Political Science in Service of “Organized Combat”: An Interview with Professor Leah Stokes

The climate politics scholar, a rising star in her field, shares her thoughts on the discipline, fossil fuel political hegemony, a #GreenNewDeal, and how social scientists can help activists win.

Photo by  Ian Simmonds .

Photo by Ian Simmonds.

As part of The Trouble’s commitment to analyzing political strategies to make progress on climate policy, we’ve set out to interview leaders in the world of climate politics. For this spotlight, we interviewed Leah Stokes, Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Over the past few years, Prof. Stokes has become an outspoken advocate of climate action, helping to bridge the gap between theory and practice. We sat down with her to discuss her thoughts on what her research can teach activists, what she thinks of emerging forces such as the Sunrise Movement, and the role of advocacy in academic life.


Sam Zacher (interviewer): You recently made headlines via your APSR [American Political Science Review, the most prestigious journal in political science] article with Matto Mildenberger and Alex Hertel-Fernandez on congressional staffer perceptions of public opinion. The main finding was that staffers have wildly inaccurate views, usually in a conservative direction. Do you think there are lessons that activists can draw from this? Of course, given constraints of public interest groups, they only directly lobby members or staffers a certain amount, but given these findings, would you direct activists to try to communicate with congressional staff more?

Professor Leah Stokes: One thing those groups should do is highlight the broad public support at the state and district level when they meet with [Congressmembers and their staff]. That data is available because the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication has been making these [district-level] maps for several years now. They’re at the right level so that when activists meet with representatives or their staff, they can show the broad level of support for climate action in a given district.

I also think those findings suggest the environmental movement needs to be spending more money in primaries and general elections to contest the power of the oil lobby and the electric utility sector. That’s really hard, because those companies make a shit ton of money from making the entire planet unliveable. They have this structural advantage where they control this really valuable resource they can sell and use a little bit of the profits on politics.

So the system itself doesn’t make it very easy for environmental groups to compete. There are some cases when they have: look at Kansas, where the wind energy industry has been able to create a PAC that has successfully defended Republicans being attacked by the fossil fuel industry. I think there’s a need for that at the federal level. When you have these champions who are on the other side--Republican climate champions--they need to be supported by money from the environmental community.

I think partially what that paper shows is that the system itself is corrupt. Access is privileged to campaign contributors. We know that from a really amazing experiment by [political scientists] Josh Kalla and David Broockman. When access is granted, those [donor] groups have a lot of influence on how staffers see the world and understand public opinion. The system has to be changed. Given the massive inequality between corporations and the civil society sector, it’s very difficult. One way forward is what [political scientist] Alex Hertel-Fernandez’s work shows: employees can be a really important voice that companies use to influence politicians. Our paper also shows that congressional staff take employees more seriously than members of mass-based interest groups. So, employees of solar and wind companies should be mobilized too: not just to defend the production tax credit, but also to promote carbon pricing and climate action.

SZ: Your book project, if I’m not mistaken, is building on your dissertation, for which you studied the interest group efforts in different US states aimed at renewable energy transition policies. How did you end up pursuing that topic? Did anything from that project surprise you? Or only confirm hypotheses you had going in?

LS: Around the time I graduated from college, the government of Ontario passed a feed-in tariff, modeled after Germany’s policy. Matto Mildenberger, another friend, and I fundraised to create a giant solar panel and then used the revenue [accrued from selling the power] to create scholarships for students. From direct first hand experience working with the feed-in tariff policy, I became interested in these laws that create renewable energy as a path out of the climate crisis.

I’ve spent five years now on my book project, and I definitely have had some surprising findings. I learned just how politically effective electric utilities are. They have a really strong stranglehold on the public utility system of regulation in the United States, sometimes bordering on corruption. And they pose a significant barrier to decarbonizing the electricity system. So [you see] cases such as Arizona Public Service, the state’s private utility, capturing its regulator. In Texas, industrial energy consumers killed a solar energy target that was already passed into law.

I learned a lot of strategies that opponents of the energy transition have sharpened over time and how effective they are at blocking change. If you read a lot of journalistic reporting on climate change, you get this false sense that cities and states are on the bleeding edge of action on climate change and that they’re going to save us. My work has shown that there is more contestation of progress than these reports suggest. There’s going to be a longer battle to [transform] the electricity system than we’d hope.

SZ: Do you think people who do big statistical analyses of what causes or predicts changes to renewable energy policies in US states mostly get it right? And when you do qualitative work you find certain kinds of mechanisms that should be quantified somehow in statistical work? Or do you think understanding this kind of causation is impossible in statistical work?

