Climate change is on the ballot this November—and every elected official in Georgia has a role to play in fighting it

Despite another year of extreme heat, storms, floods, and wildfires, the climate crisis is still a neglected topic in electoral politics. But state leaders, from the governor on down, should be taking action.

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How climate will impact the 2022 elections

Photograph by Virginie Kippelen

Summer is getting weirder. And scarier. There’s the heat: Record-high temperatures in July in the United Kingdom offered a preview of what’s supposed to be an average summer reading across Europe as soon as 2035. In Pakistan, a punishing heat wave, with temperatures exceeding 120 degrees, was followed by flooding that affected a third of the country, leaving at least 1,500 people dead and displacing more than 33 million. There are the storms: In late September, Nova Scotia was lashed by the strongest in Canadian history, post-tropical cyclone Fiona, the remnants of a hurricane that had already left behind mass power outages and catastrophic flooding in Puerto Rico. Another hurricane, Ian, was simultaneously forming over the Atlantic Ocean. As this article went to press, Floridians were only starting to reckon with the trail of destruction the latter storm had left across the state, while residents of Whitesburg, Kentucky, continued to dig through the rubble of their own floods—which inundated the small Appalachian town in July, killing dozens.

The nonprofit Union of Concerned Scientists has taken to calling the period between May and October “danger season.” Climbing global temperatures have an intensifying effect on climatic processes: Storms get stronger, heat waves get hotter, the oceans warm and rise. A recent study projected that, in the U.S. in 30 years, 107 million people (up from 8 million today) will be exposed to “extreme” heat, or a heat index in excess of 125 degrees. Some counties in Georgia can expect to experience more than six weeks of triple-digit heat, according to an analysis by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution—temperatures that will be life-threatening to people who work outside, like farmworkers and construction workers. They can also be life-threatening to those who aren’t outside—if, for instance, their air conditioning is down during a power outage, an event whose likelihood increases as temperatures go up. Heat is the deadliest kind of weather event.

There are also the less dramatic, but no less severe, consequences—climate change as a chronic condition in addition to climate change as a series of disasters. Shorter, warmer winters threaten Georgia’s agriculture industry, including our state fruit—peach trees require a certain amount of cool weather each winter before successfully blooming in the spring. In coastal communities like Tybee Island, roads have become more frequently impassable due to flooding, and a series of hurricanes in recent years propelled many homeowners to raise their houses off the ground on wooden pilings. A 2017 article in the journal Science estimated that parts of the South and the Midwest are more vulnerable to climate-related economic damage than other areas of the country, like the Northeast; some counties in warmer areas of the U.S., the study projected, could see losses worth up to 20 percent of their gross domestic product by the 2080s.

This is the background against which election season in Georgia got underway, though it has remained, largely, in the background. Of the candidates for statewide office, fewer than half mentioned climate change on their websites, though all positions have a role to play in forestalling some of its worst effects. That is also the good news: There is still time to forestall the worst effects of a warming planet. There is, too, the will to act: A 2022 survey by Georgia Tech, the University of Georgia, and the polling firm Dynata found that 60 percent of Georgians support the implementation of a statewide goal for reducing greenhouse gas emissions; 70 percent supported new solar power in the state; 64 percent supported new wind power; and only 30 percent supported the construction of new coal-fired power plants.

It’s a math problem: We know how much greenhouse gas humans have added to the atmosphere, and how much the globe has warmed as a result. We can project how much we’ll add in various future scenarios, and how much warming that may contribute to. We have a sense of what the effects may be as the global thermometer ticks up. We’re feeling them already, and they will get worse—a certain amount of weather volatility, even if all greenhouse emissions ceased tomorrow, is now locked into the Earth’s climatic cycles.

We know, too, what needs to be done. We know the bottom line—stop adding warming gases to the atmosphere—and we know the specific solutions that will allow us to get there: the cessation of fossil fuel combustion and its replacement with renewable sources like solar and wind. We have the technology. We have the calculations showing the benefits, both the immediate benefits (for instance, to the health of communities living in proximity to sources of pollution, often low-income communities and communities of color) and the long-term, big-picture, we-avoided-the-apocalypse benefits. The big-picture achievement would be no small thing: The present trajectory, which could heat the planet by five or six degrees Fahrenheit, is toward a world “where civilizations won’t be able to function in the ways we’re used to them functioning,” writes the journalist and climate activist Bill McKibben. (Some projections put us in this temperature range, barring dramatic action to reduce global emissions, by the end of this century.) “We don’t know where the civilizational red lines are, only that we’re close.”

This fall, Georgia elects a governor, a lieutenant governor, a senator, various members of the U.S. House, a number of state commissioners, and, as happens every two years, our entire General Assembly. “Nearly every elected official is going to have some role to play in climate,” said Brionté McCorkle, the executive director of Georgia Conservation Voters. “Every legislator, every person running for any office, should be asking the question, if they care about climate: What can I do in my position to help?

How climate will impact the 2022 elections
Coastal Georgia is already dealing with the consequences of rising seas; on Tybee Island, a “living shoreline” has been constructed out of bagged oyster shells to prevent erosion.

