The Secrets of Passing Climate Law – Even in Red States

In 2019, renewable energy had a moment — but not where you’d expect it. Arkansas, South Carolina and Utah, one of the reddest of the red states, have passed groundbreaking legislation paving the way for solar and wind power expansion.

The bills that these states have passed were all sponsored by Republicans, passed by Republican-controlled state legislators, and approved by Republican governors. They were also bipartisan bills, which also received support from Democrats.

Many Republican lawmakers still deny the scientific consensus surrounding climate change and oppose policies to address the issue outright. But a recent study found that these red state successes were no fluke. The analysis, recently published in the journal Climatic Change, shows that states have approved about 400 bills to reduce carbon emissions from 2015 to 2020. More than a quarter — 28 percent — passed through the Republican-controlled legislature.

“While some of these policies in red states may not be as ambitious as blue states, I just want people to know that things are happening,” said Renae Marshall, a study co-author and a doctoral student at the University of California. Santa Barbara, exploring ways to reduce political polarization around environmental issues. Marshall hopes her study can be instructive for collaboration at the federal level, where attempts at duality tend to be less successful.

In late April, Senator Joe Manchin, the coal-friendly West Virginia Democrat who sidelined his party’s climate and social policy package over concerns about government spending and inflation, began meeting with lawmakers to discuss a potential energy package that could support bipartisan support. to get. So far, at least five Republican senators have shown up, but it’s only a matter of time to get the 10 Republican votes needed to pass a bill. And if Democrats lose control of the House in the midterm elections, as expected, and possibly the Senate, any attempt to pass climate legislation would require even more bipartisan cooperation.

If federal lawmakers followed the lead of their counterparts in Arkansas, South Carolina and Utah, this could be a game-changer. So what’s driving the state-level breakthroughs on a highly polarized topic like climate change? It’s partly a question of Republicans defining climate action on their own terms, and partly a question of economics.

Economic opportunity

Most of America’s land is in red states — nearly two-thirds of them, judging by the results of the last election. And that space is needed for things like installing wind farms and burying carbon underground. “We really can’t win climate change without involving rural America in finding solutions,” said Devashree Saha, senior associate at the World Resources Institute in Washington, D.C.

But at the same time, Saha says, rural America has a lot to gain from renewable energy. Farmers can earn money by leasing land for wind projects, tax revenues from local solar farms can fund schools, and workers are needed to operate and maintain clean energy projects, creating new jobs.

Red states are already home to some of the largest clean energy projects. The largest solar farm in the United States – a 13,000-acre project aptly named “Mammoth Solar” – is being built in northern Indiana. Texas and Oklahoma are among the states that added the most clean power to the grid last year. While there is still a lot of resistance to these changes, Saha suggests that red states are doing more than you might think to tackle the climate crisis.

“We often think that rural America is very much opposed to climate policy, but I don’t think that’s a very accurate representation of what’s happening,” Saha said.

Republicans’ resistance to climate-friendly initiatives may diminish if there is a strong economic case for it. “Well done, we don’t have to lose jobs in the US because of this,” Senator John Curtis, a Republican from Utah, said during a recent panel discussion on climate change and bipartisanship. “I think we can reduce greenhouse gas emissions while fueling our economy.”

Expanding Choices

While Democrats tend to lean toward mandates and regulations — say, ending sales of gasoline-powered cars after 2030, a goal Washington state recently made — Republicans prefer climate legislation that broadens choices rather than of them, according to Marshall’s study.

Take the clean energy bill passed in 2019 in Arkansas. The Solar Access Act has lifted the state’s ban on leasing land for solar farms, along with other solar-friendly measures, and has spawned new projects across the state. “It’s a great day for the Arkansas consumer,” said Sen. Dave Wallace, the Republican who introduced the bill after it passed. “They now have more choice in the market.”

Another example is Utah’s Community Renewable Energy Act, sponsored by Republican State Representative Stephen Handy. The law created a new clean energy program for cities and encouraged them to meet their net electricity needs with 100 percent renewable energy by 2030. Handy developed the legislation with Rocky Mountain Power, the utility that serves most of the state. He says the utility’s motivation wasn’t necessarily about climate change, but about meeting the needs of his customers, who said they wanted clean energy. “It’s about letting the free market innovate,” Handy says.

Considering a broader set of technologies — such as nuclear power and carbon capture — could also help build Republican support. Handy sponsored a bipartisan bill, signed by Governor Spencer Cox in March, that would allow the Utah Division of Oil, Gas and Mining to enact regulations for capturing carbon from industrial facilities and storing it in the ground. “It has never been opposed politically by Republicans or Democrats,” he said.

Avoiding “Climate Change”

Some communications experts say the term “climate change” has become so polarizing that, depending on the audience, it’s best to avoid it altogether. Remember the name of South Carolina’s 2019 bill that made it easier for solar to expand: the Energy Freedom Act.

“The climate debate has become part of the culture war,” said Josh Freed, who oversees the climate and energy program at the Third Way think tank. Some Republicans recognize the problem and are willing to discuss solutions, but rarely only to tackle the planetary crisis. “Once it’s discussed in the context of climate for the sake of climate, they kind of retreat to their corners,” he said. But that animosity can disappear if you talk about “freedom,” national security, or the economy instead.

Republicans are also more likely to support legislation that avoids other “culture wars” issues. While Democrats have recently begun to use language associated with racism and other social injustices in their policymaking, Marshall’s research found that bipartisan climate laws have been more likely to use language around “economic justice,” meaning they are explicitly intended to target people with disabilities. help lower incomes.

Some political scientists argue that the best climate bills are the ones that don’t get much attention. So-called “quiet” policies address a global problem with hundreds of small tweaks hidden in broader congressional bills or departmental spending. Without fanfare or attention from Fox News, this policy won’t explode into polarizing debate. Likewise, they are also not celebrated as political “victories” for Democrats. Instead, they are flying under the radar and slowly shifting the country towards a greener economy by, for example, giving tax credits for sustainable projects or installing charging stations for electric vehicles.

When we look at the big picture of how climate policy has wavered in Congress over the past few decades, it’s easy to miss the smaller successes, even if they make it through Congress. Manchin and Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska co-sponsored the Energy Act of 2020, which included investments in renewables, energy efficiency, carbon capture and nuclear power. It passed through a Democratic House and a Republican Senate and was signed by President Donald Trump in December 2020. It also halted production of hydrofluorocarbons, “super-pollutants” thousands of times more potent than carbon dioxide in warming the atmosphere.

It was one of the most significant clean energy packages the country has endured in the past 10 years, Utah Senator Curtis said at the recent panel on bipartisan climate action.

“We don’t praise our successes enough,” he said. “There’s so much work to do on climate, we rarely look back and say, ‘Oh, well done.'”

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