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Politics: Which US state reps have the best records on climate policy?

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Even as US presidents have set the tone for the US’s action on climate change policy, much of the action happens in the states. What are these politicians doing to help—or hinder—climate policy?

The average American isn’t paying much attention. Fewer than 20% of US citizens can name their state legislators, while one-third don’t know their governor, according to a study by John Hopkins University. But state senators and representatives are often the ones making decisions about land use, extractive industries, energy efficiency, and more with the most immediate impact on constituents’ quality of life.

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While opinion polls consistently show a majority of Americans believe that climate change is a serious issue and demand more government action, most people remain focused on the federal government.

That disconnect is the target of the political advocacy organization Climate Cabinet Action. “The American public is on board with climate action and clean energy,” says Caroline Spears, the executive director of Climate Cabinet Action. “But there is that disconnect between the way state legislators are voting and how the folks that they’re representing actually feel.”

To bring this to light, Climate Cabinet Action set out to analyze state politicans’ votes on climate policy over the last six years. It evaluated more than 3,300 state legislators across 25 states representing more than 50% of the US population on everything from renewable energy sources to the rules for pipeline protests. It then scored state politicians between 0 and 100 based on their climate action.

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Armed with their representatives voting records, the organization hopes that local advocacy groups, and voters concerned about climate change can use this information (now available in one place for the first time) to hold elected officials accountable at the ballot box. “What this tool does is show who within each state is driving policies that address climate change, and who is making those policies impossible,” says Spears.

How state politicians measure up on climate action

For anyone passingly familiar with today’s politics, this report confirmed that partisanship drives policy. Climate Cabinet Action found Democratic legislators were much much more likely to support climate measures, while Republicans were more likely to oppose them. The gap in scores between Democrats and Republicans was stark: the average Democratic score was 91, the average Republican was 27.

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At the extremes, 335 Republican lawmakers received a zero score, while 699 politicians received scores of 100, nearly all of them Democrats, save for two Republicans and three independents. Among the states in the study, Connecticut had the most climate-friendly legislators (85% of its legislators scored 75 or above), while West Virginia had the least (just 11% with scores at or above 75).

Spears pointed out that this tool evaluates legislators' decisions on the bills that have been put in front of them, but no two policy proposals are the same—the level of ambition in pro-climate policy can vary from state to state. Earning a perfect score on the index doesn't guarantee that an individual legislator is a climate champion. "[A person's] score is limited by the strength of the votes that make it to the table," says Spears. "Really no state is doing enough on this issue right now, but what we can do is contextualize and point out ways that states can learn from each other and improve."

Polarization leads to paralysis

The primary predictor of whether a pro-climate policy would get passed was which party controlled the government. Swift action on climate was more likely to happen when one party had control of the entire state government, as is the case in Virginia. There, lawmakers passed legislation establishing the state's first clean energy standard, created an electric vehicle program, and joined a regional initiative to regulate greenhouse gas emissions, all within the span of a year, after Democrats gained control of both parts of the legislature as well as the governorship in a 2019 election.

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By contrast, ambitious climate policy stalled in highly polarized state legislatures where power was split. In Minnesota's legislature—where most Democrats scored between 90-100 on the researchers' scale, and Republicans tended to score between 0 and 20—few climate bills passed. This year's legislative session saw two climate-focused bill amendments introduced, and fail along party lines in the state Senate (one to reduce carbon emissions from electric utilities, and another for environmental justice effort for disenfranchised communities). The one climate-related legislation that passed was an energy conservation bill, after three years of negotiation and debate.

On some occasions, bipartisan consensus brought about substantive change. In South Carolina, legislators' climate voting records were less riven by party loyalties. State politicians in the Palmetto State received an average score of 73 (few scored below 50). The state House temporarily banned offshore drilling in 2019 (the measure was later extended), and the state passed the Energy Freedom Act, which opened up avenues for more widespread solar energy adoption, including community solar options.

But Spears argues it was a unique set of circumstances, rather than a partisan realignment, that allowed South Carolina politicians to agree on climate efforts. The offshore drilling ban was supported by legislators across the state eager to protect the state's beaches and tourism industry. South Carolina, which lacks a local oil and gas industry, had fewer lobbyists influencing legislators as well.

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Testing if transparency leads to accountability

The next test will be if knowledge about elected officials' voting records applies pressure at the ballot box. Voters concerned about climate change will now have clear-cut data of who votes for their priorities.

So far, many people concerned about climate change don't participate in local political work like campaigning and phone banking because they don't see how important state elected officials are to enacting climate policy, says Eliza Nemser, co-founder of Climate Changemakers, an advocacy group.

Nemser sees a tool like this as a way to help voters overcome the deeply entrenched partisanship in American politics by clarifying which politician's record—not campaign promises or stump speeches—is aligned with their own priorities. And American voters agree with one another about climate change more than their representatives. In recent polling, 63% of Americans were concerned about climate change, and more than half wanted government officials to do more to take action.

"It's possible to do all of this political work through a climate lens in lieu of a partisan lens," Nemser says. "In every general election that boils down to two candidates, you're going to have a choice between a more impressive climate champion, and someone who's not. There's often a very clear-cut candidate to advocate for, and you can be blind to party affiliation."

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