The Next Frontier of the Climate Movement: Texas

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Few issues are as much of a lightning rod in American culture wars than climate change. Over the past two years, climate activists have taken note of their place in the American political imagination as coastal elites, responding by attempting to build inroads into the Midwest and Mid-Atlantic. The strategy of this new approach is just as much about political geography as it is culture: in order for major climate legislation to pass Congress post-2020, it will need to become a priority of most members of both of the Democratic caucuses, including many outside of California or the Northeastern Corridor.

So far most of the new ground has been broken in the Midwest—see, for example, the Sunrise Movement hubs recently established in Minnesota, Michigan, Ohio, and Wisconsin, or the impressively strong climate platforms of Midwestern congressional candidates such as Rashida Tlaib, Randy Bryce, and Ilhan Omar. While these developments are exciting and promising, I want to draw attention to another state I believe deserves even higher priority (and I say this as a native Midwesterner): Texas.

This choice may seem counterintuitive at first glance. A longtime conservative kingpin, Texas hasn’t voted for a Democrat in a presidential election since 1976, and the dominance of the oil industry over the state’s economy and politics is legendary. But hear me out. Here are four reasons why the climate movement should focus on building power in the Lone Star State.

Reason #1: Texas’s physical climate makes it both particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change and an ideal location for renewables generation.

This one is two-sided. The first consideration is that Texas’s acute vulnerability to the effects of climate change affords plenty of opportunities for it to be made politically and personally salient. High temperatures, increasing desertification, and the rise of devastating hurricanes on the state’s Gulf Coast increase the visibility of climate change, allowing activists to more easily connect the dots between the crisis and those subject to it. Multiple lines of psychological evidence, for example, indicate that extreme heat events increase both belief in anthropogenic climate change and support for policies that address it, creating an opening for activists to take control of the narrative during increasingly frequent 105°+ F days.

Of course, climate vulnerability doesn’t necessarily translate into an ability to be persuaded. The South as a region, true to its conservative roots, consistently exhibits the lowest levels of support for mitigation policies despite having the most to lose in terms of human and economic costs. But certain developments—such as Florida Republicans breaking away from national leadership on the issue—suggest that an material interest in mitigation isn’t necessarily doomed to be swamped by partisanship among independents and the Republican-leaning.

While Texas’s climate makes calamity inevitable, it also presents a clear, positive alternative to the state’s sprawling fossil fuel infrastructure. Year-round sunshine and vast expanses of arid, cheap land make the state perfect for solar, especially in areas where oil well retirement and cropland desertification will make other land uses untenable. Texas already ranks ninth in solar installation capacity, an outcome attributable in no small part to significant bipartisan support. A history amongst state Republicans of supporting renewable energy—combined with overwhelming support for its growth among Democrats and Republicans alike—means that climate activists have effective talking points when pushing bills that pair renewables growth with decarbonization, painting GOP opposition to the former as a refusal to support the latter.

Reason #2: The political and racial demographics of Texas are rapidly shifting, offering a political opening for the left in general and climate activists in particular.

Much hoopla has been made about the coming “Blue Texas,” supposedly brought on by a rapidly expanding Latinx population replacing an aging, conservative, white one. Yet, as the twenty-point victory of Greg Abbott over Wendy Davis in the 2014 election demonstrated, this transition is unlikely to happen anytime soon. While Latinx people make up almost half of Texas’s overall population, they are just thirty-four per cent of eligible voters, and an even lower percentage of actual voters due to structural barriers such as language and voter ID laws. Efforts by the Texas Republican Party to break from the national line and make inroads within the Latinx community have also paid off, seen in Abbott’s ability to win forty-four per cent of the Hispanic vote. To say that inevitable Democratic hegemony is coming to Texas, therefore, is imprudently optimistic at best and delusional at worst.

None of this means that future potential Democratic gains are out of reach—even in the short term. But they will require a massive redoubling of voter registration and outreach in Latinx communities, especially where Spanish is standard and political activity is consequently often low.

