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Peter Lehner

Peter Lehner

Posted: November 3, 2010 11:52 AM

Yesterday, American voters made plain their anger over the economy and their frustration with the party in power. But they often did something else: they supported clean energy where they could.

California voters defeated an oil industry attempt to undermine the state's climate law, and most members of Congress who helped pass clean energy and climate legislation in 2009 kept their seats.

The vote in California was particularly significant. This was the first time climate solutions were put to a public referendum. And despite the millions of dollars that fossil fuel companies poured into the race, Californians made it clear they want to build a cleaner energy future.

In an election when the economy trumped all other issues including two wars, it is no surprise why. Green jobs in California have grown 10 times faster than the statewide average over the past five years, and the clean tech sector attracted $9 billion cumulative venture capital investment from 2005 through 2009.

California isn't the only state that will benefit from shifting to cleaner energy. There are clean tech opportunities and jobs across all 50 states, and the vast majority of Senators and Representatives who support legislation to unleash those opportunities won reelection.

Some members of the House who voted for the American Clean Energy and Security Act lost, but most won. And some of the key leaders in the Senate on the issue, such as Barbara Boxer and Harry Reid, have been returned after tough races.

There is no doubt this election has brought a tectonic shift to Washington and economic issues will be uppermost. But those assuming new positions of power should be careful not to overreach, especially when it comes to undermining environmental safeguards that protect our land, air and water.

In his new book, A Force for Nature, NRDC Founder John Adams tells the story of when Newt Gingrich's 104th Congress overplayed its hand. The Republican leadership loaded the 1996 budget with dozens of anti-environmental riders and told President Clinton they would shut down the government if he didn't approve it.

"This time the radicals had gone too far," Adams writes. "Moderate Republicans balked at the confrontation." Americans rallied to support their bedrock environmental laws, and they blamed the GOP when the government was indeed shut down. When the budget finally got approved, all the worst riders had been dropped.

"In five months, we had turned back an apparently unstoppable attack, because public opinion rallied to our side," Adams remembers. "The 104th Congress had been so extreme, so crude in its tactics, that it had turned the environment for the first time into an issue of burning public concern."

There is no mandate for GOP climate positions in this election. Quite the contrary: a series of recent polls shows that a commanding majority of the public continues to support clean energy and climate legislation.

A full 62 percent of independents, for instance, see global warming as a problem that justifies national leadership, according to a survey commissioned by the nonprofit Civil Society Institute. Meanwhile, the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press reported that 87 percent of Americans favor legislation that would require utilities to generate more electricity from renewable sources, such as solar and wind. And 78 percent favor tougher energy efficiency standards.

Numbers like these constitute a mandate. That is why NRDC will continue to push lawmakers to pass the clean energy and climate policies that create American jobs, grow our economy, and cut dangerous pollution. And we will also keep up the fight to prevent the clock from being turned back on the existing environmental protections we all enjoy.

This post originally appeared on NRDC's Switchboard blog.