2018 Midterm Election

How did climate change initiatives do in the midterms? Some lost — but some won.

Nov 16 '18
Houston under water in 2017 after Tropical Storm Harvey rise in Houston. (David J. Phillip/AP)

Climate change was on the ballot in cities and states across the United States last week. The results disappointed people who had hoped that in some states, at least, Americans were ready to tackle global warming. Of the high-profile initiatives aimed at weaning the nation off fossil fuels, a majority failed to pass. Some observers concluded that “voters still shrug” about climate change, or, more starkly, “the climate lost.”

Losses included a carbon tax initiative in Washington state, a renewable energy mandate in Arizona and new fracking restrictions in Colorado. All this suggests that it’s hard to persuade people to pay to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. This isn’t surprising. Even in left-leaning states, Americans rank climate change as a low priority, compared to many other public issues. What’s more, electric utilities and the oil and gas industry spent heavily to defeat the measures, which, research shows, often reduces the likelihood that such measures will pass.

But another set of ballot measures related to climate change has received less attention. While voters rejected major efforts to slow the advance of climate change, they mostly supported measures to adapt to climate change impacts.

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Investing in slowing climate change is different from investing in adapting to climate change.

The politics of adapting to climate change are different from the politics of limiting the magnitude of climate change.

State and local efforts to mitigate climate change by reducing greenhouse gas emissions impose costs that are concentrated and immediate, but offer benefits that are spread across the globe and may never be visible.

But when a community invests in adapting to climate change, those taxpayers benefit more directly, in two ways. First, investing in adaptation can help the community endure and survive natural disasters and other climate change effects — both boosting the local economy and keeping people safe. For instance, improved wastewater infrastructure along the coast reduces the nuisance and public health risk of being exposed to raw sewage in the case of flooding from storm events and sea level rise. And it also puts people to work.

Second, adaptation efforts may offer value for a community whether or not the climate changes. For instance, a city might invest in green spaces to reduce flooding — resulting in more parks, lower urban temperatures, and other human health benefits. As a result, advocates for these policies don’t have to argue about whether humans have changed the climate, which is an ideological minefield that makes climate politics challenging.

Still, for a variety of reasons, Americans have been slow to invest in the infrastructure that will protect against climate-related risks. Research shows that while many communities are starting to plan for adaptation, funding these efforts remains a challenge.

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A few initiatives to adapt to climate change passed.

The midterm elections changed that, if only slightly. In two New England states, voters approved bonds for clean water infrastructure. Maine and Rhode Island are targeting funds toward improving the performance of wastewater and storm-water systems when there’s flooding, and Rhode Island will set aside money to improve the resiliency of vulnerable coastal habitats.

In California, two local measures won the necessary two-thirds support for major investments in protective infrastructure. San Franciscans approved a $425 million bond to rebuild the Embarcadero sea wall, which will help protect the city as sea levels rise. Los Angeles County voters adopted a new parcel tax on paved surfaces, which will pay for storm water improvements to reduce pollution and capture more storm water to boost the region’s fragile water supply. Supporters had abandoned a similar measure in 2013 when it met strong opposition.

And in Houston, which recently had a disastrous hurricane, 75 percent of voters reapproved a fund to pay for drainage projects and street repairs.

Virginia passed the most controversial adaptation measure: a constitutional amendment allowing local governments to cut taxes on flood-prone properties if homeowners make investments that reduce the home’s flood risk. It’s controversial because of how it handles one of the most difficult tensions in adaptation policy: the tension between encouraging relocation away from climate-related risks and maintaining local tax bases to protect those who remain.

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It’s a start.

These votes didn’t signal that Americans are fully ready to pay the costs of adapting to climate change. Many measures were not framed in climate change language at all. And voters approved public spending for other types of infrastructure as well — for example, passing the majority of transportation ballot measures that appeared before them.

But given the stream of news articles noting that greenhouse-gas-reduction measures failed, it’s worth noting a quiet signal that Americans are beginning, at least, to recognize that we need to protect ourselves from climate change’s effects.

Read The Monkey Cage’s climate change posts

Megan Mullin is associate professor of environmental politics and political science at Duke University. Follow her on Twitter @mullinmeg.