Who Pays for Environmental Policy? Business Power and the Design of State-Level Climate Policies

Politics and Society

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To what extent and through which means do private actors shape public policy? Research has been complicated by actors' tendency to misrepresent their policy preferences and by the difficulty of operationalizing policy substance. This theory-building study uses qualitative methods and triangulation of multiple sources of evidence to mitigate these challenges. Confronted with puzzling patterns of variation in the design of state-level climate policies, I show how a two-dimensional framework attentive to the economically-motivated preferences of business actors explains policy design. Drawing on policy texts, archival documents, and 111 policy-focused interviews, I find business preferences were fragmented, but that a single type of private actor, investor-owned utilities, ultimately prevailed in achieving their preferences in every case. I theorize the sources of their unmatched influence, and find that their distinctiveness is precisely what makes them powerful. My findings have implications for the study of business power and for understanding obstacles to equitable climate policymaking.

Climate Conflict in the U.S. States: A Critical Review and Way Forward

Climatic Change

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Many U.S. states have taken significant action on climate change in recent years, demonstrating their commitment despite federal policy gridlock and rollbacks. Yet, there is still much we do not know about the agents, discourses, and strategies of those seeking to delay or obstruct state-level climate action. We first ask, what are the obstacles to strong and effective climate policy within U.S. states? We review the political structures and interest groups that slow action, and we examine emerging tensions between climate justice and the technocratic and/or market-oriented approaches traditionally taken by many mainstream environmental groups. Second, what are potential solutions for overcoming these obstacles? We suggest strategies for overcoming opposition to climate action that may advance more effective and inclusive state policy, focusing on political strategies, media framing, collaboration, and leveraging the efforts of ambitious local governments.

"It Happened Behind Closed Doors:" Legislative Buffering as an Informal Mechanism of Political Mediation

Mobilization: An International Quarterly, Volume 24, Issue 3

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The political mediation model explains movement policy outcomes ranging from complete failure to total success. However, the qualitative mechanisms through which political mediation occurs empirically remain understudied, especially as they relate to the content-specifying stages of the legislative process. Furthermore, while we know that political mediation is context-dependent, key elements of what political context entails remain underspecified. This article addresses these gaps by tracing the influence of a coalition of social movement organizations (SMOs) seeking to simultaneously shape the content of two major climate bills in a progressive U.S. state where the climate movement enjoys a relatively favorable political context overall. Comparing the divergent trajectories and outcomes of the two bills illuminates the process of legislative buffering, which is conceptualized as an informal mechanism of political mediation. The comparative analysis also reveals situational elements of political context that can present additional hurdles movements must overcome to maximize their success.

Coalitions That Clash: California's Climate Leadership and the Perpetuation of Environmental Inequality

Research in Political Sociology, Volume 28

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At a time when the U.S. federal government refuses to act on climate change, much has been made of California's success as a leader in subnational climate policy. However, as we show in this article, California's landmark climate law divided, rather than unified, the state's environmental movement. In this article, we document the protracted political conflict between the state's environmental justice-oriented movement, on the one hand, and a coalition of market-oriented environmental organizations, private corporations, and state actors, on the other. While the justice-oriented movement emphasized command-and-control regulations that they argued would allow the state to reduce greenhouse gas emissions while also addressing local pollution and reducing environmental inequality within the state, the market-oriented coalition conditioned its support on a market-based mechanism for achieving statewide emissions reductions. Drawing on legislative and regulatory texts, archival material, and policy-focused interviews with the full range of political actors with a stake in this conflict over how the state's climate policies would ultimately be designed, we trace the policy preferences and influence of both the justice-oriented movement and the market-oriented coalition over time. We argue that while the state's landmark climate policy has largely conformed to the preferences of the market-oriented coalition, the political influence of the justice-oriented movement is currently on the rise. Our analysis sheds light on structural inequalities in the policymaking process as well as contributes to our understanding of coalition-building between social movements and non-movement actors.

