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Episode 192: How Local Elections Tackle Climate Change with Climate Cabinet's founder, Caroline Spears
Today's guest is Caroline Spears, Founder & Executive Director of Climate Cabinet. We discuss Caroline's upbringing in an oil & gas Texas family, how she became climate motivated, and Climate Cabinet's important role. Caroline also explains why candidates and races need customizable approaches to climate policy, the Climate Cabinet Score, and how the team determines which races are their top priorities. Caroline is a fantastic guest, and this episode is a must-listen for those interested in making significant impacts at the polls.
As always, please consider giving us a rating or leaving a review. We heard that helps spread the word about our little show and engages more folks in the climate fight!
Just take it from the top, what is Climate Cabinet?
Climate Cabinet, helps candidates run, win, and legislate on the climate crisis. We do this through two things. We do candidate engagement and we do accountability. So we work with folks who are running for office or thinking about running for office, helping them develop the current plan that works for their community. And we also do accountability. We have the largest database on local elections and their climate impact in the country. And they use this to identify overlooked state and local officials that have a big potential impact on climate.
It sounds like the roots of the organization were that you looked at these local races and these elected officials or aspiring elected officials, recognize the importance of the issue and that they needed to say something and have a platform that stands for something, but they didn't feel informed to put that together. And thus, you stepped in, it sounds like initially, informally, on a one-off basis to help inform them and pull these plans together. Climate Cabinet was started to do that more systematically across a wider range of campaigns. Is that right?
Fundamentally, this is what we're going towards, right? We know state and local policies it's absolutely critical for solving climate change. Whether bill like better passes, whether the bill doesn't pass. State and local policy is already responsible for half of all clean energy belts. And according to research by Bloomberg Philanthropies, it's probably gonna be responsible for two-thirds of our progress towards our Paris goals. State and local, two-thirds of our progress towards our Paris goals. This, uh, this area is, is so critical.
And so what we need is every person running for office at every level of government needs to know exactly what their climate plan, they need to be ready on day one with a climate plan, with how they're gonna, how they're gonna act on climate in their office and they have a lot of authority to make big changes. And so that's, that's the world we're, we're building towards.
Is it one size fits all with a climate plan or does it need to be customized for every single candidate in every single race?
It's both, right? There are fundamental principles of climate change that we know that isn't gonna change no matter where you are. If you're in a place we know renewable energy is gonna be key, we know what we need to do on the renewable energy battery's transmission. We have the solutions to climate change already. What we do at Climate Cabinet is work to build political will towards those solutions. And so that's, that's what we do. Yeah, there are gonna be variations depending on where you are. The biggest place you see this is in transit systems. Like the design of a great public transit system that meets people's needs, it's gonna be really customized.
Do you know what the biggest barrier to public transit systems is? It's political will and funding. And so, you know, there are a lot of ways that folks kind of take this, that folks customize this to make this local. And that's what we do. We help folks figure out a climate plan that works for their community with their basic principles that guide everyone we work with along the way.
There are certain times when doing so I would imagine, doing what's best for the climate also does what's best for getting elected. But then I would imagine, there are also other times where you have to choose between the boldest climate plan or the thing that your voters want to hear. So how do you navigate in those situations where getting elected and both climate plans are not aligned?
Well, we have one big ally on our side here, which is that the American public is already down. You look at any port in any area of the United States, you go to the reddest county in America, guess where solar poles? It's above water. People love renewable energy, and this is true across the country. And you look at, okay, you take just renewable energy. You look at electric vehicles, you look at different technologies, you look at reducing air pollution in schools and increased air pollution monitoring. And all of these things are popular with folks. It's elected officials who were running behind the American public on what we should be doing on this issue.
And we know this, anecdotally, we know this broadly. We also know this because there's some great political science research that's been done. There was this great paper that interviewed congressional staffers about how popular climate policies were in his district. Congressional staffers underestimated the popularity of climate solutions in their own district by 20 points. So for us, the question isn't are we gonna find any climate solutions that are popular? We know in every community in America, no matter where you are, there are climate solutions that are popular for that community. The question is let's find them. And why aren't our public officials doing more to push for this?
But popularity factors into the components of the plans that you propose?
Climate Cabinet helps folks run, win, and legislate on climate. There's a really important word in that, which is win. Our goal is every candidate should be equipped with the boldest climate policy possible that will help them win. So yeah, when we're working with a candidate, we'll talk to them they'll say, "What issues are you running on? Tell us about your plan to win? What issues are, are pulling really well in your district?" If it's kid's health, guess what? We know a lot of ways of making kids’ health better with climate solutions. The big one is electric school buses. Do you really want diesel buses idling at the bus stop spewing diesel into where kids are? You really don't. So there are, in every community, no matter where you're running, there are things that align with climate that can help someone win. And it's a matter of figuring out what those are and talking to folks.
