Our Nation’s Counter-Majoritarian Institutions Make it Harder to Fight Climate Change
Saving our planet will require making our country more democratic.
Is America’s failure to address climate change evidence that democracies are not up to the task, that voters won’t support the adjustments and sacrifices necessary for a transition away from fossil fuels? Plenty of ink has been spilled about this question, but at least in the U.S., it increasingly seems that that a key obstacle to climate action is not too much democracy, but too little. The problem may lie with our counter-majoritarian institutions, specifically the Electoral College, the Senate and the Supreme Court. And this problem has become glaringly evident in the closing weeks of the election cycle.
As recent polls show, increasing majorities in the U.S. recognize climate change as a serious threat and urge action. Concern does skew overwhelmingly along partisan lines, with Democrats much more likely than Republicans to recognize the problem. An NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll in September found that climate change to be the top issue for Democratic likely voters, indicating the increasing salience of the issue. Joe Biden has aggressively pushed climate change as an issue, and, in sharp contrast to previous years, climate change received significant attention in the Presidential debates.
These developments, as well as the explosion of grassroots climate activism over the past few years, may portend a major political shift toward climate action. However, the intrinsic nature of the climate issue interacts with counter-majoritarian institutions in a way that significantly hinders progress. First of all, while Americans are now more cognizant of the threat posed by climate change, and while polling indicates that a majority of Americans even recognize that climate change is impacting them now, the most dire consequences are still decades away. Large swaths of the population are still largely unaffected by climate disasters — though this will likely change — and those most impacted tend to be from politically marginalized communities, like people of color and the poor, whose voices are often silenced in political discourse. Consequently, to many voters, climate change can still seem relatively remote and unfortunately, in many cases, like someone else’s problem, especially when compared to pressing issues like COVID-19, the economic downturn, racism, and the lack of affordable health care.
However, the costs of addressing climate change would not be remote, especially to those employed in or economically dependent on the fossil fuel sector. The climate crisis demands rapid, sweeping changes in our energy use. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, we have until 2030 to significantly cut emissions and begin radically decarbonizing the global economy to avoid massively catastrophic temperature increases. We must stop using fossil fuels. In a rare moment of candor from a presidential candidate about the challenges ahead of us, Joe Biden said, during the last Presidential debate, “I would transition from the oil industry.” And by this, he clearly meant fossil fuels in general.
The costs of climate action are therefore concentrated and immediate with the respect to the fossil fuel industry, yet the benefits of regulation, while enormous, are generalized throughout the public and spread across future generations. Over the past thirty-odd years, this asymmetry has given the fossil fuel industry an enormous incentive and opportunity to block climate regulation and spread disinformation about climate science. The industry leveraged its sheer economic clout to mobilize campaign contributions, conservative activists and think tanks, and, ultimately, the Republican Party as a whole, to sow doubt about the problem and actively sabotage any efforts to address it.
In a majoritarian political system, supporters of climate action could try to counter fossil fuel money with the electoral clout of sheer numbers. This is where counter-majoritarian institutions come in. Energy production is geographically specific and, consequently, the influence of the fossil fuel industry is especially centered in particular states — such as the top five energy producers: Texas, Pennsylvania, Wyoming, West Virginia, and Oklahoma — where the industry has enormous political clout. Institutions, such as the U.S. Senate and the Electoral College, which are structured around state-by-state, rather than national, voter majorities, thus indirectly magnify the influence of geographically specific industries. Meanwhile, both institutions, initially structured so as to enable a greater voice for smaller states, have now given disproportionate influence to more sparsely populated states and thus to conservative, rural Whites, many of whom are employed in resource extraction. This demographic is generally opposed to climate action and environmental regulation in general. Meanwhile, the Senate filibuster enables these states to more easily exercise veto power over climate legislation. And the disproportionate power of rural or conservative, and heavily White, states means that a numerical minority of voters is able to elect a Republican Senate majority.
