In recent years, most of the debate in the United States over government action to fight climate change has revolved around the federal government. There was the Green New Deal, which quickly became shorthand for any form of major climate action. There was the president’s decision to withdraw from the Paris Climate Accords. And there is the ongoing discussion about a “green recovery,” or using climate investments as a tool to pull the country out of its corona-induced economic ravine. All of these debates are key, but they miss two key points. First, federal action on climate change is unlikely regardless of November’s election results. The last time Congress attempted to pass major climate legislation was the 2010 Waxman-Markey Cap and Trade bill, which failed in the U.S. Senate despite a Democratic supermajority. Second, in the absence of federal leadership, states are stepping forward to take aggressive action to combat climate change. Thirteen states have some form of a price on carbon emissions, 29 states have mandates to increase their use of renewable energy, and dozens of others have policies to encourage clean energy usage or otherwise reduce emissions. Absent a major change on the federal level, in other words, the future of American climate policy is in the hands of the states. Despite this, most contemporary political research on American climate policy continues to focus on the federal government, creating a fundamental disconnect between the academy and policy reality.
Lessening this disconnect is a top priority of Short Circuiting Policy: Interest Groups and the Battle Over Clean Energy and Climate Policy in the American States, a new book from Leah Stokes and Oxford University Press. Stokes is an alum of Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA), a visiting faculty member at the SIPA Center for Global Energy Policy, and a professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Her book is one of the first to focus solely on state-level climate policy and illustrate that, while states have played a strong climate leadership role in the past, successfully doing so in the future is far from a certainty.
In the book, Stokes shows how the uncertainty around the future of state climate policy is due primarily to the opposition of two groups: fossil fuel companies and electric utilities. One major advantage that such companies hold in the political arena is money: fossil fuel companies alone have spent over $5 billion fighting climate policy over a 15-year period, outspending renewables 13 to 1. In politics, money is power, and that type of money makes fossil fuel companies and utilities the twin 800-pound gorillas in the energy policy decision-making room. On the state level, such companies have not been shy about throwing their financial weight around. In 2018, NV Energy spent $63 million in Nevada and Arizona Public Service spent $31 million in Arizona, each to defeat referendums that they saw as threatening to their bottom lines. Even international companies are getting in on the action: Canada’s Hydro-Quebec has spent more than $8.3 million to influence the outcome of a referendum in Maine.
While not all utility spending has been against renewable energy—the Maine referendum would expand the use of hydropower, for instance—Stokes shows that, more often than not, utilities and fossil fuel companies have used their financial resources to block, and even roll back, climate progress at the state level. In no state has this opposition been more clear than in Ohio. The book describes how utilities helped drive the repeal of Ohio’s already modest clean energy standards, and their replacement by a massive bailout for coal companies. The ethics of such legislation came into stark relief this spring when, shortly after Short Circuiting Policy was published, the Speaker of the Ohio State House of Representatives was indicted in a bribery scandal involving the bailout.
Environmental advocates can’t rely on the legal system to stop every rollback of clean energy laws, either: Stokes documents rollbacks in Texas, Kansas, and Arizona, which were successful and did not spawn any indictments.
So, is all lost for advocates of climate policy at the state level? The short answer is no: Stokes charts a path forward by laying out how environmental advocates can learn from their previous losses. To learn exactly how, you will have to read the book, which is available from Oxford University Press, Amazon, and the Columbia Libraries.
Eric Scheuch is a senior in Columbia College, studying political science and sustainable development. He originally hails from the mountains of New Hampshire.