Interview of the Week: Dr. Leah Stokes

Dr. Leah Stokes is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of California, Santa Barbara (go Gauchos!). Her new book Short Circuiting Policy examines clean energy policies to understand why US states are not on track to meet the climate crisis. Since her in-person book tour had to be delayed due to coronavirus, we wanted to ask her to share some of her insights here instead.

 

ODP: Your new book Short Circulating Policy examines how electric utilities undertook a concerted effort to undermine states’ rights and prevent the expansion of renewable energy. Why was this an important body of research to turn into a narrative?

LS: I have been studying state climate policy since 2013. I wanted to trace the process of policy implementation and started by looking at state RPS and net metering laws. What I found was a fascinating, though rather disheartening trajectory of attacks over the last 7 years and I wanted to tell this story so that people understood that electric utilities have attacked clean energy laws.  

 

ODP: In your view, was there a pivotal moment when the United States chose not to become a renewable energy leader?

LS: Frankly, I think there have been numerous moments over the years when the US could have stepped up and enacted impactful climate policy. In my book I talk about the history of the renewable energy industry. In the 1980s the US was a leader globally, particularly in California, but after the Reagan presidency most policies supporting the renewable energy went away. Multiple renewable energy companies experienced bankruptcy and the US lost its lead. Next, I think of 2009 when the Waxman-Markey bill almost passed, which would have given us a clean electricity standard. It was around 2013 when utility industry groups such as ALEC and EEI began solidifying their influence through model policies designed to retract clean energy laws. The US had the opportunity to fight against these retrenchment policies with Federal and state legislation, but they did not. Today, we see many states with only a small percentage of energy from renewable sources due to weak policies and targets.

 

ODP: How have utilities amassed such an outsize political influence? Is it based solely on the amount of money they spend on elections?

LS: There are many case studies of this phenomenon that I outline in my book. Arizona’s prominent utility, Arizona Public Service, spent a nefarious amount of money on regulator elections. In other states such as Ohio, utilities have poured money into legislator campaigns and through this have secured large bailouts. There are an abundance of shadow, dark money and nonprofits groups whose missions’ are to stifle clean energy progress and I think this is one way the utilities have been able to so successful and discreetly amassed political power and influence historically. This is related to the idea of astroturfing that I discuss in my book. An example of this occurs in Kansas where a group of Americans for Prosperity lobbyists (a Koch- affiliated organization) impersonated a group of senior citizens and protested against clean energy.

 

ODP: Should the next President be Joe Biden, what steps can he implement in his first 100 days to signal that the United States is serious about climate policy and a low carbon future? 

LS: The choice is between a climate denier or Joe Biden, so I am a big Biden supporter. The new administration can use executive actions to ban fossil fuel developments on land and offshore. A big legislative priority should be a clean electric standard, specially a 100% clean energy target by 2035. I would like to see the federal government streamlining transmission planning as well. I would also like to see funding allocated for innovation and development in the renewable energy space, including stipulations for worker protections of the fossil fuel industry employees. Other steps include an EV charging infrastructure build out with complimentary EV policy (cash for clunkers program etc.). Overall, I think the Biden campaign has already built a solid base of supporting infrastructure and job creation and I think if these can be paired with Green New deal like policies there is the potential to see some promising climate action. I think we need to do everything we can to replace our Climate Denier in Chief and I think Biden’s team has great potential to enact change in the climate space.

 

ODP: November’s election was slated to be the first presidential election where climate change was a top issue for Democratic voters, however that was before the outbreak of COVID-19. Do you think the pandemic has sucked up all the oxygen? Can this still be a climate election?

LS: I think 2020 can definitely still be a climate election. A lot of people believe the next thing post COVID is to deal with climate change. With unemployment rates increasing this is a great way to utilize the green stimulus package. Climate impacts are coming with heat waves, droughts and fires and given social distancing parameters currently, this could be a very poor interaction.

 

You can purchase Short Circuiting Policy through Amazon and Oxford University Press. Though it’s currently sold out (!!) it should be available to ship in a couple of weeks. 

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