Is it quantitative or qualitative or a mix in terms of what makes an election a top target? And, and how do you define, how do you know when, when you evaluate an election if they're a top target or not?
It's two things. We look at their climate score and we look at their political vulnerability. So we look at what's their climate score, it's just how they voted on major climate and environmental injustice issues in the past. And the political vulnerability is how tough of election are they in next cycle. So you really take the statistical outliers from both of those. You have someone who's voting terribly on climate and is really running a tough race this year, they're gonna make our list. Because they, that's an opportunity for a massive climate win. You take someone who's incredible on climate, there are Climate Champion in the state legislature that they're in and the city council that they're in, they're r- running a really tough race, they make the list. So that's how we determine it.
We look at climate votes. So we're looking at solar and electrification, we're also really looking at what they're doing to clean up air pollution and clean up air pollution specifically in frontline communities and toxic hotspots. These places where we've said, you know, low-income communities and communities of color are gonna get the brunt of all of our pollution. We look at how they voted on plans to specifically fix that harm. We look at their plans for when a climate disaster hits. Do they vote for things that help us build back equitably or do they vote for things that make systemic problems worse?
So when a climate disaster hits, a lot of the ways the current dollars are set up is there's a lot of cost-benefit analysis. When a climate disaster hits and someone says, "Okay, who's gonna get the federal relief dollars?" There's a lot of things that really shut renters out of the process. There's a lot of things that shut low-income folks out of the process. This very high barrier to entry for filling out all this government paperwork and filling up on it a lot. And all of these things mean that when climate disaster hits and federal money gets to folks, it goes to wealthier communities, it goes to wider communities. It's making all of the systemic problems we have as a society worse. So we also look at, for example, how they're voting on, on issues like that.
Now you've mentioned that there's popular will and you've also mentioned that the politicians increasingly undercount the popular will. Given that human beings are selfish creatures by nature and that politicians selfishly want to get elected, if that's really true, then what incentive do they have to do so and why is that occurring?
You're asking the fundamental question underlying a lot of fierce debate right now, which is the American people are down for a lot of stuff that politicians aren't. And so there's this gap between what politicians do and what people want to see happen. You look at something like minimum wage increases that are incredibly popular. You look at things like the Affordable Care Act, which, you know, by the time it tried to get repealed and that repeal attempt happened in 2018, was an incredibly popular piece of legislation. I mean, having healthcare with, for people with pre-existing medical conditions? That's really popular. And you know what? It almost got repealed.
So you're asking a question more fundamental about what's going on with American democracy is such that our elected leaders are not in tune with what individual folks want to have happened. And I think a few things are going on there. I think the radicalization of the Republican Party, you know, there's a lot of reasons for it. I think the radicalization we've seen from the Republican Party is, is not helpful. January 6th is in two days. That was a year ago. If you're asking politicians to act rationally, we have a lot of state legislators storming the Capitol on January 6th. So I wish I had a beautiful answer to that question of why politicians aren't doing things that the American people want. But you're asking a very rational question in the international landscape.
But take that radicalization of the Republican Party, you know, if the Republican Party is getting radicalized, then how can that be if it's against the will of the people given that the people elect the politicians to office?
Let me put it this way. You live in Massachusetts?
Can you name all of your state senators and state legislators?
Can you name your city council member?
Do you know what they voted on last session?
Great. So what are you making your decision on when you vote for them in November?
I cram before I go in there to try to at least have some semblance so that I can make sure I can semi-intelligently fill out the ballot with far from perfect information.
Totally. Your experience is the experience that most people have. And so are you voting really on the policies that they're passing? Do you know about the policies that they're passing you're voting based on those policies? No. You're voting on other stuff. You're voting on what you hear. The last mile. And I think when you look at last-mile media, when you look at most radio stations in the country and what the content of those radio stations are, you know, get Fox News, a classic punching bag. When you look at the top 10 shares on Facebook every week…
You know what the top 10 shares on Facebook every week are? There's this reporter who tweets them out. It's like Breitbart, Breitbart, Donald Trump, Breitbart, Breitbart. People aren't tracking what their state legislators' voting on. They're tracking what they're hearing, and that's what they're making their voting decision on. This is like a democracy problem, which is we need accountability based on what our elected officials are doing to make people's lives better. So people can have a lot of opinions on policies. But those policies aren't translating at the ballot box and that's a fundamental problem. And it's a mile media problem.
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