Wins in Georgia give Democrats the reins in Congress - what does this mean for the climate crisis?

The victories of Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff, both historic in their own right, have broad implications for US climate policy, writes senior climate correspondent Louise Boyle

Thursday 07 January 2021 21:53
Georgia Senate candidates Raphael Warnock, left, and Jon Ossoff, right, have gotten a campaign boost from an unlikely source: Donald Trump.
Georgia Senate candidates Raphael Warnock, left, and Jon Ossoff, right, have gotten a campaign boost from an unlikely source: Donald Trump.

As one of the darkest days in American democracy unfolded at the US Capitol on Wednesday, a consequential political shift took place in Georgia, one which is expected to have meaningful impact on the Biden administration’s ability to tackle urgent issues from voting rights, immigration and racial justice, to the climate crisis.

Reverend Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff, the two Democratic challengers in a run-off election, were announced as the winners of the state’s two Senate seats.

Rev. Warnock, a pastor at the Atlanta church where Dr Martin Luther King Jr preached during the civil rights era, became the first Black senator in Georgia’s history.

He defeated Republican Kelly Loeffler, a businesswoman worth an estimated $800 million, who had been appointed to her seat in 2019 to replace a retiring senator.

Jon Ossoff, a former investigative journalist, beat incumbent Senator David Perdue, the former CEO of Dollar General who is worth around $16m. Ossoff, at 33, becomes the Senate’s youngest member and the state’s first Jewish senator.

The results were a stinging slap down of Donald Trump’s combative politics in his final weeks in office. Both Republicans had thrown their fortunes in with president’s lies of voter fraud and called for the resignation of Georgia election officials. 

But the GOP candidates’ hopes of tapping into the president’s devout base, and campaigns mired in accusations of racism and anti-Semitism, ultimately failed.

Their opponents’ victories put Congress and the White House in Democratic control for the first time since President Obama took office more than a decade ago.

And while climate did not take center stage in the Georgia races, much of how the crisis will be tackled has hinged on the run-offs. And swift action is needed, climate campaigners say.

“The Decade of the Green New Deal has just begun,” tweeted the Sunrise Movement.

The organisation, Climate Generation, wrote: “We cannot fully make progress on climate action without a strong democratic foundation rooting us. Yesterday’s events cannot detract from the hard work of Black and Brown organizers in Georgia to make people’s voices heard, despite generations of ongoing disenfranchisement."

Wednesday’s Democratic sweep means a 50-50 split in the upper chamber and will give Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, as president of the Senate, the tie-breaking vote. Democrats also hold a slim majority in the House of Representatives. 

For starters, Democrats could use the Congressional Review Act, which allows Congress to reverse recent rules with a simple majority. The Trump administration has been racing to complete climate and environmental rollbacks in its final weeks including protections for migratory birds and the sale of Arctic drilling leases.

Biden has pledged a 100 per cent clean electricity standard by 2035, reaching net-zero emissions no later than 2050 and $1.7 trillion federal investment in climate and justice plans over the next decade - a plan backed by the two new Georgia senators. Democrats could bolster funding for federal agencies and wrap parts of Biden’s climate plan into any new economic stimulus package. 

However the 50-50 split doesn’t make for plain sailing as there is still the filibuster to contend with, which mandates 60 votes to pass major legislation. And there is the potential for roadblocks to big legislative climate moves from centrist Democrats.

On the upside for the president-elect, Mitch McConnell (soon to be Senate Minority leader) and his fellow Republicans have lost veto power over his political and judicial appointees.

And with growing momentum from voters and business communities to address climate challenges, not to mention Biden’s history of bipartisanship, some moderate Republicans may be swayed to support the aggressive action needed.

With a more secure path to passing legislation, Mr Biden will not need to rely as heavily on executive orders or agency regulations. This could help avoid the likely legal opposition from industry, and potential battles in the Supreme Court, where the balance is tipped with conservative justices.

Moving as quickly as possible on Biden’s net-zero emissions pledge is crucial to heading off dangerous global heating and will cut 0.1C by 2100, according to the Climate Action Tracker.

While it appears slight, along with "China’s pledge to bring emissions to net-zero before 2060, and the EU, Japan and South Korea’s commitments to reach net-zero by 2050, a tipping point is being approached that puts the Paris Agreement’s 1.5C limit within reach,” according to the scientific group.

