Public Enemies

Mădălina Preda  /  9 Min Read  /  Activism

Climate policy expert Leah Stokes on how fossil fuel interests undermine American climate policy, and what you can do to stop it.

"I like to say that all of us were born into a carbon intensive society. And our work is to make sure that we don’t die in that carbon intensive society." Leah Cardamore Stokes on campus at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Photo: Tim Davis

Since taking office, the Trump administration has worked to roll back 100 environmental laws, rules and regulations; 68 of these changes have taken effect, and the damage is underway. One recent analysis, by the Rhodium Group, estimates that if allowed to continue, these rollbacks will result in 1.8 billion metric tons more heat-trapping emissions being pumped into our atmosphere by 2035. It’s as if the president and his fellow sellouts in the Senate want more drought, floods, devastating fires, unbreathable air and catastrophic storms.

While some of these rollbacks are reportedly driven by spite for the Obama administration’s efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, Trump’s reckless trashing of environmental protections is also tied to decades of influence exerted by fossil fuel companies and public utilities on politicians and clean energy laws. He and the 36 senators in office who deny human-driven global warming get paid to deny the urgency and severity of the climate crisis and to slow the growth of the clean energy economy and all the good jobs that come with it.

Leah Cardamore Stokes, an assistant professor at University of California, Santa Barbara, has spent the last decade researching energy, climate and environmental politics. In her new book, Short Circuiting Policy, she examines in particular the role public utilities have played in promoting climate denial and rolling back clean energy laws. The influence these companies wield can make it hard for individuals to make their voices heard on climate action, but she has ideas about how they still can.

Our interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Mădălina Preda: Leah, just how big of a mess are we in right now?

Leah Stokes: The window of opportunity is closing rapidly. Ideally, we would have started to clean up our energy system in the 1980s or the 1990s or even the 2000s. But we didn’t. And we didn’t do it because electric utilities and fossil fuel companies decided to fund multibillion-dollar climate denial campaigns for several decades. That sowed confusion in the public, which in turn signaled to policymakers that we didn’t need to act. This is a very big problem and it’s still happening now. We’ve already warmed the planet by one degree Celsius, and if we don’t start to cut carbon emissions in 2021, we could have runaway climate change.

Carbon emissions come from a lot of different parts of our economy. But we can actually fix them if we focus on one: the electricity sector. If we were to clean up our electricity sector by 2035 while also electrifying our buildings and our transportation sector—using electric vehicles and no longer using fossil gas to cook food or heat our homes, but using electricity that was clean—we could cut emissions by around 70 to 80 percent. It’s very possible with all the technologies that we have today. What we really need is government policy on the scale of the crisis.

Yet government policy is being influenced by climate denial campaigns, too, as you document. Where did these campaigns come from and how did they make their way into politics?

Climate denial did not come from nowhere. It’s not a scientific idea. It’s a corporate idea that came from the boardrooms of fossil fuel companies like Exxon and Chevron. And it came from utility companies like Southern Company and FirstEnergy, in the 1980s and 1990s. Internally, they knew that climate change is real and that this meant they were going to have to stop digging up fossil fuels and change their business model. But that didn’t really square with the executives of these companies’ vision of how they’re going to make a lot of money. And so, rather than change their business model or adapt to physics, they decided that they would make up lies and that they would sink billions of dollars into a coordinated climate denial campaign. This was not an accident. This wasn’t like a debate in the scientific community. It was an intentional campaign that came out of the boardrooms of fossil fuel companies. And it’s one of the most consequential lies that’s ever been told.

In Short Circuiting Policy you discuss not only how these companies sowed doubt, but shaped policy, too. 

Unfortunately, electric utilities and fossil fuel companies have a lot of influence in our society. And yes, in my book, I focus a lot on electric utilities. These are the companies that you pay every month for your electricity. They give campaign contributions to politicians at state legislatures in places where their own regulators are elected. They give campaign contributions to their own watchdog. And this creates a corrosive situation in our democracy where politicians are not independent of our polluting industries, which makes it really hard to set the rules for those industries.

We see this clearly in what happened in Ohio in July. The Ohio House Speaker [Larry Householder] was arrested by the FBI for allegedly taking over 60 million dollars in bribes from FirstEnergy, an electric utility. What he did was give FirstEnergy a massive coal bailout. We’re talking about more than a billion dollars. It’s not OK to have fossil fuel companies and electric utilities buying themselves bailouts and sweetheart deals and selling us all down the river in the process.

You see this very clearly as well in the stimulus bill. Unfortunately, the Cares Act, which is the COVID-19 stimulus bill, is clearly being used to prop up fossil fuel companies. And that’s not what the stimulus should be about. The stimulus should be about making sure that people can pay their bills, that they can get food on the table. And it should be about creating jobs and building the clean energy future that we need. So, we need to tell our politicians that they need to stop taking money from fossil fuel companies and electric utilities. And I think until that happens, we’re going to continue to have a status quo where these polluting companies have a lot of political power.

Public Enemies

The Carson oil refinery in Wilmington, California, sits in close proximity to homes and schools. Local activists have been advocating for a 2,500-foot setback between oil and gas operations and neighborhoods, but progress on legislation has been slow. Marathon Petroleum, the Ohio-based company that owns the Carson refinery, has spent more than $30 million since 1998 lobbying against climate action. Photo: Michael A. Estrada

It’s not just in Ohio, though, where we see legislators influenced by fossil fuel companies or electric utilities.