Private Power in the U.S. States: Business Interests and the Design of State-Level Climate and Renewable Energy Policies

Dissertation, department of sociology, Northwestern University

Link to Dissertation

In the absence of significant federal policy to mitigate climate change, many U.S. states have stepped in to fill the void. But the policies these states have adopted vary considerably in their quality. For example, California's economy-wide greenhouse gas policy was significantly stronger than Massachusetts', which was significantly stronger than Oregon's. All three states also adopted renewable portfolio standards policies that contained extraneous provisions that shifted costs associated with the transition away from fossil fuels, toward renewable sources of electricity. The literature on state-level climate and renewable energy policy is wide-ranging, but does not adequately address the role of business interests in explaining this sort of variation in state-level policy design and quality. This is surprising, given that explanations for the lack of federal policy often center on the power of private interests. In this dissertation, I develop a new framework that accounts for the policy preferences and political power of the full spectrum of private actors with an interest in these policies. Based on an analysis of legislative and regulatory texts, archival material, and 111 policy-focused interviews with policymakers, public interest advocates, and corporate lobbyists, I find that business actors fell into one of three categories based on their preferences regarding the content of these policies. The most politically powerful of these three categories was the investor-owned utilities, whose preferences, combined with variation in the political power of the remaining two categories across the three states, largely explain this policy variation. My findings contribute to sociological and political science debates about business power and democratic representation as well as empirical studies of state-level environmental policy.
Please contact me to request access to the full text of this dissertation.

How Investor-Owned Utilities Can Be Induced to Support Reforms to Mitigate Climate Change

Scholars Strategy Network Basic Facts Policy Brief

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Private (investor-owned) utility companies are often assumed to be part of the "fossil fuel industry." But in some states, they have been powerful allies in support of climate policies. In this policy brief, I discuss how those states have managed to incentivize these companies to support, rather than block, their climate change mitigation efforts.

The U.S.-Canada (Clean) Electricity Relationship: Challenges and Opportunities in Policy Design and Coordination

North American Colloquium (NAC) on Climate Policy, Invited Paper Series

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In the context of both the United States’ and Canada’s commitments to greening the electricity sector to combat the climate crisis, there is a glaring asymmetry that characterizes the two countries’ existing electricity relationship: Canada has an abundance of large-scale, legacy hydroelectricity while the U.S. electric sector remains dominated by fossil fuels. How do existing public policies in the two countries take into account this asymmetry, and what should be done about it, if both countries are to realize their climate goals as soon as possible? This report provides an analysis of existing electric sector policies on both sides of the border, focusing in particular on the varying, uncoordinated design of renewable portfolio standards (RPS) policies in seven northeastern U.S. states. We argue that these policies send mixed signals regarding the desirability of increasing Canadian hydroelectricity imports and that this creates both economic and environmental inefficiencies. In order to correct for these, we advocate for coordinated, federal-level policies in both countries that incentivize the expansion of cross-border transmission capacity while considering equity issues and local impacts. In addition to offering policy recommendations, our analysis contributes to the academic literature on subnational and regional climate policy by applying a distributive politics framework and illustrating a potential drawback of the state-level/provincial-level “race to the top” phenomenon that has characterized North American climate policymaking over the past two decades.

Review of Following in Footsteps or Marching Alone? (University of Michigan Press, 2023)

Publius: The Journal of Federalism

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I review Srinivas C. Parinandi's Following in Footsteps or Marching Alone?, about the diffusion of renewable portfolio standards (RPS) policy features across the American states. As I write, this book is "an important contribution to political science literatures on state-level policy diffusion, climate and renewable energy policymaking, and of course, American federalism."

Review of Divided by the Wall (University of California Press, 2020)

Contemporary sociology, Volume 50, Issue 5

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I review Emine Fidan Elcioglu's Divided by the Wall, an important and timely contribution to political sociology, race and immigration studies, and the study of social movements.

Additional information on all of my publications and manuscripts-in-progress can be found on my CV.