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Interest groups and state-level political inertia have stalled many of America’s clean energy initiatives

Shortcircuiting Policy: Interest Groups and the Battle Over Clean Energy and Climate Policy in the American States

Leah Cardamore Stokes
Oxford University Press
2020
338 pp.
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Why is it that America has not been able to achieve science-based targets for carbon emissions reductions despite the availability of numerous economically and ecologically rational solutions? This question is often framed in terms of job losses or energy security arguments. In Short Circuiting Policy, a timely political ethnography of U.S. energy policy, Leah Cardamore Stokes argues that clean energy programs initially gained traction as potential opportunities to create green jobs and reduce carbon footprints but then waned, even as the economics increasingly favored their success. Focusing on state-level politics, Stokes carefully lays out how Arizona, Kansas, Texas, and Ohio struggled to contain the power of the fossil fuel and electric utilities industries and, in doing so, failed to sustain a clean energy trajectory.

The book’s title is a reference to a passage from political scientist E. E. Schattschneider’s 1942 book, Party Government, which reads: “Pressure politics is a method of short-circuiting the majority.” This sentiment is echoed in economist Mancur Olson’s 1965 book, The Logic of Collective Action, which laid out a theory of how concentrated benefits can trump diffuse cost factors. Stokes convincingly argues that climate change fits this paradigm perfectly. She reveals how successful green energy policies are eroded through a process she refers to as retrenchment, and how renewable energy infrastructure development has succumbed to a series of negative feedback loops that have kept progress on a treadmill of policy inertia.

Drawing on more than a hundred interviews with key decision-makers and stakeholders, as well as detailed document and media analysis, Stokes explores the consequences of stalled environmental policies at length. She discusses the usual mechanisms of influence, such as political lobbying and advertising campaigns, but also reveals more pernicious phenomena, including “astroturfing,” wherein the entity advancing a particular policy is concealed by an ostensibly grassroots campaign. Such efforts, she argues, create a “fog of enactment”—a gap between interest groups’ expectations of a given policy and its actual implementation—comparable to what others have documented in tobacco legislation (1).

The democratic process is fragile, reveals Stokes, and highly vulnerable to powerful interests. What’s more, when citizens agree with a politician on a particular issue, they often take cues from them on unrelated issues, including energy policy.

The environment was once a unifying cause in American politics. In 2007, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, an otherwise polarizing Republican, co-wrote a book called A Contract with the Earth to remind conservatives of as much, referencing the party’s environmental legacy (2). However, Stokes shows that a carefully curated campaign advanced by conservative groups such as the American Legislative Exchange Council, the State Policy Network, and Americans for Prosperity—sensing ambivalence toward green policies from core Republican Party supporters—began targeting the base with messaging against renewable energy in the late 20th century. Such campaigns gained momentum between 2000 and 2010. The impact of this anti-environmentalist miasma continues to this day.

Using the heuristic of what she calls a “narwhal curve,” Stokes provides a useful visual primer for how steep a rise in renewable energy transition is needed. She is also more sympathetic to nuclear power in her analysis, noting that the retirement of nuclear plants is making our task of transition even more challenging. On this point, I had hoped that Stokes would have been more willing to critique environmentalist organizations as another sort of special interest group. Many of the pathologies that she identifies in fossil fuel and electric utility interests also apply to the anti-nuclear movement, which derailed any potential for economies of scale being realized from this clean technology. [Extreme risk aversion and a misapplication of the precautionary principle trumped hard data in this regard as well (3).] She could have also engaged with some of the literature that challenges the dominance of the interest group hypothesis in explaining political influence, for example, the work of Gunnar Trumbull (4). Despite these minor misses, Stokes has written a highly readable and compelling book that will be of interest to environmental policy scholars and the general public alike.

References and Notes:
1. N. Oreskes, E. M. Conway, Merchants of Doubt (Bloomsbury, 2010).
2. N. Gingrich, T. L. Maple, A Contract with the Earth (Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 2007).
3. S. L. Montgomery, T. Graham Jr., Seeing the Light (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2017).
4. G. Trumbull, Strength in Numbers (Harvard Univ. Press, 2012).

About the author

The reviewer is at the College of Earth, Ocean and Environment, University of Delaware, Newark, DE 19716, USA.