Barnabas Gwaza

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Short Circuiting Policy

Dr. Leah Stokes’ Short-Circuiting Policy describes and analyzes the inner workings of American climate policy from the author’s perspective as a political scientist. The book was published a few years ago, in 2020, but it remains a relevant read to this day. Climate policy that meets the scale of the climate crisis has evaded us for decades, in large part due to the forces that Dr. Stokes details in her book.

At the center of her theory of policy change are special interest groups– primarily the fossil fuel industry, electrical utilities, and its beneficiaries. Dr. Stokes examines the role of these interest groups in notable climate policy scenarios of the past and present. One of the scenarios  that I found particularly interesting was the clean energy transition in Texas. Today, Texas would not be thought of as a vanguard of climate policy, but back in 1999, that’s exactly what it was. 

Texas passed a historic clean energy bill in 1999 as part of a larger reform of the electricity sector, which mandated timelines for the state to build out clean energy infrastructure, primarily wind power. At the time, Texas derived less than one percent of its energy from renewable sources, but a decade later, that number leaped to 12%, ahead of most of the world. The hope was that this bill would weaken the grip of fossil fuel industries over the energy sector, and it inspired other states across the country to set their own clean energy targets. The bill was a success in revenue and job creation in the renewables market, and led to bipartisan coalitions with interest groups to build on this success. 

In 2005, Texas enacted an even more ambitious bill, with the aim to expand the use of solar power. However, this time, the desired impacts of the policy did not materialize. Despite the policies written into law in 1999 and 2005, Texas is now behind on clean energy. In Short-Circuiting Policy, Dr. Stokes takes us through why this was the case in Texas and how its dynamics can be observed in other climate policy scenarios around the country, to a similar end. 

As Dr. Stokes puts it, climate policy is a battleground of interest groups. Fossil fuel and utility groups have deeper pockets, expansive inter-state networking, and an outsized influence over politicians and public opinion, while climate advocates are new kids on the block struggling to disrupt the deeply-entrenched status quo. The author does an excellent job of explaining the mechanisms and stages of policymaking, how these can often favor those already in power, and why well-intended policies can often fail to have the desired effect. 

Policy Pathways 

One essential nature of policy offered by the author is that “policies reshape politics” through a process called policy feedback. Policy can reallocate resources, rights, and privileges to favor one interest group over another. If the interests of one group are favored by the law, that group’s influence grows and the impact of the policy is  even more pronounced, reinforcing itself over time. 

If this policy feedback loop is achieved, the policy is said to have achieved “lock-in”. However, many policies fail to reach lock-in, and are reversed. This is known as retrenchment. In this case, the policy has failed to reshape politics, because its implementation has been contested and the desired effects stymied. Policy feedback is conditional, as Dr. Stokes explains, and the battle towards lock-in favors the incumbent interest group. 

A second characteristic of policy development that is essential in understanding the undulating success of policy is the “fog of enactment”. Dr. Stokes explains the inherent ambiguity of developing a policy because of the gap between the expectations of what a policy will do, and its actual outcome. There is no way that either  proponents or opponents can be certain of the impacts of any given policy, but after implementation, the fog of enactment clears and interest groups update their strategy in promoting or attacking the policy (or similar policies). They do so by relying on their knowledge, networks, lobbying of lawmakers and regulators, and their influence over political parties, the public, and the court of law.  

Interest Group Tactics

Dr. Stokes shows that one consistent tactic of interest groups against climate policy is to delay and deny. In the case of climate change, interest groups promote denial of scientific data showing the environmental, safety, or public health hazards and even when acknowledged, they downplay the impacts of emissions.
Interest groups tend to sway public opinion through misinformation, marketing, economic fear-mongering, and polarization. They present their agendas to political leaders as grassroots opinions through a process known as “astroturfing” in order to sway political decisions in their favor.

In the time following the success of climate policy in the red state of Texas, then-presidential nominee George Bush touted the policy in his campaign, even though he was not very instrumental in the passage nor implementation of the policy. This highlights the fact that climate policy is not intrinsically a partisan issue, but the polarization seen today is the work of incumbent interest groups leveraging their influence. 

One way that interest groups do this is by backing the opponents of politicians who do not support their preferred policy. Another way they do this is through donations to political parties. Interest groups also influence policy implementation by taking to the courts to argue about the interpretation of the policy’s language, and try to water down that language so that the climate policy can’t be as effective.

Final Thoughts

 One thing the author downplayed at the time of writing this book was the influence of courts as a tool that can be influenced by lobby groups. In 2022, the courts played a significant role in climate policy. For example, the Supreme Court intervened to restrict the authority of the EPA to regulate carbon emissions from power plants. A more recent forensic examination of short-circuiting policy by interest groups will make the connection between the influence of lobby groups on lawmakers, and the role of lawmakers in Supreme Court appointments. The hotly-contested appointments of recent Supreme Court nominees along party lines suggests that these judges are not only within reach of the influence of interest groups, but may be appointed to act almost on behalf of interest groups.
Dr. Leah Stokes takes the mask off what we see as our normal political process and paints a stark picture of why and how climate policies fail. In so doing, Dr. Stokes gives us insight into the ways we can indeed advance clean energy and climate policy in America. I view this as essential reading for everyone who is interested in government action on climate and clean energy. By understanding what we are up against, we become more effective advocates and increase our chances of winning real change.

The book is easily digestible, and remarkably concise for the amount of research and analysis presented. The author is neither triumphant about environmental progress  nor is she pessimistic. She remains grounded in the reality of climate policy development and implementation– challenges and opportunities alike.