As a result of the Nov. 7 midterm elections in which the current minority party captured a majority in both houses of Congress, Democrats in January will take over from Republicans the control of legislative committees and the power to set the political agenda on Capitol Hill.
While environmental issues did not play a pivotal role in the Democrats election victories, advocates for the environment are encouraged that their issues will get a louder hearing from a "greener" Congress.
"Change starts right here, right now," Gabrielle Giffords told her supporters in her victory speech as Congresswoman elect in the 8th District in Arizona.
Giffords is part of a new Democrat majority on Capitol Hill. She and others have promised support for renewable energy development, an end to dependence on foreign oil and tougher curbs on industrial carbon dioxide emissions that have been linked to climate change.
"The public also knows that we need to do something about global warming," says Gene Karpinski, president of the League of Conservation Voters, which endorses candidates based on their record on the environment. He says the environment was a big winner on Election Day because of high gasoline prices and incumbent ties to big oil companies that made record profits this year.
For six years under a Republican-controlled Congress and White House, environmental activists have maintained a defensive posture against challenges to anti-pollution laws, efforts to open the National Arctic Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling, and threats to the Endangered Species Act.
Now, Democrats will set the agenda, and environmental activists predict a major shift.
"They have said that they will create a cleaner, greener, stronger America by reducing our dependence on oil," says Sierra Club Political Director Cathy Duvall. She says the incoming House leadership has put energy issues among its top priorities for the first 100 hours of the new legislative session, which begins in early January, adding they have pledged to "eliminate subsidies for oil and gas companies, and use the savings to invest in a new energy technology."
Myron Ebell with the Competitive Enterprise Institute, an organization that is skeptical of the data on global warming, says he doesn't believe much of the post-election rhetoric. "A number of the Republicans who were defeated," he says, "already supported significant global warming legislation, [including] subsidies and mandates for alternative energy technologies and fuels." Ebell doesn't see much of a shift in ideology in the newly elected Congress, noting "many of the new Democrats who defeated conservative Republicans are themselves moderate to conservative."
The Sierra Club's Cathy Duvall recognizes that despite the new mandate, legislators face major hurdles to enacting new environmental laws. "It is important to remember that even if we pass something in the House and Senate, President Bush still sits in the White House," she says. "While we can help frame issues and put a vision forward of what a new energy future could be, it is not necessarily guaranteed that it is going to pass."
Myron Ebell with the Competitive Enterprise Institute predicts legislative gridlock as usual, and suggests major environmental reforms will take time. "They need to plan over the long term, over several Congresses, not in the next two years, I think."
That is exactly the strategy Gene Karpinski of the League of Conservation Voters and other environmental groups have already adopted.
Karpinski says the campaign for the White House in 2008 has already begun, with plans to set up operations in the states with the earliest presidential primary elections, and to press candidates to take a stand on environmental issues. "So whoever gets in the White House, either party, has been forced to talk about environmental issues and will be challenged to put an aggressive plan forward."
Karpinski suggests that members of Congress look back at their home cities and states for some new ideas on pollution, energy and climate change programs.
Three hundred city mayors from 46 states have signed agreements to reduce industrial emissions linked to global warming. Twenty-eight state legislatures have adopted climate action plans. Environmentalists are hoping for similar activism from the newly constituted U.S. Congress.