LS: A lot of the quantitative studies of RPS [Renewable Portfolio Standard] policies are flawed, in that they suffer from endogeneity and model misspecification. I am a quantitative scholar, but I don’t use quantitative methods when they don’t provide me [with] robust answers. I’m a little bit unusual in that I also do qualitative work. A lot of people who do environmental policy do both, and I think that's a strength. There’s a lot you can discover by going to talk to people and looking at archives and constructing a historical record that you really lose by throwing a bunch of data into a regression without really understanding the relationship between the variables. Qualitative work, while it has its limitations, especially generalizability, can help us understand mechanisms of influence in a much richer way than a regression can.

[My book] focuses on mechanisms, and we know that regression does a poor job at illuminating mechanisms of influence. A lot of the literature that relies on quantitative estimation strategies to look at, for example, contributions and roll calls, hasn’t really captured the process well. Agenda setting—what enters the bill itself—is a political choice, and by the time you get to a vote, the politics are already [settled]. To just look at campaign contributions and roll calls therefore misses the entire political story. When you go talk to people and talk about behind the scenes negotiations behind a given bill, you see certain provisions get written in, others get written out. Interest groups use language strategically. They try to use language to confuse their opponent, so they don’t know what a bill means by the time it’s voted on. All of those factors really complicate what would be a quantitative estimation at the end of the day.

I think there are really clever ways (such as the Kalla and Broockman article I mentioned) to use a field experiment to causally identify the effect of contributions on access. Our quantitative paper [in the APSR] looked at the relationship between meetings and contributions and opinion. Those studies require original datasets. They require running experiments. So just taking off the shelf data like many of these studies [of RPS policies] have used, and running a regression doesn’t really lead to robust findings. I know this because when I was in my PhD, I replicated a lot of these papers. When you replicate one of these iconic papers about why RPS policies are adopted, you discover the results are not stable. When you change the specification [of the regression model] a little bit here or there, the results break down.

That isn’t to say there aren’t any good quantitative studies of RPS. But there are a lot of limitations, even when you take more of a causal inference-type approach. I think there’s been a lot of [careless] work done in this space.

SZ: What are the ways in which you think interest groups exert influence on climate policy? What are the most relevant channels?

LS: This is basically the core contribution of my book. I try to understand “organized combat” between interest groups over policy. When one side is disproportionately empowered over the other—let’s say, electric utilities over climate activists—they can go directly through the legislature or regulatory body and lobby or use campaign contributions or long standing relationships or ideas to directly influence policy that way.

That’s the kind of direct influence  we generally think of. But when they don’t have sufficient power—let’s say, for example, that environmental advocates are in power, and so utilities can’t directly roll back the policy—they expand the scope of conflict through three channels.

The first channel is public opinion. They use what is called outside lobbying or astroturfing to change what the public thinks, or construct a view of what the public thinks for legislators. Public opinion is important for legislators. If the interest groups don’t have enough power to change what the legislator will do, then they go use the public as a tool in their battle over policy. I think that perspective shows us that public opinion can be constructed. We show in the APSR article that public opinion is constructed by fossil fuel companies to be much lower for climate action than it actually is.

The second tool the fossil lobby can use is the party. What my work (and Jake Grumbach’s) shows is that interest groups play a role in increasing partisan polarization by punishing politicians who are on the “wrong” side. So if you have a Kansas politician who’s supporting wind energy, and Koch Industries and the Kansas Chamber of Commerce and Americans for Prosperity don’t want them doing that, they’ll threaten them, saying, “We won’t give any more campaign contributions to you in the next election,” or they’ll run challengers against them in primaries. They use the party system to change the behaviors of officeholders by primarying them out or threatening them [in other ways].

You can see this really dramatically in Kansas. There was a vacant seat east of Wichita, and Koch Industries helped ensure a fossil fuel consultant was appointed to it. He got into the legislature and did the bidding of Koch Industries, pushing to repeal the RPS before he was ever elected. That kind of tight relationship between the party and interest groups can allow for [more extreme] appointments and primary challengers that eventually drive partisan polarization over time and change policy.

The third mechanism is the courts and legal system. If utilities don't like how the law has been interpreted, they just challenge it through the legal system. The courts are the least surefire tactic because interests may not get the ruling they want. But litigation can just create delay as a means of blockage.

This entire framework highlights the fact that there’s an ongoing process after [rulemaking]. We often focus on elections to the neglect of policymaking. And we often focus on policy making to the neglect of implementation. We forget that implementation is often a place of ongoing contestation between interest groups. This book fleshes out all the ways that advocates and opponents continue to battle against each other and use different channels to win policy change after implementation.  

SZ: One concept that has come up more and more often in the political science literature is policy feedback—that is, the idea that policies reshape not only welfare outcomes but the distribution of political power. How should climate advocates act with policy feedback in mind? And what climate policies do you like most, given policy feedback?

LS: I think we sometimes overestimate policy feedback. I wish feedback would happen, but I increasingly think that it isn’t going to work like that in the climate sector.