Ohio is an extreme case, but it’s on a spectrum. A lot of electric utilities have been influencing climate policy for decades. Electric utilities were just as involved as fossil fuel companies in the Global Climate Coalition, which was a climate-denial organization that operated throughout the 1990s. And since around 2010, electric utilities have been working through the American Legislative Exchange Council [ALEC] and the Edison Electric Institute, their trade association, to roll back clean energy laws, such as laws that allow people to put solar on their roof and to get paid for the electricity that they make. Electric utilities have been attacking those laws and rolling them back. And they’ve also been delaying any law from being passed in the first place.

Look at the case of Virginia. Dominion, the electric utility there, gave a lot of money to politicians on both sides of the aisle, and they managed to stall the legislature from passing a clean electricity requirement. And it was only when politicians, under pressure from advocates, took pledges to stop taking money from Dominion that finally, the next year after that election, Virginia passed a landmark clean energy law. So, if we can get money out of politics, then we can start to make progress on these issues, because the fact is that clean energy is extremely popular.

You mentioned these companies were giving money to politicians on both sides of the aisle. Based on your research, do you see any differences across party lines when it comes to support for climate policy?

If you were to go back a little more than a decade, you would find bipartisan support in both the public and politicians for climate action and clean energy policy. You can find an ad with Nancy Pelosi and Newt Gingrich sitting on the couch in front of the Capitol saying, We don’t agree on most things, but we agree on climate change. But when politicians in Congress tried to act on climate in 2009, fossil fuel companies and electric utilities spent an enormous amount of money on politics and worked extremely hard to block the [American Clean Energy and Security Act] bill from passing. They realized that they couldn’t allow Republicans to come to the table and support clean energy, and so they started to primary challenge Republicans who were pro climate action.

Bob Inglis, a representative from South Carolina who was in Congress, is a key example. When Inglis started to become a climate champion in Congress, he found himself with a very well-funded primary challenger and he lost his seat. That same thing has been happening at the state level across this country. If Republicans dared to step out of line with the fossil fuel company, the fossil fuel companies go after them and run primary challengers against them and pull money from their reelection campaign. And that sends a signal to the entire Republican Party that you don’t want to be on the wrong side on this issue.

And right now, we have a climate denier in chief, and his name is Donald Trump. And we also have members of Congress who are big climate deniers as well. The good news is that the public itself no longer believes these lies and overwhelmingly believes that climate change is happening and is human caused. And the fact is that if you ask young Republicans today if they worry about climate change, about half of them are quite worried. Rightly—the young Republicans are not going to Mars.

Public Enemies

An at-height blade technician for Rope Partner on the job at a wind turbine farm in Rio Vista, California. Clean energy could bring more good jobs like this one to the US: one report estimates cutting out fossil fuels from our economy will create 5 million lasting jobs. Photo: Blake Gordon

How important are the upcoming elections for people and the planet?

The importance of the 2020 elections cannot be overstated. Everything is on the line, not just our future in terms of having a stable climate, but also our democracy. The things that we have seen happening in the last few months with the Trump administration, federal agents taking people off the street in Portland, lack of federal leadership around protecting Black lives from police violence, our terrible, hamstrung effort to combat the pandemic. This is not leadership. And the cost of not acting on climate change, on racial justice, on the pandemic is Americans’ lives. We need an economy that protects all Americans and that delivers clean air, clean water and a stable climate for everyone. Our failure to act on air pollution and climate change and to stop fossil fuel extraction hits Black, Indigenous and Latino Americans the hardest. I encourage people to do everything that they can do. Get their friends to vote. Register other people to vote. Volunteer for a campaign. Give money, vote yourself. It cannot be overstated how important this election is.

Apart for voting, what can people do?

I think the environmental movement has focused way too much on consumer behavior. If people want to buy an electric vehicle, remove gas from their homes and get an induction stove, put solar panels on their roof, eat vegetarian, drive less, fly less—that is all great stuff. But what we really have to do is change our laws in order to unmake the fossil fuel economy. I like to say that all of us were born into a carbon intensive society. And our work is to make sure that we don’t die in that carbon intensive society. And you can’t do that if you’re only working at the scale of your own household. You’ve got to work at the scale of policy.

So how do you do that as an individual?

I have seen in my own research how one person who learns about a policy or focuses on an issue or a company that’s polluting can make a massive difference if they stay the course and follow legislation. At the local level, you can work on getting a bike lane built in your community. Or at the state level you can work to block fossil fuel infrastructure in your backyard or get laws passed through state legislature that require more clean energy.

I’ve done a lot of work on how Congress hears from people, and the fact is that they don’t hear from everyday people that much. And just taking the time to write an individualized email—to look up an email address for your congressional representative or your state legislature and to write your own email in your own words about a given bill. Or pick up the phone and give a call. That goes so far! It goes a lot farther than just signing a petition because that stuff tends to get put together in one bundled package and your voice gets lost. Get to know your representative staff, make sure they know your name. And if they do, you are punching way above your weight and you are making a difference at the scale that matters, which is policy.

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