Sweeping domestic climate action will also signal America’s renewed commitment to the global fight to reduce emissions, including hitting the targets that the US agreed to under the Paris Accord in 2015.

Mr Trump pulled out of the deal, sending a green light to other major polluters.  Elizabeth Gore, senior vice president of political affairs at the Environmental Defense Fund, previously told The Independent  that the vacuum of leadership had “greatly diminished” America’s ability to work with allies and influence the direction of climate change.

Mr Biden has vowed to rejoin the Paris Accord on his first day in the White House.

In a statement on Wednesday, the president-elect said Georgia’s voters had delivered a “resounding message”.

“They want action on the crises we face and they want it right now. On COVID-19, on economic relief, on climate, on racial justice, on voting rights and so much more,” he said. 

Mr Biden also congratulated “the twin powers of Georgia”, Stacey Abrams and Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, for laying “the difficult groundwork necessary to encourage turnout and protect the vote over these last years”.

In particular Ms Abrams, who narrowly missed out on being elected Georgia’s first female Black governor in 2018, has been credited for her years-long, get-out-the-vote efforts.

An AP survey of voters in Tuesday’s run-offs found that Black voters comprised around 30 per cent of the electorate, and almost all of them — 94 per cent — backed Ossoff and Warnock. The Democrats also relied on the backing of younger voters, people earning less than $50,000 a year and newcomers to the state. 

Polls have found that Democratic voters, especially younger ones, are deeply concerned about climate change and Georgia, like elsewhere, is suffering more extreme impacts. Hurricanes are stronger and the sea-level has risen by more than a foot along the coastline, NOAA has found. And it’s getting hotter. There are currently up to 30 days a year above 95F (35C) in Georgia. This is predicted to more than double by 2090.

Georgia’s new senators will not only play a pivotal role in national climate policy but also are vital in advocating for issues closer to home, environmentalists say.

"Our hope is that Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock will be our champions at the national level but also help uplift local Georgia climate leaders," Angela Jiang, an organizer with Georgia’s chapter of grassroots environmental organization the Sierra Club, told The Independent.

"There are still communities being poisoned by toxic coal ash in Georgia and we need to switch to solar on an aggressive scale. We need their help to keep pushing for change and for it to reflect at state level. We're going to support them in office but we also know there's a lot of work to do."

Mr Ossoff hasn’t endorsed the Green New Deal but has touted Georgia’s potential to become “the leading producer of renewable energy" in the southeast. He also supports a single-use plastics ban and has called for reversing the Trump administration’s environmental rollbacks. 

Following his win, Rev Warnock told NPR that “commonsense reform” was needed. 

"There's no question that climate change is real. There's work we need to do on that front," he said. 

Rev Warnock’s climate plan underlines environmental justice, noting the “disproportionate impacts of climate change on marginalized communities” including the lack of access to clean water and air and the higher share of income that many Black and brown households pay in energy bills.

Ms Jiang pointed to the little-mentioned Republican win in Tuesday’s election of Lauren “Bubba” McDonald who claimed a fourth term on the Georgia Public Service commission.

The 82-year-old Mr McDonald, an early supporter of President Trump, joined four other Republicans on the commission.

The commission, which regulates the bills of privately-owned utilities, is currently focused on authorizing and wrestling with the cost of Georgia Power Co.’s $25 billion plan to add two new nuclear reactors at Plant Vogtle near Augusta. 

Mr McDonald has championed the plant, which customers are already paying for even though it isn’t operating. But he also has clashed with Georgia Power and other commissioners in an effort to limit its effect on power bills.

His Democratic opponent, Daniel Blackman, had accused Mr McDonald of not doing enough to increase renewable energy, help customers pay their bills and make Georgia Power shareholders pay to clean up coal ash ponds instead of putting the cost on customers. He also attacked him over the costs of Vogtle.

The 82-year-old is a champion of the nuclear plant, which he says will reduce emissions and help enable further expansion of solar energy.

Nuclear energy is going to be the best thing for my children and grandchildren for the next 80-100 years,” he said.

The plan to add a third and fourth nuclear reactor at Plant Vogtle survived a cost-overrun scare in 2018 with the heavy support of the state’s Republican establishment.

Mr McDonald said he favors a market-based approach to solar and other renewables. He also argued that people facing high bills have enough assistance and said customers should pay to clean up coal ash since they used the electricity generated from the coal.

AP contributed to this report

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