THE BLOG
11/05/2014 12:16 pm ET Updated Jan 05, 2015

4 Midterm Lessons About the Politics of Climate Change

The Republican Party has taken control of the Senate after winning a handful of red states. This makes Senator Mitch McConnell the new Majority Leader, yet voters have not endorsed McConnell's pro-polluter agenda of dirty air and unlimited climate change pollution.

All year long, poll after poll has shown that the majority of Americans want to protect clean air, promote clean energy, and shield future generations from unchecked climate change.

People went into the voting booth with many issues on their minds, from the tepid economy to health care to international turmoil. They rewarded those who have led on climate issues in Congress or on the campaign trail, including Rep. Gary Peter in Michigan, Senator Jeanne Shaheen in New Hampshire, and Senator Susan Collins.

Yet even in races where people did not vote on climate change alone, one thing is clear: Americans have not given the GOP a mandate to let polluters foul our air and destabilize our climate.

It's time for incoming Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker John Boehner to get the message. Thus far, they have ignored science and voters' concerns. They've promised to attack safeguards for our children's health and blocking any attempt to reign in climate change pollution.

Most voters will not welcome this overreach. Just ask Former Speaker Newt Gingrich; he learned the hard way when he tried to gut environmental protections after the 1994 midterm elections.

Here are some of the lessons we can take away from this year's elections.

Most Voters Support Limits on Climate Change Pollution

Prolonged drought, destructive storms, toxic algae blooms, and other extreme events brought climate change home this year, and most Americans want leaders to tackle the climate threat.

An ABC/Washington Post survey found that 7 in 10 Americans view climate change as a serious problem and support federal action to reduce greenhouse gases. A poll for NBC News/The Wall Street Journal reported that two-thirds of Americans support the EPA's plan to reduce carbon pollution from power plants. And a Bloomberg News poll found that 62 percent of Americans were even willing to pay more for energy if it meant reducing carbon pollution. Most people want to protect the country from dirty air and extreme weather. They aren't asking for Senator McConnell's plan to make life easier for polluters.

Climate Change Gained New Prominence in This Cycle

During the 2012 election, climate change received little national attention. This time around, more Americans have felt the brunt of climate change in their own lives, and voters, debate moderators, and journalists wanted to know where candidates stood on the issue. Nearly 40 percent of voters in battleground states heard candidates' positions on climate change, and majorities heard their views on energy, according to a poll conducted for the NRDC Action Fund. Many candidates made climate change and clean energy a central part of their platform. Even Tea Party favorite Cory Gardner felt compelled to travel to a Colorado wind farm for one of his TV ads.

It Was a Tough Map for Climate Champions

Polluters eager to gut environmental standards and allow unlimited carbon pollution always had the upper hand this cycle. Most of their preferred candidates were trying to recapture Republican strongholds -- indeed pundits started forecasting how tough this race would be back in 2008 when several Democrats won traditionally red states. Climate champions also faced an added challenge of history: as Politico's Charlie Cook points out, the president's party has suffered in five out of six midterm elections since the end of World War II, averaging just six Senate and 29 House seats.

A Climate Denier Can Not Win the White House in 2016

GOP strategists read the same polls environmentalists do, and they are starting to realize most voters care about climate change and want leaders to do something about it. Voters are tired of candidates who deny or ignore global warming and they view this ignorance as a sign of being out of touch. This includes members of important voting blocs: By margins of 20 to 22 percentage points, independents, women and younger voters describe themselves as less likely to vote for their Republican candidate after learning of his or her views on energy, the environment and climate change. Many GOP candidates have walked back from extreme denial by embracing the new "I am not a scientist" rhetoric. Even they recognize that voters will no longer elect a president who ignores the biggest economic, public health, and environmental threat of our time.

There is much to fight for in the next two years. No matter who holds the gavel in Congress, climate change is accelerating and Americans are growing alarmed. It's time for lawmakers of both parties to act.