Here, climate activists have a special role to play. As laid out in the Yale Center on Climate Change Communication’s insightful 2016 report, Latinx Americans are more likely than any other racial group (and far more likely than whites) to not only support climate mitigation policy, but to make it a priority and engage in politics for its sake. The authors contrast this with a sobering statistic: seventy-one per cent of Latinx Americans say that they have never been contacted by “an organization working to reduce global warming.” This proportion is even higher among Spanish-preferring Latinx, who are even more likely than English-preferring Latinx to say climate change affects them personally, to discuss the issue regularly with friends and family, and to support drastic moves towards decarbonization.

The upshot of all this polling is the opportunity for a symbiotic relationship between Texan climate activists and institutional players within the state Democratic Party. Through the use of climate change as a wedge issue, climate activists can work to bring previously unengaged or unsympathetic Latinx voters into a party that has previously ignored them or taken them for granted, helping to hasten Texas’s political conversion. In return, climate activists can leverage these recruitment efforts to win climate policy concessions from a state party establishment that is notoriously captured by oil interests. Which brings me to my third point.

Reason #3: Defeating the fossil fuel industry in Texas through the construction of an alternative Democratic coalition will demonstrate that it can be defeated anywhere.

This point constitutes the core of my argument. Upon first glance, the idea that we should put all of our chips on Texas seems just plain wrong; with its extremely limited resources, why should the climate movement devote significant time and energy to fighting on a battleground where the enemy is most powerful (and, by extension, where we might be least likely to win)? This reasoning might seem seductive, but it’s misguided. To illustrate why, let me turn to a tragic but powerful example from my home state: Wisconsin.

It may be hard to believe now, but historically Wisconsin was the cradle of the American labor movement, the first state to institute policies such as workers’ compensation, the eight-hour work day, and unemployment insurance. The state likewise played a prominent role in the public workers unionization movement of the 1960s and 1970s, emerging in the twenty-first century as a public-sector union powerhouse arguably unmatched by any other state. With the election of Barack Obama and complete control of state government in 2008, labor seemed untouchable.

All of this came crashing down, of course, just two years later, when the unthinkable happened: in a wave election, Republicans seized all three branches of state government and used their newfound legislative power to pass Act 10, a bill stripping public workers of their collective bargaining rights. The result has been politically catastrophic for the left, as union membership and dues revenue continue to plummet. While the state GOP had not run on this policy or even mentioned it on the campaign trail, it was later revealed to be in the cards all along; a national network of donors, led by Charles and David Koch, had offered millions in campaign cash to be spent on state legislature races in exchange for prioritization of their preferred policies.

The Koch Brothers did not select Wisconsin at random. They understood that the symbolism of gutting public unions in the most pro-labor state was far more significant than any personal gains made in a single state alone. As conservative kingmaker and Koch ally Grover Norquist gleefully explains here, the passage of Act 10 sent a crucial signal to Republicans controlling other purple states that they too could do the same and survive to reap the benefits of a decimated Democratic and labor establishment. Soon after the bill was signed into law, many other states—Ohio, Michigan, Kentucky, Missouri, Iowa—followed suit.

The kind of cascading effect the passage of Act 10 triggered is exactly the shot in the arm the climate movement desperately needs. If we can campaign for and win some kind of state policy campaign in Texas—one that both decarbonizes the state’s fossil fuel infrastructure and strips its corporate behemoths of political power, making policy fights down the line easier to wage—the spillover effects will be greater than fewer pipelines, refineries, and exports, or even carbon emissions. We will have demonstrated a model than can be used in any state in the Union, effecting a sea change in the American energy landscape despite federal inaction and building state-level organization necessary for future congressional dogfights.

Another benefit of victory in Texas, as hinted at earlier, has to do with the state Democratic Party in particular. While the Texas Democratic Platform of 2016 included some promising language on climate change, the Party continues to house and abet some of the worst climate offenders in American politics on both the state and federal level. The most two prominent examples of this are Reps. Henry Cuellar (D-TX 28) and Vicente González (D-TX 15), Congressional Democrats from heavily-blue, majority-Latinx districts who co-founded the House Oil & Gas Caucus and recently broke from their party to vote in favor of an anti-carbon tax resolution.

