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Ideas

Upend the political power of carbon polluters

To finally clean up electricity production, climate advocates need more sway.

A coal plant in Harriman, Tenn., where coal ash spilled out of a retention pond when a wall collapsed.
A coal plant in Harriman, Tenn., where coal ash spilled out of a retention pond when a wall collapsed.Wade Payne/Associated Press

We’ve spent the last several weeks staring down a crisis. It was a problem we saw coming months in advance. But we didn’t act fast enough. Our politicians lied. They delayed changing policy. And so, the death toll will be higher. More will be lost.

The same is true for the climate crisis. We’ve spent decades watching carbon emissions rise. But rather than act, electric utilities and fossil fuel companies lied, and they got politicians to follow them. And so, the death toll will be higher. More people and places will be lost.

The earth’s climate has already warmed by more than 1 degree Celsius since we started burning fossil fuels in earnest. And the consequences are clear, including stronger hurricanes and more destructive fire seasons.

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How did we get into this mess, as a country and as a planet?

One common answer is that we are all to blame through our everyday choices: whether to drive, bike, or walk, take a flight, or buy stuff. It’s easy to see why we might think that environmental problems, including climate change, are mostly a question of our own behavior.

But who decides what options are available for us to choose from in the first place?

Institutions shape the choices we can make. Politicians and corporations can choose to set policy that changes how our economy is built and fueled. As individuals, we can’t unilaterally choose to live in a low-carbon society.

We are not all equally to blame.

Our failure to address the climate crisis is largely a result of opposition from electric utilities and fossil fuel companies. These companies have resisted innovation. They have lied about climate science. And they have attacked climate policies.

How can we challenge the political power of electric utilities and fossil fuel companies?

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We need a federal law that requires all states to clean up their electricity system in the coming decades. Right now, a few states have acted on their own, but many parts of the country are lagging. Even though Florida is a sunny state, its utilities have resisted solar energy. Only about 15 percent of that state’s electricity comes from clean energy.

If we can clean up the electricity system, we can use that energy to fix our transportation and building sectors. A national policy that sets us on that course would take a big bite out of the problem, reducing around 70 percent of today’s carbon emissions.

The key to success will be to increase the political power of clean energy and climate advocates. They must have the resources to fight back against fossil fuel companies and electric utilities that continue to advocate for delay.

At the state level, clean energy advocates need greater capacity to challenge electric utilities’ dominance in regulatory processes. One policy in California, called the intervenor compensation program, provides resources to groups that advocate in the public interest. It costs each person in the state just 17 cents a year and returns hundreds of millions of dollars in value back to the people.

Optimistically, there are 30 years remaining to transition the economy to 100 percent low-carbon energy to avoid warming the planet by more than 1.5 degrees Celsius. Thomas Edison had a vision for this transition over 100 years ago, when he called for wind and solar power. But the utility executives who inherited his project betrayed their industry’s roots in radical innovation.

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Smart companies should realize the massive economic opportunity available in this transition. With electrification of transportation and buildings, electric utilities have the biggest chance in more than 50 years to expand their market. A few electric utilities have seen this opportunity and started to change their tactics, including Xcel Energy in Colorado and Consumers Energy in Michigan.

But other utilities continue to resist clean energy, seeking bailouts for their old and dirty coal plants instead. In Ohio, AEP and FirstEnergy Solutions (now Energy Harbor) have secured billion-dollar bailouts for their coal plants. They aim to keep these plants operating beyond their 80th birthdays. In 2018, the utility Arizona Public Service spent nearly $40 million to block a clean energy ballot initiative.

These utilities are keeping us all in the past. Fossil fuels are not the end point of energy innovation. Humans have gone through several energy transitions: from wood to coal, from coal to oil, from oil to electricity. These transitions typically take many decades and are never fully complete. But a dramatic change in our energy system is both possible and necessary.

For too long, a small set of interest groups have captured political systems around the world. They have used their power to imperil the health and well-being of all people on the planet. These organized interest groups have knowingly filled our air with pollution, have knowingly poisoned people, have knowingly denied climate science and delayed action. Fossil fuel companies and electric utilities did all this while lining their investors’ pockets with guaranteed profits.

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We must change the ending of this story and hold polluters accountable.

Then the tide can begin to turn. And the fossil fuel era can finally end.

Leah C. Stokes is an assistant professor of political science at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Her new book, “Short Circuiting Policy,” chronicles the history of clean energy laws in the United States.