If you look at Ontario, for example, they recently passed a carbon pricing policy with a cap-and-trade system because the federal government required them to act. Doing so created  a bunch of new assets. When the new [pro-fossil fuel] government took over, it was thought that they couldn't just get rid of the policy because there were all these new assets that people now held, and that was expected to create lock-in. If you lose all those assets [by repealing the policy], after all, that's destroying value [which constituents should mobilize to protect]. Yet that's exactly what [the new Premier] did: he repealed the policy, and destroyed a lot of value. So that’s pretty shocking. And it's not as though Ontario is a super pro-fossil fuel province: the electric sector is already decarbonized, the coal phase-out started in 2003. This is a very clean province compared to many other jurisdictions, so it should hypothetically be [fertile ground for] lock-in.

Electric utilities and fossil fuel companies have everything to lose with carbon pricing, RPSs, and climate action in general, so this ongoing contestation [prevents feedback from occurring]. In many ways, the policies aren’t just tweaks at the margin. Ultimately, what we’re trying to do is get rid of these industries, and they know that. That’s why my theoretical framework is trying to understand when feedback fails and the ways in which contestation is this ongoing process. You don’t just have feedback and lock-in that gets rid of opponents. Kathy Thelen has made this point in her work: the losers don’t just go away. Let’s say we get an RPS and a carbon tax in place to empower new actors in society or give benefits to new groups. The losers are still there, spending tens of millions of dollars fighting the policy. They're not going to let the lock-in happen very easily.

In many ways I fear the excessive belief that cap-and-dividend will generate policy feedback by creating benefits and thereby garnering public support it isn’t really borne out by the data. For example, British Columbia passed a carbon tax in 2008 which transferred some wealth to rural areas. With an economist, [Nic Rivers], I looked at public opinion data to see if people who lived in rural BC were becoming more pro-climate action than people living in other parts of Canada who weren’t getting this climate dividend. We found that there’s no evidence that beneficiaries of the tax are more supportive.

So how we implement these carbon policies that have these dividends and hypothetically create lock-in is really important. We can’t just assume that when we give people money, it’s magically going to increase their support for climate policy. The benefits have to be very salient, and it probably has to be a large amount of money. I think that has some benefit from an income inequality perspective, but it's definitely not as much of a sure thing as cap-and-dividend supporters think it is. And there’s another rub, which is that if you give people money back, like food stamps, since money is fungible, people spend it on the same thing they got it for. So while putting a carbon tax will increase energy costs, if we simultaneously give people an energy divident, they will likely spend it on energy bills. So the effect of the carbon tax can be watered down. Increasing the sticker price of energy, moreover, is likely going to be politically unacceptable, as we’re seeing in France. The stories we tell about policy feedback and cap-and-dividend aren’t likely to be borne out in practice.

SZ: About policy choice, what do you think about the push for a Green New Deal, at least as a framework, since a recent Democratic takeover of the US House in the 2018 midterms—in terms of affecting the chances at national climate mitigation legislation?

LS: I gotta say, I’m pretty enamored with this Green New Deal idea. And I didn’t expect to be. I think it has shown me the limits of the economic model that we’ve been trapped in as an environmental community: fixated on putting a price on carbon. I see all the benefits [of carbon pricing] but I also see that it’s not very politically viable. Even if we got it done, there are all these problems -- how people would pay, how effective it would be.

The benefit of a GND approach, by contrast, is that is focuses not on punishing incumbents but on creating new industries. It’s closer to a war-style approach, which is to say the government has to be involved in the transition, and the entire society has to get behind this problem. I feel that a GND as a concept is far more commensurate to the challenge. It’s not just an issue of getting carbon out of the electricity or transportation sector. It cuts across all levels of society: heating and cooling, cement, steel, agriculture, etc. Carbon is just everywhere.

Massive investment in research and development, for example in air capture technology, is also important, and I think that can be done through the GND. Massive investments in getting natural gas out of of homes is something we could work on. I feel that’s a much more intelligent approach. If you look at what we need to be spending [on investments in decarbonization], estimates suggest something around $600 billion per year globally. Currently we’re spending just half that. So as much as people like to say the price of solar has come down and is cost-competitive, the amount of investment in clean energy from a deployment perspective is flat. If you look at the amount of investment in research and development in the US or China or the UK, it pales in comparison to what those countries were spending in the 1970s during the fuel crisis. We really need to be thinking on a broader scale about government expenditures to deal with this problem, like a military-sector level of spending -- not just putting a little price on carbon that just addresses the power sector.

SZ: Since they’ve gained lots of media attention recently, what do you think about the Sunrise Movement? The energy they’ve built and media attention they’ve garnered seems positive, though I wonder about the degree to which they’ll affect the electoral calculus of either (A) Democratic Party leaders or (B) enough individual members of Congress to have a significant impact. How do you think about the impact they’re having in the context of pre-2020 climate politics and the ability for enough climate champs to win races to make serious federal policy?

