State of the Planet

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In the 2020 Elections, It’s Not Just the Presidential Race That Matters

sign says vote with arrow and american flag
Photo: kgroovy/Flickr

As wildfires blaze across the West and tropical storms ravage the Gulf Coast, the topic of climate change has become increasingly salient. While climate change is at the tip of everyone’s tongue, action starts at our fingertips. For this upcoming election, we need to cast our ballots for leaders who prioritize the environment. Voting is not only a matter of upholding our (dysfunctional) democracy, but also sustaining the planet. While media coverage has extensively covered how the presidential candidates will address climate change (read here, here, and here), local politicians are often overlooked. Often elusive and exclusive, members of  state utility boards — which oversee electric, gas, water, and telecommunication companies — are major stakeholders when it comes to local and national environmental policy.

In many states, public service commissioners regulate utilities in a variety of ways, depending on their localities. From ensuring reasonable access to services, monitoring rates and service quality, and mediating disputes between competitors and consumers, their decisions have an immediate impact on everyone’s wallet. Public service commissioners also directly impact the climate at large because they negotiate utility investments and development, making critical decisions on whether or not to invest in renewable energy, which type of renewable energy, and how to transition into a greener economy.

For example, in my home state of Georgia, there are five elected commissioners who make decisions that affect the lives of every Georgian. Their positions and the consequences of their decisions are paid for by taxpayers — with an annual budget of over $10 million, 90% of which comes from state funds. They regulate power companies such as Georgia Power Company, Liberty Utilities, and Atlanta Gas Light. They have authority over nearly 36,000 miles of gas distribution and transmission lines. The commissioners regulate 516 providers of long distance telecommunications services, including 21 interexchange carriers such as AT&T, MCI and Sprint.

Given the massive powers and responsibilities these local board members have, it is critical that these leaders represent their constituents, substantively and demographically. Yet across the South, members of local utility boards are overwhelmingly homogeneous white male Republicans. In Georgia, while the population is approaching an even split between whites and people of color, the entire public service commission is composed of white Republicans.

The public service commission’s lack of diverse representation, coupled with oversaturation of the conservative agenda, contributes to generational poverty. In addition to rising homelessness, millions of ordinary Americans are facing increasing, unaffordable water bills and risk being disconnected or losing their homes if they cannot pay, according to a landmark Guardian investigation. Their exclusive analysis of 12 U.S. cities shows the combined price of water and sewage increased by an average of 80% between 2010 and 2018, with nearly half of residents in some cities living in neighborhoods with unaffordable bills. Not surprisingly, poor and marginalized communities bear the brunt of these challenges. Dia Parker, director of Los Vecinos, a nonprofit in Georgia that helps low-income families living in apartments, believes that representation is an issue. “Folks[here] are not only under rent burden but utilities as well,” she explained over the phone. “People are living paycheck to paycheck and can’t afford to pay utilities. When we don’t have representatives who understand the everyday issues that constituents face, systemic issues are exacerbated.”

Public service commission decisions also affect communities at large as many are transitioning from fossil fuels to renewable sources. In the case of Georgia, local leaders are imposing the costs and risks of this transition onto consumers.For example, according to the Sierra Club, millions of tons of coal ash being stored across the state — a byproduct of years of burning coal — have been found to contain a long list of hazardous pollutants that can severely harm human health, fish and wildlife. Even though Georgia Power didn’t have the plans or permits necessary to clean up the mess, public service commission chairman Lauren “Bubba” McDonald approved giving the company $550 million from ratepayers for the first round of coal ash cleanup.

“Bubba” is also a supporter of nuclear energy and has consistently voted in favor of continuing to develop Plant Vogtle’s nuclear units. Nuclear power is a high risk alternative energy that generates electricity without emitting greenhouse gases or other air pollutants. Billions of Georgia ratepayers were charged for all the expenses associated with building the two nuclear reactors at Plant Vogtle even before the plant was built. Experts at Columbia University have warned against this type of development. Jason Bordoff, the founding director of Columbia’s Center on Global Energy Policy, said, “the truth is, the industry is in crisis—and the signs don’t look good for it turning around.” Another policy researcher at the center commented that the reactors in Georgia “are many years late and billions of dollars over budget.

Furthermore, and perhaps most significantly, is the hazardous waste, or spent fuel, reactors produce. The U.S. Department of Accountability states that even low-waste nuclear plants generate “significant amounts of waste, including building materials and hazardous and radioactive waste removed from equipment and piping.” Nuclear waste has been linked to health issues ranging from adverse birth outcomes to cancer. The Georgia nuclear reactors are located in Waynesboro Burke County, where the majority of the population (over 70%) is Black. Vogtle’s nuclear radiation exposure has been accused of causing birth defects and cancer to local community members. Burke County’s cancer death rate was 7% below the U.S. rate before reactor startup in 1987, whereas afterward, between 1999 and 2018, the Burke rate jumped to 20% above the national average.

aerial view of nuclear power plant
Public service commissioners in Georgia decided to charge the public for the expenses associated with building two reactors at the Vogtle nuclear power plant. Photo: Charles C Watson Jr/Wikimedia Commons

Georgia is one of many states in which public service commissioners have acted on behalf of power companies in lieu of their constituents. As utility companies are key to slowing climate change, we need local leaders to negotiate with these power companies. While the presidential election has gotten most of the media oxygen, many public service commission seats are up for election on November 3.

Take the time to look into your local utility board members and the policies they espouse. Spread awareness and educate others about the importance of voting. By voting we can make sure commissioners protect the interests of the public rather than the finances of the power companies.

[Update (Nov. 24, 2020): On January 5, 2021, Republican incumbent “Bubba” Lauren McDonald and Democratic challenger Daniel Blackman will compete in a special runoff for Georgia’s public service commissioner seat — underlining the importance of every vote.]

Angie Tran is communications coordinator at the Advanced Consortium on Cooperation, Conflict, and Complexity at Columbia University’s Earth Institute.

Views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the Columbia Climate School, Earth Institute or Columbia University.

Science for the Planet: In these short video explainers, discover how scientists and scholars across the Columbia Climate School are working to understand the effects of climate change and help solve the crisis.
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