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Governors Who Lead: Climate Change Beyond Egypt and the Midterms

Progress Update

  • Governors Eric Holcomb and Gavin Newsom

Governors Who Lead: Climate Change Beyond Egypt and the Midterms

2023-01-06T14:20:08-05:00

With little progress made in the struggle to limit global climate change at the recent gathering of world leaders at COP27, and with the new Republican majority in the House of Representatives a likely roadblock to further national progress, the actions of two governors offer signs of a way forward.

Government representatives who gathered in Egypt for this year’s United Nations’ climate change conference, known as COP27, sought to move mountains. The wealthy countries wanted to engage the poorer countries in a stronger effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and the poorer nations wanted money for the damage done to them by decades of emissions from those same wealthier nations. In the end, at the last minute, the participants agreed to create a fund to help vulnerable developing nations deal with climate-related disasters. Short on detail and practical impact, the agreement nonetheless offered some reward to the participants for banging their heads against a wall of resolute international differences. For them and the rest of the world, it offered some hope that the wall may eventually come down.

On the other hand, results of the midterm election will shift power in the House of Representatives to the Republicans come January – meaning a resurgence of opposition to climate change action in Washington. In the last year, Congress passed three laws that will triple federal spending on climate and clean energy over the next 10 years. Two of those measures, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and the CHIPS and Science Act, passed with significant bipartisan support.

But the new House GOP majority, in keeping with the party’s past position and an increasingly assertive and dangerous Freedom Caucus, is almost certain to block further action on climate change at the federal level.

Fortunately, two governors, one from each party, are successfully pursuing two complementary models for other states, and maybe even Congress, to consider. In the heartland, Republican Eric Holcomb of Indiana is using his state’s improving environmental record as part of his market-driven economic development pitch to lure new business to the state. For market-minded growth advocates, it’s a model for creating jobs and modernizing economies using new technologies that happen to be climate-friendly. For those torn between party loyalty and their doubts about how the climate deniers can be so sure they are right, it’s a way forward without crossing the line into direct climate change advocacy.

On the west coast, Democrat Gavin Newsom has led the way as California identifies and attacks climate vulnerabilities in its existing infrastructure. Plagued by a years-long drought, wildfires, and water shortages, Newsom has laid out a vision for remaking the state’s power grid to be 100% carbon-free and increasing the state’s water supply through actions that will rely on coordination across watersheds among local, regional, tribal, federal, and private entities. His model offers a clear “how-to” for those who are ready for their governments to be more aggressive in responding to climate change in their region.

Holcomb’s Sales Pitch Taps into Market for Climate Solutions

As a Republican and governor of a state that ranks among the top 10 in manufacturing – meaning his state has a large carbon footprint – Holcomb’s visit to COP27 came as something of a surprise to many. Recognizing the incongruity of his presence, Holcomb opened the first of his two speeches by asking, “Am I in the right place?”

He most certainly was. Shortly before the start of the conference, Holcomb celebrated the launch of the second phase of a $1.5 billion solar farm being built in Indiana by Israeli company Doral Renewables. His visit to Sharm El-Sheikh, the resort town where the conference was held, was the last stop on his fifth overseas economic development tour of the year.

The audience of world business and government leaders was an opportunity to cultivate new relationships that might help sustain economic growth in his state. The governor’s goal: To showcase Indiana as a suitable environment for new businesses and public-private partnerships.

To this audience, Holcomb acknowledged Indiana’s role as a manufacturing hub and its large carbon footprint. At the same time, he highlighted the strides the state and its industries have made in reducing it.

“You cannot build new, or rebuild crumbling roads and bridges and massive buildings, in rich or poor countries – or, for that matter, you can’t build most electric vehicles, wind turbines, or solar arrays without steel”, he noted. Then he lauded one of Indiana’s largest steel producers, Cleveland-Cliffs, for its success in reducing its carbon footprint. Among other projects, Cleveland-Cliffs is participating in a Department of Energy-funded carbon capture and sequestration project at its Burns Harbor facility that could, if successful, advance carbon capture opportunities throughout the industry.

He also boasted that the state had reduced its dependence on energy derived from coal by more than 30% since 2010. In fact, according to the American Clean Power Association, Indiana ranks fourth among states with the most clean energy capacity.

And he proudly spotlighted the recent agreement he signed with five other midwestern governors to collaborate on developing an electric vehicle infrastructure that will rely on $100 million in federal funding.

In Egypt and after, Holcomb has argued that market forces are not in agreement with Republican opposition to climate action, telling Politico that the choice in responding to climate change is “not an either-or proposition. It’s not either the economy or the environment. It can be both.” He wants to continue Indiana’s growth, and to do that the state needs continued business investment. His pitch to the audience at COP27 suggests he is a discerning marketer who recognizes a valuable business opportunity when he sees one.

That didn’t shield him from attack from fellow Republican David McIntosh, a former Indiana congressman and current president of the Club for Growth, which advocates for low taxes, deregulation, and a smaller federal government. Writing in the Indianapolis Star, McIntosh castigated “the supposedly conservative” Holcomb for joining and supporting “the UN’s COP27 climate conference”. McIntosh’s comments reflected the partisan orthodoxy that has been a hallmark of Republicanism for the last 20 years.

