‘We can't solve climate change without state legislators’: A conversation with Climate Cabinet Action's Caroline Spears
Caroline Spears grew up in Houston, the oil and gas capital of the world.
In 2018, a candidate running for election to the state legislature asked her for help talking with voters about climate action. Spears soon realized that many smaller, down-ballot campaigns needed that help, since they lacked staffers and questions about the climate crisis are rarely asked during presidential debates beyond whether candidates “believe” it.
In Texas, we live it. Increasingly costly, extraordinarily busy hurricane seasons, with more storms than letters in the alphabet, are imperiling our lives and property all summer long. Ozone seasons go on even longer, sometimes forcing us to stay inside for days at a time and always threatening our lungs with air quality that has never met federal, health-based standards — all fueled by an economy burning fossil fuels.
So, Spears tried to bring that home, writing customized briefs for 100 candidates running for the state legislature, and then she handed them out, one by one.
Since then, she’s founded Climate Cabinet Action, which does the same thing full time “at scale,” she says. Don’t have a climate staffer? Don’t know how to frame the issues for the voters you want to reach?
That’s where they come in. “We try to act as a resource to help candidates run, win and legislate on climate.”
I chatted with her ahead of the 87th Texas legislative session, which coincides with the beginning of the Biden-Harris administration, at the start of a very urgent four years to act to reduce emissions, protect against disasters and sea level rise, invest in clean energy, prioritize health and rebuild our economy.
This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Catherine Fraser: The Hobby School at the University of Houston released a study that found that 81 percent of Texans believe climate change is happening. But a lot of our state leaders aren't doing anything on climate change. Our governor, Greg Abbott, has repeatedly refused to meet with climate scientists. What do we need to do here in Texas to get our state leaders to act?
Caroline Spears: This is a problem throughout the country. We know Americans are worried about climate change and want to see solutions. We have polling going back years and years and years, different groups coming in and trying different questions, and it stays constant. So, the big question for me is, How on Earth do you go from an American public that overwhelmingly wants action on this issue to a state legislature and a congressional delegation that overwhelmingly deprioritizes it?
There has been some fascinating research that basically shows that when you ask congressional staffers how popular climate action is in their district, they underestimate it by 10 to 20 points.
So, we have a very set group of folks we need to persuade, and it's 7,383 state legislators across America, it's 535 people in Congress, and it's folks at the city and municipal level.
We focus exactly on who those decision-makers are and what they need to make decisions that are better and more in line with what their constituents believe. And it’s a big question. How do you get representatives to vote in line with the wishes and interests of the people they serve?
CF: Why do you think that staffers underestimate their constituents' opinions or thoughts? There probably are a lot of reasons ...
CS: If I had the answer to that, if anyone had the answer to that, we would have solved some problems already! But one interesting thing I've noticed is that clean energy breakthroughs have happened so incredibly fast that the media haven't caught up, and policymakers definitely haven't caught up.
People can't wrap their minds around an exponential curve, we've seen this with COVID. We've also seen this with some of the prices of clean energy technology, how much cheaper it’s getting, how many people it’s employing. It’s employing a quarter million Texans right now, and you have representatives in Congress who call wind and solar silly. They say, “Those are silly solutions.”
This is employing a quarter million Texans. It's definitionally a part of our economy, and it's definitionally not silly.
Because the energy landscape has changed so rapidly in the last 10 years, people are still getting their minds around it, and I think there’s a big difference between what's happening on the ground and what's making it into media narratives. People are used to thinking of renewable energy and climate solutions as expensive, and that's just not true anymore, but it takes a while for the technological innovation that we're seeing, and the jobs that are being created, to filter into the media landscape.
How do you solve that? You solve that with a PR strategy. The clean energy industry is starting to get a lot more organized, which I'm excited about, because it means that the media narratives will more accurately reflect what we're already seeing on the ground in our communities. Too often, we think of people running for office as recipients of narrative, and we don't think of them as creators of narrative.
From a PR perspective, campaigns are great messengers for the clean energy economy. These are folks who are naturally getting media attention, because they're running for office constantly. So, they have a critical role to play, saying, “Actually, these jobs are here, and I'm going to go tour some of these new energy technology facilities that are popping up all over Texas.”
CF: You don't focus as much at the national level. Why is that?
CS: There are two reasons. The most important one is that we can't solve climate change without state legislators.
We can't solve it without the federal government, either, but we saw an opportunity to add more capacity at the state level. State legislators decide how much clean energy goes on your electricity grid. They determine vehicle emissions standards. They decide, Are highways going to be pollution corridors that damage the neighborhoods around them, or are they going to be places with clean cars and clean trucks?
And they decide who gets natural disaster funding. As we're getting hit with more and more climate disasters, the state has methodologies that they use. The federal government provides money, and the state determines who gets it.
This exacerbates existing income inequality and existing racial inequality in Texas. After Harvey, Bloomberg compared the relief given to Houston-area communities, and one, more affluent white community got about $50,000 per affected resident, and the neighboring community, a community of color, got $84 per affected resident.
And that's up to the state. The state determines the metric for determining who gets money. It can also do a lot to build capacity to help communities figure out the maze of applying for that pot of money.
States are chronically underresourced. The average state legislator in America makes $24,000 a year and has fewer than two staff. In Texas, they make $7,000 every other year, so that's why we work the state level: states are critical for solving climate change, but chronically underresourced.
CF: So, maybe it varies depending on the district, but what do you think are the most effective messages for talking about climate in Texas?
CS: This is why I keep talking about clean energy. I have talked to pollsters who said they've never seen an issue poll like clean energy does. The exciting part is that it seems there isn't a lot of dropoff between different American communities: clean energy is supported by people in cities, suburbs and rural areas. There's just not the dropoff you get with a lot of other issues in America. And it's starting to track with people’s lived experiences. They’ve seen solar panels, they know those are jobs that can't be outsourced.
When I see people feeling defensive about the energy transition, I understand. I'm from an oil and gas family. I have family members who live off oil royalties, and I'm from Texas. But I'm also from Houston. I've evacuated from five hurricanes. Because I have family in the industry, I can name people who have lost jobs. When the ‘80s oil crash happened, that affected my family.
Oil and gas isn’t the most stable employment sector. These 20-year boom-and-bust cycles are devastating and hurt people's ability to stay afloat economically. Looking forward to a more stable future where energy is cheaper, and we have to create millions of good jobs to get there, seems like a strategy.
And it's a tough strategy, it's a strategy of change, but clean energy polls well because people like it. I look at Houston, and we're seeing LNG facilities have their contracts terminated because we are polluting so much as a state. Other countries are unwilling to buy natural gas from us.
We can get to a place where we manage a transition and have positive economic growth, and Houston continues to stay the energy capital of the world, or we can let that dominance slip away from us slowly and painfully over time, as we're getting hit with more hurricanes, more floods, more wildfires.
I feel very passionate about this, because I feel very strongly that Houston should stick around as a city! The way coal mines have gone? That cannot be our future. I refuse to let that be our future, but that's where we're headed if we have elected representatives who don't care about this new industry.
Fraser is a clean air associate with Environment Texas.
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