Why advanced energy is winning, despite federal odds (and oddities)

The states haven't hung up their gloves.
ShutterstockSergey Nivens
The states haven't hung up their gloves.

As soon as President Donald Trump announced his decision to withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement, criticism from world leaders and CEOs across traditional and social media magnified the issue, catalyzing marches and protests across the country. Former Secretary of State John Kerry described the choice as "self-destructive."

The CEO of energy giant AEP declared that in spite of the decision, his company would continue on its path of moving to a clean energy economy. The reaction may have surprised both supporters and critics of an agreement that received little fanfare when it was first signed. An analysis of media coverage by the Brookings Institution showed that the climate talks received incomplete coverage  and a fraction of the attention received by ISIS.

In the mid-1980s, pioneering psychologists Kahneman and Tversky demonstrated that humans tend to value gains less than they fear losses. Known as "loss aversion," this principle helps explain why some companies use trial ownership periods to sell products. People lose more satisfaction when they give up something than they gain when acquiring that thing in the first place.

The theory also may explain why the Paris Agreement received so much more attention when the White House decided to withdraw than when it was first written, signed or taken into effect. Could it be that observers cared more about losing the Paris Agreement than they did about signing it?

According to Google Trends, during the week of the withdrawal, the term "Paris Climate Agreement" was searched 63 times more than it was over the past 18 months, on average.

There is no way to know whether this rampant search activity was conducted in celebration or concern, but concern seems more likely. According to a Yale survey, nearly 70 percent of American voters — including a majority in each of the 50 states — supported staying in the agreement.

In the wake of the withdrawal, Van Jones forecasted a "greenlash," or a redoubling of commitments by activists, business leaders and politicians to address climate change. Legislators in Hawaii were first to act, passing a law that aligned state energy policy with the goals of the Paris Agreement.

Another stroke of greenlash may be evidenced through increased searches for the phrase "climate change," which have tripled since the withdrawal as compared to the past five years. If web searches are a proxy for awareness, we’ve never had a nation more tuned in to climate change.

Somehow during its brief life, the U.S. commitment to the Paris Agreement gained celebrity status.

And it’s no wonder, considering the progress that's been made toward a low-carbon future even within states that voted for Trump back in November.

Two days after that election, the Michigan state legislature voted to increase the state’s commitment to renewable energy. It also chose to leave utility energy efficiency programs on course to deliver meaningful energy savings and carbon reductions.

In Pennsylvania, which supplied its 20 electoral votes to the Trump/Pence ticket, regulators are crafting a new approach to regulating the state’s electric utilities to streamline the adoption of advanced energy technologies. Just days after the inauguration, Pennsylvania's iconic Homer City coal-fired power plant, which boasts the world’s third tallest smokestack, filed for bankruptcy for the second time in five years.

In Florida, the energy efficiency standard has followed an on-again, off-again path. And yet, the state’s largest utility spends more than $200 million each year on cost-effective energy efficiency and expects to continue this until at least 2024. Meanwhile, regulators are getting ready to review updated utility energy efficiency plans from across the state.

Finally, after completing a three-year trial period, Louisiana utilities and regulators are outlining the next phase of an energy efficiency program to ensure customers are getting the benefits of cost-effective energy savings.

The regulatory activity in these states — and dozens of others — may be a much better barometer of climate policy than the Paris Agreement. State policies reflect what politicians and energy users are willing to accept on a local level. They are written by regulators who were plucked out of area businesses, evaluated by in-state staff for local economic impacts, commented on by resident stakeholders, and carried out by utility staff who are under constant public pressure to raise the bar on customer service.

These decision-makers understand economic gains in the microcosm of their communities. They understand the benefits of advanced energy jobs and cost savings that go along with improvements to energy use. And because they are on the front lines, they are more sensitive to the financial risks of climate change.

Given the abundance of state and local efforts to embed new and more efficient technologies into our energy system, the decision to withdraw from the Paris Agreement seems out of touch with reality. Its model of federalism should have pleased Republicans because the agreement itself did little other than invite countries to make feasible de-carbonization pledges. It would have acted as a soft catalyst for continued investment in the kinds of cost-effective policies and projects we see across the country.

Against federal odds (and oddities), advanced energy is winning.