LS: I think it’s really exciting what these young people are doing. I think they're really smart. They have an interesting strategy leading up the 2020 election, getting young people to volunteer and take time off their schooling to organize. It’s similar to what we’ve seen emerge in the gun control movement this past year.

I’m very impressed with their long-timeframe approach. Ideas take a long time to percolate, so the fact that we’re talking about this issue now is good. You need to be developing ideas and legislation far before its time, far before you have a Democratic trifecta in the federal government. I do feel it would make a big difference in the 2020 election. I’m generally not an optimistic person and this makes me feel optimistic.

Any Democratic nominee that does not place climate change at the center of their platform is out to lunch as far as I’m concerned. The crisis is here now, being paid for now, by fires in California and deadly heat waves across the world, horrible drought and hurricanes. I see that the movement is making this clear to nominees.

I think it’s going to change the tenor of the campaign. The GND movement already has a bunch of endorsements. It shows you the power of people running in primaries, like AOC [Representative-Elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez]. That’s the kind of energy we need in 2020. For too long too many representatives have been lulled into thinking climate change isn’t that important—and you can see this in our data. Not just Republicans underestimate [support for climate policy], but also Democrats. I’m hopeful this will become a signature issue that differentiates Democrats from Trump.

SZ: What do you think are the best ways for academics (specifically political scientists) to use their research and/or their analytical capabilities to influence politics and/or policy?

LS: I think advocacy on behalf of energy issues is something we can do. One thing I’ve learned from my research—getting RPS and net metering policies passed in statehouses—is the power of individuals in the system. If you have a good idea and make the right relationships with the right people in the legislature, you can get a lot passed. If you look at net metering, it was in large part driven by one graduate student who went around the country getting laws passed in statehouses. I’ve seen the power of someone who’s smart, who knows the political system, and who has good ideas. And so I increasingly want to set up the next phase of my career to focus less on research and more on that kind of practical work.

Something else that’s easier to do is to talk to people outside the academy. I talk to journalists every single week. I talk to students making documentaries about climate change. I talk to everyone I can about climate change. I think there’s value in that; there’s a recent poll saying people talk about climate change about once a year. That’s really crazy.

One thing the fossil fuel industry has been successful at is making this a taboo issue. They’ve made it about controversy, about partisanship, so that if you bring it up, you might be rude. Kind of like talking about sex or money or religion. That can’t be the state of climate change. If we don’t understand that climate change is here now and posing costs to victims, then we don’t understand the roots of the problem. If you look at this past summer’s reporting on the heat wave, only one in five articles about it mentioned climate change—even at outlets like the Washington Post and The New York Times. Even those outlets—who otherwise do amazing reporting on climate change—were more often that not writing about the heat wave without talking about climate.

One thing I’ve been doing is working with the Scholars Strategy Network (I head the climate and energy group) to create a resource for journalists to summarize some of the latest peer reviewed research on extreme event-attribution science, which can link specific things like heat waves or fires to climate change.Those articles get published in Nature or Science, but journalists can’t access them because they’re behind paywalls. We’re going to get some quotes from climatologists so when journalists are writing in state or local outlets, they can [more confidently attribute extreme weather to climate change].

Apart from my own words, I’m trying to create systemic change around how the media reports on climate change. Of course, that’s a very tall order, but I think it’s a political act to talk about the crisis. I would encourage people to talk about climate change on a daily or weekly basis.

SZ: As a political scientist, you’ve been particularly vocal about your views on climate politics, and climate justice. Why do you think your colleagues are reluctant to be as outspoken? How do you navigate the balance between being an advocate for climate action and intra-academy incentives as a social scientist to be “neutral”?

LS: No, I don’t feel a tension. One of my advisors, Judy Layzer, said she’s normative in the questions she chooses but she’s positivist in the methods she uses to answer them. Ultimately I want to arrive at the truth; that’s who I am as a person. I’m not going to make up lies when I go to do the research. I feel an extreme moral imperative to raise awareness about this problem and to do everything I can in my lifetime to work on it. And there’s nothing that can stand in the way: no tenure, no normative expectations on what it means to be a professor.

I think a lot of those views [discouraging advocacy] are outdated. Professors nowadays can be out in the world at an early stage in their career. Their popular writings won’t count the same as an academic article, but universities are modern institutions: they want to be engaged in the world and affecting policy and talking to journalists and disseminating knowledge. I see that as part of my job and I know I’m on the right side of history on this. I know I’m speaking the truth, and I know there are a lot of people making money on climate delay, who are lying. It seems clear to me that this is the right thing to do.

Sam Zacher is a PhD student in political science at Yale University studying how interest groups can improve their strategies for success on issues like climate change. He tweets @samzacher


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