have political ripple effects for many elections to come.

5. A Democratic Senate will help secure environmental progress

We now know that the Democrats will keep control of the US Senate, thanks to the re-election victories of Senator Mark Kelly in Arizona and Senator Catherine Cortez Masto in Nevada. While political junkies will still be watching the Senate runoff race in Georgia between Herschel Walker and Senator Raphael Warnock, it’s now a sure thing that Democrats will hold onto the upper house of Congress. 

Having climate-action champions wield control of the Senate is obviously important for many reasons—and among the most important is the ability to get federal judges on the bench who will respect the government’s ability to protect clean air, clean water, and wildlife.
“If Democrats can hold onto the Senate, President Biden can continue to appoint judges and rebalance the court,” Abigail Dillen, the president of Earthjustice, told Sierra the morning after the election, when the fate of the Senate was still in doubt. “Sometimes we forget how essential that is for environmental and climate progress.”

During the Trump administration years, President Trump and then–Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell appointed scores of federal judges primarily because they were known opponents of a strong federal government. “They assessed judicial candidates that believed in undermining government regulation, were hostile to climate action, were hostile to environmental protections of all kinds,” Dillen said. “We are still winning cases before those Trump judges, but they were appointed to counter the ambitious environmental agenda we need right now.”

Dillen pointed out that President Biden, with an assist from Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, has been very focused on appointing progressive judges who are willing to defer to the executive branch to safeguard public health and the environment. With Schumer now poised to continue presiding over the Senate, Biden’s nominations of judges who are open to environmental protections can continue. 

That’s good news—and yet more evidence of how this election turned out to be more of a “green wave” than a red one. 

Paid for by the Sierra Club Political Committee (www.sierraclub.org) and not authorized by any candidate or candidate’s committee.