Ironically, despite his advocacy for growth, McIntosh failed to recognize that Holcomb went to Egypt as their state’s leading pitchman – one who fortunately has a good sense for market trends.

Newsom Aggressive as California Steps Up Adaptation to Climate Change

In the same analysis that placed Indiana as fourth among states with the most clean energy capacity, California ranked second, with about half as much generating capacity as Texas, which topped the roster. But California stands apart from Texas and all other states in its overwhelming lead in storage capacity for days when the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing.

Such storage is an integral part of Newsom’s plan to adapt to the warming planet’s clearly evident impact on Californians – record heat and extended drought that are producing water shortages, power outages, and deadly wildfires. Energy reliability and resilience are key elements of his plan, included in response to these two vulnerabilities in the state’s infrastructure:

  • Dependence on hydroelectric power is risky as the reservoirs used to generate that power dry up. Hydroelectric power generation was down 67% in 2021 from its 2017 peak, in part because the state’s second largest plant shut down due to low water levels in Lake Oroville, the reservoir that feeds it.
  • The potential for high winds knocking down transmission lines and sparking wildfires during extended dry periods has prompted development of plans to turn off power in high risk areas, meaning residents in those areas could be without air conditioning when they need it most. As recently as October, one utility issued warnings to residents of Los Angeles, Orange and San Bernardino counties that the return of the Santa Ana winds could result in purposeful power outages as transmission lines are powered down.

The plan calls for California to be powered entirely by clean energy by 2045. In 2020, the state met an interim target of 33% two years ahead of schedule. And this year, the state’s mix of clean energy sources, including renewables, hydroelectric, and nuclear power, is fulfilling 63% of the state’s energy needs.

This configuration, including more than 5,000 megawatts of battery storage capacity, is credited with helping the state make it through a historic September heat wave.

Mike Ferry, a research director at the University of California-San Diego Center for Energy Research, wrote the next month that the heat wave produced record demands for power – and the system proved up to the demand. He attributed this achievement to the state’s array of grid-connected batteries, documenting that at one critical peak, they delivered more power than the state’s largest electric generator, the nuclear plant at Diablo Canyon.

Water for drinking and farming is also top of mind for Californians as water use restrictions have become more commonplace in recent years. When he first took office in 2019, Newsom issued an executive order that required state agencies to develop a Water Resilience Portfolio. In August, Newsom announced an updated water supply strategy in response to projections of a hotter, drier future that could reduce the state’s existing supply by 10% over the next 18 years. The plan includes:

  • creating storage capacity to increase stormwater capture;
  • recycling and reusing wastewater;
  • increasing efficiency of water use and conservation; and
  • increasing the usable water supply by removing salt from greater volumes of ocean water and salty groundwater.

The plan is projected to yield enough water to sustain 8.4 million households – enough to replenish the water the state expects to lose due to hotter, drier weather. The legislature has already committed $8 billion over three years to modernizing its water infrastructure, and anticipates a need for at least $27 billion in the next two decades in local, state, and federal funding to reach its 2040 targets.

For the plan to succeed, Californians will need to continue its recent pattern of electing a majority of candidates to the governor’s mansion and the state legislature who are committed to limiting and adapting to the impacts of climate change. Those elected officials must possess the skill to retain the support and engagement of the local, regional, tribal, federal, and private entities whose collaboration is also necessary for their success.

In a country of 330 million people, and a world of 8 billion people, getting everyone’s priorities aligned for action on an existential issue like climate change is proving to be an excruciatingly slow and frustrating process. As if that challenge weren’t enough, climate change deniers have blocked progress and used the issue to divide the electorate and gain political power. Their efforts have contributed to a hyperpartisanship that has played an important part in our failures to achieve greater domestic and international collaboration to face down this common enemy.

And yet, at this critical juncture when the world’s nations are struggling to advance solutions and our own Congress appears headed for a new period of inaction, Governors Holcomb and Newsom demonstrate how courageous leadership can illuminate a path forward for those courageous enough to follow it.

Moving Your Community Forward

Resources abound to help governments, corporations, and local communities reduce their carbon footprint and adapt to existing and anticipated climate change impacts. Here are just a few:

Changing the Way Business Does Business

Ceres, a sustainability non-profit, has partnered with state agencies, corporations, and investors to help businesses incorporate more sustainability values in assessing their bottom line.

Assisting Local Communities

Institute for Sustainable Communities is a Vermont-based not-for-profit that helps local communities to build resilience to climate-related disruptions. It has worked with more than 700 communities across the 50 states.

“Deputizing” People at the Grassroots

The Climate Reality Project mobilizes people to make urgent action on climate change a necessity at every level of society. The project empowers anyone who is motivated to become an educator and activist equipped with the tools, training, and a network of other grassroots leaders to promote solutions and drive change. The group has trained more than 42,000 Climate Reality Leaders in over 170 countries. In the US alone, it has more than 18,000 chapter members.

Author: George Linzer
Contributing Editor: David Hawkings
Published on December 13, 2022

Feature image: Eric Holcomb photo by Indiana Governor’s office; Gavin Newsom photo by Gage Skidmore

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