These counter-majoritarian institutions have reliably helped to block or undo climate action. In 2010, the Waxman-Markey Bill, which would have been President Obama’s signature piece of climate legislation, passed the House of Representatives. However, climate legislation then died in the Senate, in part because of Senators, both Republican and Democrat, concerned about their states’ fossil fuel industries. More recently, President Trump, who won office via the counter-majoritarian Electoral College while losing the popular vote, has worked assiduously to undo the climate policies of President Obama, the first U.S. President to seriously tackle this issue.
The role of counter-majoritarian institutions has become quite glaring in the last weeks before the election. Because of the Electoral College, the outcome of the Presidential race turns on a few swing states. One of the most pivotal swing states is Pennsylvania. According to Five Thirty-Eight, Biden has only a 30 percent chance of winning the White House if he loses Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania is also a major producer of natural gas — through fracking — and coal. Biden has issued confusing and inconsistent comments on whether or not he wants to end fracking, including during an exchange at the last debate. Biden’s statements on fracking and his debate comment on oil have been seized on by Trump to try and win over voters in Pennsylvania. Republicans have characterized Biden’s call for an energy transition as a major gaffe, and the media has played along. In fact, Biden’s comment was a no-brainer for anyone with the most basic knowledge of the climate crisis. As Farhad Manjoo pointed out in the New York Times:
Why can’t we abide an honest discussion about climate change? One problem is the Electoral College. Our nutty electoral system gives more say to some voters than others. This year the nation has suffered a string of terrifying weather disasters hastened by climate change. Large parts of the West are on fire, and there have been so many tropical storms that we had to go deep into the Greek alphabet to name them. But in the race for president, the future of the fracking industry in Pennsylvania is elevated above all these other problems, because Pennsylvania is a swing state.
At this point, it remains very doubtful that Biden’s statements about fossil fuels will actually cost him Pennsylvania. But the entire dust-up underscores how, because of the Electoral College, the interests of one industry in one state can exercise virtual veto power over national discourse and majority views on climate change.
Finally, there is the U.S. Supreme Court. As Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt note in the New York Times, the Trump Administration has had three Justices nominated and confirmed by a President and Senators all elected by a minority of voters. With the confirmation of Amy Coney Barrett, conservatives now have a 6–3 supermajority on the Court. That could spell serious trouble for the executive branch’s ability to issue climate regulations or for states’ ability to sue the federal government for failing to enforce environmental laws. The Supreme Court is itself a counter-majoritarian institution, but its counter-majoritarian character is now markedly heightened by the fact that electoral minorities now ultimately select its members. And this conservative Court could block climate action for decades to come, meaning that six justices could help doom the future of our civilization and our habitable planet.
How do we overcome these counter-majoritarian barriers to climate action? How do we make climate policy more reflective of majority views? Republicans have been largely hostile to both climate regulation and a more democratic, majoritarian political process. If they retain control of either the White House or the Senate, there is effectively zero hope for reform. But if Democrats take control of both institutions, they must take several actions. First, they should add seats to the Court. Yes, this is controversial, but a nine-member Court is not constitutionally mandated and the stakes are too high to allow a conservative supermajority on the Court to scuttle climate regulations (and other policies vital to the survival of our republic). Second, in order to make the Senate more representative of the nation as a whole, they should extend statehood to the District of Columbia and, if its residents agree, Puerto Rico, along with perhaps other U.S. territories. Third, a Democratic Senate should end the filibuster. Fourth, Congress should propose an amendment abolishing or substantially reweighting the Electoral College. Another route to Electoral College reform, which would bypass the constitutional amendment process, would be the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact. This would require all signatory states, once they represent a majority of the nation’s electoral votes, to instruct their electors to vote for the national popular vote winner in the Presidential election.
These are all basic democratic reforms that have seemingly little to do with climate change. However, our ability to address the climate emergency and preserve a habitable planet may ultimately hinge on making our nation less counter-majoritarian and more democratic.