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“The Strange Political Economy of Climate” by Robert Repetto

Submitted by EFC Team on September 8th, 2016

Robert Repetto is a Senior Fellow of the Energy Future Coalition. The following article represents his personal views and not those of the organization.  

You might think that in a democracy elected officials would represent the interests and preferences of their constituents. When it comes to global warming, you’d be wrong – at least in the United States. In the states that have the most to lose from climate change and the most to gain from a transition to clean energy, elected officials have consistently been voting against actions to solve the problem.

For example, in 23 states attorneys general have sued the US Environmental Protection Agency to block the implementation of the Obama Administration’s Clean Power Plan, which will impose regulations on carbon dioxide emissions from electric power plants. In every single one of those 23 states, a strong majority of citizens favor regulating carbon dioxide as a pollutant – from a two-to-one majority in Wyoming, the narrowest margin, to a three-to-one majority in New Jersey, the widest.[1]

It gets worse. Scientists have been telling us for years that a warmer atmosphere, which causes more evaporation and holds more water vapor, will produce more extreme rainstorms, like the one that recently caused devastating flooding around Baton Rouge, and more intense Category 4 and 5 hurricanes, like Hurricane Katrina, which destroyed much of New Orleans and the Louisiana coastline. Yet, both Louisiana’s senators, its attorney general and half its congressional representatives either deny that man-made climate change is real or vote against legislation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions or both.[2] In fact, of the 14 states that have experienced the 10 most frequent natural disasters or the 10 most frequent hurricane landfalls, only two, New York and California, have governors and legislators who have actively worked to control global warming.[3] At the other extreme, Florida’s governor, Rick Scott, instructed his officials not even to use the terms “global warming” or “climate change,”[4] even though his state has had the most hurricane landfalls, the fifth-most natural disasters of all kinds, and is ominously threatened by sea-level rise. The other states – Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Texas, and Virginia – all have leading elected officials who oppose restrictions on carbon emissions.[5]

Arizona is another extreme example. Phoenix, Tucson and other parts of the state suffered through triple-digit temperatures this past July, reaching 120 degrees, with heat persisting throughout the nights because of urban heat island effects. As a result, people died. Among the elderly, stroke and heart attack, which together cause almost a third of all deaths in Arizona, both increase with rising heat and its duration. For each one degree Fahrenheit rise in the heat index, heat-related mortality increases by 6 percent.[6] Increasing temperatures and water supply deficits also penalize Arizona’s attractions as a destination for tourists, retirees, and the high-tech industry. Yet Arizona joined the lawsuit opposing the Clean Power Plan, the governor has called it onerous and intrusive, and both U.S senators voted for a resolution condemning a possible tax on carbon dioxide emissions.

Just as strangely, in those states with the most potential to benefit economically from the transition to clean, renewable energy, elected officials have provided the least support. Because of technological improvements, economies of scale, and progress along the learning curve, renewable energy costs have been coming down dramatically, and the industries have been expanding at double-digit rates for decades, generating many new jobs and incomes. Nevertheless, of the 10 states with the most favorable geographical and climatic conditions for generating solar power, seven rank in the bottom half of all states in providing policy support, either in the form of mandates like renewable portfolio standards or incentives like feed-in-tariffs.[7] These seven include Nevada and Arizona, the states with the most potential, and also Oklahoma, Texas, Wyoming, Florida, and Kansas. These seven states have enough solar potential to power the entire country several times over. Among the 10, only state governments in California, New Mexico and Colorado are above average in providing policy support.

With wind power, it’s the same story. Of the 10 states with the most favorable wind conditions, nine rank below average in providing support. Only New Mexico provides above-average support. North Dakota, which has been called “the Saudi Arabia of wind,” ranks dead last. Kansas, which has the advantage – along with Texas and New Mexico – of being among the top 10 states in both solar and wind potential, ranks 45th. Wyoming, also in the top 10 for wind industry potential, ranks just beneath Kansas and has recently imposed a new tax on wind power. The other windy states that provide inferior policy support are Texas, Montana, Nebraska, South Dakota, Iowa and Oklahoma.

What’s the explanation for this political behavior? In Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Wyoming and North Dakota, many people work in fossil fuel industries, but that’s also true in California, Colorado and New Mexico, where policies are much more supportive. In many states where politicians refuse to address climate change, such as Florida, Iowa, South Dakota and Idaho, there is little or no employment in the fossil fuel sector. State economic interests don’t provide a sufficient explanation for this disconnect between public preferences and political action.

Political partisanship and ideology, supported by political spending from fossil fuel industries and right-wing donor groups, are the main explanations. The 2016 national Republican Party platform calls for the elimination of regulations restricting carbon emissions and more support for the coal industry. With very few exceptions, Republican office-holders oppose measures to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, and Democrat office-holders support them. Unfortunately, in the United States, as the two main political parties have become more ideologically split, climate change has become a strongly partisan issue.

Do politicians in other democracies behave this way? Not so much. It’s true that in Canada and Australia, liberal and conservative parties have differed greatly in climate policies, the result of the importance of fossil fuel industries in those countries. However, in Western European countries, including Britain, Norway, Sweden, the Netherlands, Germany, France, Italy and Spain, there has been broad bipartisan or multi-party consensus on the need for effective climate policies, and policy preferences operate within this consensus. The same is true in Japan and South Korea and in emerging market countries such as India and Mexico. The degree of partisanship in the United States, operating in spite of voter preferences, is unique.

How do politicians sustain these positions without being voted out of office? The explanation is mainly that climate change has not been an issue sufficiently important to constituents to determine how they cast their ballots. This may be changing, however, as the economic trauma households suffered during the Great Recession continues to heal and fades in memory, and as a younger generation of voters come to the polls. Also, as the reality of climate change is ever more widely recognized, and as its impacts are increasingly experienced, politicians may no longer be able to ignore their constituents’ interests and preferences.







[7]Clean Edge: 2016 Clean Tech Leadership Index, based on no. of mandates & incentives;



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