Leah Stokes on climate issues near and far

Despite its identity as the birthplace of the environmental movement, Santa Barbara still has a long way to go before it can call itself a truly “green” city. Leah Stokesadjunct professor of political science at UCSB and this year’s recipient of the university’s award Harold J. Plous Award, awarded for excellence in research, teaching and service. As Election Day — and its implications for U.S. climate action — fast approach, Stokes is aiming for an expert eye on the response the climate crisis demands at the national and local levels.

One would be hard-pressed to find a better local voice on this than Leah Stokes, who worked in Canada’s Parliament and with the nonprofit research institution Resources for the Future before earning her doctorate in public policy from MIT. in 2015. Since then, his work at UCSB has focused on energy and environmental policy, politics, and political behavior in the United States.

Stokes is also highly regarded by its students, receiving 4.9 out of 5 stars on RateMyTeachers, a site where students anonymously rate their teachers. “Every political science student knows that PS15 is the least preferred pre-requisite…but Professor Stokes creates a class that turns unappealing statistics into a dope subject,” one student wrote. Another said: “Each lecture is not only clear and informative, but also hilarious.”

In a conversation earlier this month, Stokes asserted that climate action must come from the federal level in order to set the rules of the road for the whole country. “If we had a 100% clean electricity standard by 2035, as Joe Biden pledged to do, that would dramatically scale up action across the country, even in California where the current goal is to 100%. [clean electricity] by 2045,” she said. Stokes pointed out that the federal government also has the financial resources to tackle climate change on the scale required, while many local budgets remain strapped for resources to deal with COVID.


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This does not mean that local governments do not have a role to play. Stokes pointed to the building sector as an area where local governments can play a leading role, whether through building codes, requirements banning fossil gas in new buildings or rebates for homeowners replacing gas heating and cooking systems with electric units. “Santa Barbara has long been focused on architectural overhaul — what are our buildings going to look like? — but not focused enough on what happens inside buildings,” she said, pointing to cities like Berkeley. and San Luis Obispo as models for phasing out gas.

Even these places, however, face obstacles. Stokes book Short Circuit Policy examines how utilities and interest groups have promoted climate denial and weakened clean energy laws. Our local bad actor, she said, is SoCalGas. The utility used taxpayer money to fund front groups promoting natural gas, including one called Californians for Balanced Energy Solutions, which opposed San Luis Obispo’s decision to adopt a gas code. promoting the construction of fully electric buildings. The group delayed voting on the new code in March by threatening to bus into hundreds of protesters not practicing social distancing. “It’s the same public service that was responsible for the massive methane leak at Porter Ranch“, recalled Stokes. “We really need to get out of fossil gas. Not only are they not helping people do this, but they’re getting in the way of local governments… trying to take action.

Utilities and fossil fuel companies, Stokes said, are using similar tactics in elections everywhere, funding primary candidates to run against Republicans who support climate action. It sends the message that Republicans need to oppose action on climate change to stay competitive with their constituents. Republicans today, according to Stokes, “struggle to articulate an independent view of these polluting industries.”

As interest groups sow political doubt about climate action, Stokes said the media needed to highlight the links between climate change and people’s experiences of natural disasters – like the rainy season. unprecedented wildfires this year – in real time. Without it, she said, people think more about the costs of climate action than the costs of inaction: “lives lost in mudslides, or endless drought in our region. . sea level rise, coastal erosion”.

Again, with some exceptions, Stokes said she sees far too little of this type of reporting. Santa Barbara badly needs it: we have already warmed by two degrees Celsius, twice the global average. “There are projections that by 2050 our region could be a desert,” Stokes warned. “If people like this place, they need to realize that climate change is happening now, and we need to talk about it.”

The way we speak, however, also matters to Stokes. Asked about an April editorial in the Independent which advocated personal behavior changes to mitigate climate change, Stokes said that message was misguided. “Old-school environmentalism was very much about recycling or your individual carbon footprint. What new school environmentalism is about is looking at the actors that structure our society – governments, corporations,” she said. “They need to change the structure of our society so that we can all have easy choices to make for low-carbon living.”

She came back to San Luis Obispo as an example: people needed the city to pass an energy code to encourage gas-free buildings, and they needed SoCalGas to be held accountable when the service’s front group audience intervened. Similarly, in Santa Barbara, those who want to reduce emissions while biking might not feel safe due to the city’s lack of protected bike lanes. Adding more, according to Stokes, would allow more people to make that choice. In each case, she said, governments and companies “condition our ability to act in an environmentally responsible way.”

Advocating for behavior change, Stokes added, leads people to associate climate action with personal sacrifice – a narrative that doesn’t sell well, especially among disadvantaged groups struggling with widespread income inequality by race. and sex. “That’s what the retarders and deniers want to frame,” Stokes pointed out. “They want you to think, ‘I don’t want to do climate action because it’s going to cost me something.’ No, this is going to be extremely beneficial for you, especially for the people of Santa Barbara!

Focusing on these benefits could provide a safer path forward. Overhauling national energy systems and infrastructure, while daunting, could lead to significant job creation. Highlighting this, Stokes said – along with other tangible benefits like clean air and lower energy bills – will more effectively garner support for climate action than encouraging people to “do what we need” for the environment. Stokes’ New Podcast, A matter of degreescovers this topic in its first episode.

Whether those benefits materialize, Stokes said, could depend on the November election. In his mind, voting is an area where personal behavior really matters. She pointed out that environmental justice was also considered in this election, such as Joe Biden’s climate platform, which promised to target 40% of its $1.7 trillion climate plan to disadvantaged communities, which will be hardest hit by climate change. Not everyone in those communities, Stokes recalled, can vote for such an outcome. “There are people in this country who are undocumented; they cannot vote. Some young people will be most affected by climate change; they cannot vote. Stokes urged citizens to consider these people when voting – or when deciding whether or not to vote.

Overall, Stokes described Biden’s climate platform as the most ambitious of any presidential candidate, or any state, in history. “Honestly, I’m very excited about Joe Biden’s climate platform, and that’s not how I felt going into the primary,” she said. “I don’t feel like there’s room here for disillusionment.”

Stokes’ research will be a highlight of the Plous lecture she will give this spring at UCSB, as well as the need for swift and meaningful climate action at all levels of government.


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Teresa H. Sadler