Climate Policy and Politics: A Talk With Leah C. Stokes, UCSB

photo of author Leah Stokes and her book cover: Short Circuiting Policy
March 11, 2021

On Thursday, February 25, ISPS and the Policy Lab hosted a presentation on “Climate Policy and Politics” led by Leah C. Stokes, who is Assistant Professor of Political Science and an affiliate with the Bren School of Environmental Science & Management and the Environmental Studies Department at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Professor Stokes discussed her new book, Short Circuiting Policy: Interest Groups and the Battle Over Clean Energy and Climate Policy in the American States, published by Oxford University Press in its “Studies in Postwar American Political Development” series, and her recent policy work. John Dearborn, a Postdoctoral Associate at the ISPS Policy Lab, moderated the discussion. Participants in the event included a wide range of students, faculty, staff, and interested citizens both from and outside of the Yale community who shared an interest in environmental politics. (LINK TO THE VIDEO)

The presentation began by describing the significance of the challenge we face. Developing a clean electricity system is a major step to effectively address the threat of climate change. As Professor Stokes explained, the portion of the overall U.S. electricity generation that comes from renewable energy needs to grow at a much quicker pace. To learn more about this, see her video explainer, “the Narwhal Curve.”

Undermining Policy Feedback

In the presentation on her book, Professor Stokes explained why she focused on energy policy at the state level. At the federal level, Congress has failed to pass a Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS). These are policies which would mandate that by a certain year, a certain percentage of our electricity would need to come from renewable sources. At the state level, a majority of states passed RPSs in the 1990s and 2000s. Many states also passed Net Metering policies, which would allow homes or businesses with solar power on their roofs to feed extra energy to the electricity grid and to be paid for it.

Despite these achievements, the passage of these policies was only the beginning of the battle over energy policy in many states. Fossil fuel companies, electric utilities, and other associated interest groups have sought to undermine the implementation of these policies. Since political scientists often speak of “policy feedback” – processes by which policies themselves change the political environment and empower advocates to expand the policy in the future – this resistance presents a puzzle. As Professor Stokes demonstrated, interest groups have learned from the implementation of these laws. They are able to undermine policy feedback in a variety of ways, including lobbying, interventions in primary and general elections (especially influencing changes in the Republican Party’s stance on energy policy), “astroturfing” (supporting fake grassroots campaigns), court cases, and implementation resistance.

Several examples were used to show this process in action, including the rollback of renewable energy laws in Kansas, the rollback of net metering laws in Arizona, and the rollback of renewable energy and efficiency laws in Ohio. In addition to being chapters in Short Circuiting Policy, these cases are also discussed on Professor Stokes’s podcast, “A Matter of Degrees.”

Policy Work

Professor Stokes also discussed her recent work on policy work and advocacy. She has coauthored two recent reports: “The Dirty Truth” with the Sierra Club and “A Roadmap to 100% Clean Electricity by 2035” with the Evergreen Collaborative and Data for Progress. She outlined how at the federal level, Congress and the new Biden-Harris administration could pursue these policies through the budget reconciliation process, which would avoid a possible Senate filibuster. Moreover, in another line of advocacy, Professor Stokes also has contributed to the book All We Can Save: Truth, Courage, and Solutions for the Climate Crisis, published by Penguin Random House.

Policy and Politics

The subsequent discussion and questions from the audience focused on both the arguments in the book and about Professor Stokes’s own experience as a researcher engaged in policy work on a critical issue.

Several of the questions focused on the politics of climate change and energy policy. For example, one question was about why companies would risk their reputations in misinforming the public about climate change. While that might seem like a poor long-term strategy, Professor Stokes pointed out that a transition to clean energy is an existential fight for many of these companies, so even though their reputations might be tarnished, it is a political necessity for them to engage in such tactics. Furthermore, while some companies might be able to reorient themselves to renewable energy, many are too invested in particular assets and capacities to effectively do so.

Another question pointed to the much-publicized Green New Deal and sought to understand the relationship between policies based on investments and policies based on rules. Professor Stokes described how both investment in clean energy sources and standards for clean energy are needed, and she stated that one of the Green New Deal’s contributions to the political debate has been an emphasis on both the scale of the problem we face and the timeline of how fast change needs to occur within.

Political Science

Other questions addressed some of the book’s theoretical contributions to political science. Since “policy feedback” is a classic idea of political science, one question asked how Professor Stokes came to her insight about how policy feedback could be short circuited. Describing her selection of unusual cases where policies did not lock in, Professor Stokes explained that this research design – originating in her graduate school dissertation at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology – allowed her to look at under what conditions policy feedback actually occurs.

Policy ambiguity is another key component of the book’s theoretical claims. Professor Stokes explained the significance of this “fog of enactment,” describing how no political actors have perfect information when a policy is enacted. As she showed, some clean energy policies were able to pass before their opponents fully realized what had happened. Subsequently, those opponents then learned and focused their energies on undermining their implementation.

Advocacy and Career Advice

The last portion of the event featured a discussion of how Professor Stokes became involved as a scholar and as an advocate in climate change policy. She described first getting involved as an advocate as an undergraduate and realizing that she needed to get more involved as a researcher to effect change.

One specific piece of advice she offered students interested in climate and energy policy was to take a wide variety of courses across different fields. This has allowed Professor Stokes to be in dialogue with more groups of people. As she explained, one of her key skills is to communicate technical research and make it more accessible, through speaking, op-eds, podcasts, and other sources. Furthermore, she emphasized being flexible in her career, writing both academic work and policy reports.

Professor Stokes concluded the event by noting her optimism about the months to come. Explaining that she had high expectations for the Biden-Harris administration and Congress to tackle this issue, Professor Stokes emphasized that the salience of climate change as a political issue has increased, and this has altered the political dynamics around the issue.

Part of Professor Stokes’s optimism also comes, she explained, from her own work and research. As she put it, her work has allowed her to see how “dedicated people who show up and who engage in the process can really deeply shape policy.” For Yale students seeking to make a difference in policymaking, these are words to remember.

By John Dearborn, Postdoctoral Associate and Lecturer at Yale University