Climate change deniers strike out – even in energy-rich Kansas

States, not Congress, are taking the lead on climate change laws – from a new cap-and-trade program in California to widespread adoption of renewable electricity standards. Moves to weaken those standards aren't gaining traction in state capitals.     

Orlin Wagner/AP/File
Wind turbines of the Smoky Hill Wind Farm dot the countryside near Ellsworth, Kan. Kansas legislators rejected an effort to weaken a state policy that requires utilities to generate 20 percent of their electricity from wind and other renewable resources by 2020.

Despite the evident risks of climate change – from sea-level rise and coastal flooding to crippling drought – Congress has been slow to respond.  Fortunately, states have given us reason for optimism by taking the lead on reducing heat-trapping emissions from fossil fuels.

California, for instance, just launched its cap-and-trade system for reducing global warming pollution. The program was passed under a Republican governor and is being implemented by a Democratic one. The state also has the country’s most ambitious renewable electricity standard, which requires utilities to provide 33 percent of their electricity from renewable sources by 2020.

Such renewable electricity standards are now commonplace: 29 states and the District of Columbia have them. These standards, which were often adopted on a bipartisan basis, have been crucial for making renewables the leading source of new US electricity generating capacity in 2012.

The standards are also consumer-friendly. For example, the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory found that as utilities in 14 states complied with renewable electricity standards, they increased rates just 1.5 percent or less. In Minnesota, Xcel Energy – the state’s largest utility – reported that renewable energy investments actually lowered prices in 2008 and 2009 by 0.7 percent.

Despite the success of these policies in creating jobs and reducing climate-altering emissions, some of the same fossil-fuel special interest groups that have worked for years to spread false doubt about climate science are now trying to do the same to clean energy. The North Carolina Solar Center, a public service center at North Carolina State University, counts more than 40 pieces of legislation or lawsuits in more than 20 states aimed at reversing progress on clean energy.

But opponents of renewable energy don’t have the facts on their side. And thankfully, that still matters.

A bipartisan majority of state lawmakers in Kansas just voted to kill two bills aimed at weakening their state’s renewable electricity standard, which requires utilities to source 20 percent of their power from renewable electricity by 2020. The bills were sponsored by legislative committees stacked with more than half a dozen members of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a corporate-funded group that creates model legislation.

ALEC takes its cues on energy from fossil-fuel giants like Koch Industries, which has lavished tens of millions of dollars on groups that deny climate science and fight clean energy policies. While CEO Charles Koch has used the term “cronyism” to describe popular policies that support wind and solar development, his own company spent over $10.5 million lobbying the federal government in 2012 alone, presumably to keep federal tax breaks and money flowing to his industry.

It was curious, then, to see ALEC and other Koch-funded groups strike out in Koch Industries’ home state of Kansas. The state’s legislature is deep red and perhaps more friendly than others to the idea that the government should butt out of energy policy. So what gives?

The answer is jobs. From 2001 to 2007, Kansas led the country in renewable energy growth. The American Wind Energy Association estimates that the state is home to more than 13,000 jobs in that industry alone.

The legislature also recognized that the cost numbers cited by renewable energy opponents didn’t add up. Grover Norquist, the powerful antitax lobbyist, joined the Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity and Beacon Hill Institute to trumpet a deeply flawed study that claimed that meeting the state’s renewable electricity standard would increase electricity rates by 45 percent. In reality, the two largest utilities in Kansas reported rate increases of just 1.7 percent – equal to less than one dollar per month for a typical household – to cover required renewable energy investments in 2012 and 2013. A Kansas Corporation Commission official characterized the cost as “minimal” and said they reflected “the low cost advantage of Kansas electric generation.”

So far, not a single state has been fooled into repealing its renewable electricity standard. Despite a track record of failure, opponents are taking the fight to other states, including Ohio, where an ALEC-affiliated state senator recently compared renewable electricity policy to “Joseph Stalin’s five-year plan.”

But the facts speak for themselves again. Ohio’s policy is working, and the state is home to more than 300 wind and solar companies that employ nearly 8,000 people.

Even in Congress, which as an institution is on sabbatical from recognizing the reality of climate change, renewable energy facts are winning.

As part of its endless budget negotiations, Congress took up an extension of the Production Tax Credit, a key growth driver in the wind industry, which employs 75,000 Americans.

Rep. Steve King of Iowa, a vocal member of the Tea Party caucus, stood up to his colleagues who were selectively applying their “small government” philosophy to the wind industry. “Low, stable tax rates generate jobs and economic growth,” he said in defense of the wind subsidy. He also pointed to the 5,000 wind energy jobs in his state.

Just as lawmakers like Representative King see the jobs on the ground from renewable energy, they may soon have to acknowledge the realities of a changing climate in their own backyards.

Climate change is hitting people where they can see it: whether it’s a canal in Florida being inundated with sea water, or a hospital in Chicago that has to deal with an influx of visitors on extremely hot days.

At least 13 states have plans in place for adapting to climate change, including dealing with sea-level rise, more extreme heat, and changes in precipitation that disrupt water supplies.

When issues affect people’s jobs, livelihoods and health, our elected officials start doing the right thing. Because renewable energy technologies work and they’re employing thousands of people while pumping megawatts of affordable, clean energy into our homes and businesses, more politicians are becoming clean energy champions. This is good news for addressing the realities of climate change, too.

– Kevin Knobloch is president of the Union of Concerned Scientists, an alliance of scientists and citizens for a healthy, safe and sustainable future and based in Cambridge, Mass.

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