The prominence of pro-fossil fuel Democrats such as Cuellar and González is especially troubling considering their ability as Latinx political elites to influence broader Latinx opinion on climate to a more regressive position. To combat this possibility, therefore, climate activists need to figure out how to present an alternative economic vision in oil-rich areas, and work to push the industry and its allies out of party networks by empowering opposing internal forces (such as healthcare unions, environmentalists, and community organizers). If done successfully, this too could serve as a model for confronting pro-fossil fuel Democrats elsewhere in places like West Virginia, Montana, and California.

Reason #4: Texas operates its own electric grid, making it an ideal decarbonization policy laboratory to address endemic issues with renewables production.

While Texas’s natural geography gives it an advantage when it comes to renewables potential, its political geography presents cause for concern. Unlike any other state in the Union, Texas maintains a power grid and electrical network wholly separate from the rest of the country, allowing it complete jurisdiction over infrastructure, configuration, and upgrades. As David Roberts noted last year, this presents structural issues for renewables penetration, as there are fewer places for electricity to go during surges in production (i.e., when the sun is shining and the wind is blowing). The result so far, in light of inadequate policy, has been the severe underutilization of renewables potential, even considering existing technological limits.

At the same time, the possibility of centralized control over a power system offers climate activists and policy wonks a golden opportunity. That problems with decarbonizing electricity infrastructure are especially acute in Texas means that worked-out solutions can be applied anywhere. This could be particularly useful for grid areas under joint state or federal jurisdiction, where different inter-governmental parties have different ideas about what energy policy works—see, for example, the recent tension between Missouri and Kansas over the proposed Grain Belt Express high-voltage transmission line. Demonstrated policy outcomes in Texas, more achievable under a single governmental entity, could provide lessons that resolve factual disputes between different governments and ultimately reduce the political barriers towards decarbonization.

Again I turn to a comparison with Wisconsin. The state’s dominance by labor and other progressive interests in the late 19th century through the Progressive Era of the early 20th allowed for it to become a policy laboratory, developing anti-corruption law, bureaucratic modernization initiatives, and aforementioned labor regulations that became standard for state governments nationwide. Due to its unique regulatory environment, a future Texas Public Utility Commission directed by a motivated state government could similarly lead the way on 21st Century state climate policy. The Texas Railway Commission, which oversees energy development policy in the state, is also an important electoral target.

Building power in Texas: Where to start?

In her book Turning Texas Blue, longtime Democratic strategist and native Texan Mary Beth Rogers makes clear the single biggest missing ingredient in the Party’s state strategy: presence. In an anecdote that should hit especially close to home for climate leftists, Rogers tells the story of Denton, Texas, a Republican-leaning city that decided to ban fracking after its deleterious effects on the town became obvious. When state Republicans intervened and overturned the ban, however, Democrats and climate activists reportedly failed to come to the town’s aid. For Rogers (and for us), Denton is a textbook example of how the absence of left allyship perpetuates conservative power. The town is still assaulted daily by the effects of nearby extraction, and continues to be represented in the Legislature by Republicans virulently opposed to any form of statewide decarbonization.

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Presence in frontline communities is not a new tactic, and for Texan climate activists it should be just the beginning. Another, more overlooked starting point is unions in sectors not closely aligned with the fossil fuel industry: healthcare, hospitality, and education. Assisting in campaigns to organize farm laborers—for whom the effects of climate capitalism are felt most immediately and painfully—is possibly the best place to begin. Policy campaigns that have co-benefits with decarbonization—such as improved air quality standards, low-carbon jobs, and better public health outcomes—can also strengthen connections between climate activists and urban leftists who are playing an increasingly large role within the state party. At the same time, the final emphasis must be on building coalitions: between white and Latinx voters, blue collar workers and professionals, public transit-enthused urbanites in Austin and Dallas and rural hamlets devastated by extraction. Only then will the climate movement be able to wrap itself around the head of the fossil fuel industry, pulling tighter and tighter until its tentacles collapse. To slay our own Octopus, we need to head to Texas.

Johnathan Guy is a graduate student at UC Berkeley studying wealth inequality, social relations, and decarbonization. He is active in Sunrise Movement and the Democratic Socialists of America. He tweets @johnathanjguy.