Photograph by Virginie Kippelen

First things first: Set a goal

“Georgia doesn’t have any plans to address climate change,” McCorkle said. “Just sit with that: We don’t have any plans. There is no statewide plan, there is no statewide goal, there’s no statewide commitment.” Marilyn Brown, a professor of sustainable systems and the director of the Climate and Energy Policy Lab at Georgia Tech, echoed her remarks, noting that about two dozen states have articulated greenhouse gas goals, and almost as many have created plans for achieving them. “We don’t have either,” Brown said.

Brown has been the lead researcher on a project called Drawdown Georgia, which aims to provide the state—policymakers, private business, individual citizens—with a roadmap for achieving substantial emissions reductions within a decade. (One key benchmark, set by the Paris climate accord in 2015, is “net zero” global emissions by 2050, in hopes of limiting temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius compared to pre-industrial levels.) A collaboration of researchers from Georgia Tech and elsewhere, the project was inspired by a set of 100 solutions to the climate crisis proposed by the environmentalist Paul Hawken, as part of his global initiative Project Drawdown. “We took those hundred and said, Which ones work for Georgia?” Brown said. Winnowing them by applicability, feasibility, and cost, they devised a set of 20 Georgia-specific solutions across five categories, including buildings and materials, food and agriculture, and transportation; the area with the most potential for impact was electricity. Individual solutions range from the newfangled (solar farms, electric vehicles) to the practically rustic: for instance, the practice of silvopasture, in which livestock is grazed in forested land, which can absorb more atmospheric carbon than open pasture.

Brown and her colleagues say their plan could reduce Georgia’s carbon footprint by 50 percent, to 79 million tons, by 2030—“which happens to be just shy of meeting the climate accord,” Brown said. Georgia already has the wind to its back: The state’s emissions have declined about 30 percent since 2005, mostly as older, coal-fired power plants have gone offline. Under the administration of Governor Brian Kemp, the state has successfully attracted businesses in the green economy, such as the electric-vehicle manufacturer Rivian—without explicitly acknowledging the climate benefit. Georgia may be inadvertently headed toward a greener economy, advocates say, but a specified target would help it get there more assuredly—and faster.

“The simple solution is reduced emissions,” said Katie Southworth, advocacy director at the Southface Institute, an Atlanta nonprofit that promotes sustainability. “Why don’t we just set a goal to do that?” In other states, goals have had a galvanizing effect: This year in California, lawmakers approved $54 billion in climate spending in hopes of cutting the state’s emissions by 85 percent by 2045. There’s been movement even in the South: In a 2018 executive order, Governor Roy Cooper set a course for a 40 percent emissions reduction in North Carolina by 2025. In Georgia, municipalities including Savannah and Atlanta have set their own goals: In 2015, for instance, Atlanta committed to using 100 percent clean energy by 2035.

Such goals can come in a variety of forms, from an act of the legislature to a simple executive order. Legislation is the most powerful mechanism, Southworth said. (In 2021, for the first time, state Representative Kim Schofield introduced a bill in the Assembly to establish a statewide target for Georgia of 100 percent clean energy by 2050. It died in committee.) But even executive action can have a potent effect, as a governor could direct all state agencies to work toward a target—taking climate into account, for instance, when issuing permits. “It is certainly within the governor’s authority to set an executive order today,” Southworth said.

This article is not about specific candidates’ climate positions—rather, its aim is to highlight various actions voters could ask them about. But the notion of a concrete climate goal is a common enough demand by advocates that I reached out to each gubernatorial campaign and asked if they intended to set one. A spokesperson for Democratic candidate Stacey Abrams referred me to her website, which doesn’t enumerate a specific goal but contains a detailed set of plans for “environmental resilience and action,” including reduced emissions, statewide energy-efficiency targets, and the appointment of a state-level officer to coordinate environmental policy. A spokesperson for Governor Brian Kemp, whose website does not mention climate change, didn’t respond.

How climate will impact the 2022 elections
Healthy forests—like the longleaf forests that once blanketed the Southeast—are an important tool for keeping carbon out of the atmosphere. Here, an experimental plot is part of a restoration project at the Jones Center at Ichauway, where researchers perform prescribed burns in place of the wildfires that historically shaped the longleaf ecosystem.

Photograph by Virginie Kippelen

A list of legislative action

The conduit for a lot of meaningful climate action is Georgia’s Public Service Commission, which regulates—among other things—Georgia Power, the state’s largest energy producer. “Not only do they have the ability to push for more clean energy, they also have the ability to embrace and continue our reliance on fossil fuels,” said Jennette Gayer, the director of Environment Georgia.

Every three years, the PSC rewrites its Integrated Resource Plan—basically, the 20-year outlook for Georgia Power’s energy mix. Released in 2022, the most recent IRP was considered a mixed bag by climate advocates. The body set higher energy-efficiency targets and announced the phasing out of three of Georgia’s remaining coal plants. On the other hand, it deferred action on four final coal-burning units at Plant Bowen—Georgia Power had proposed shutting them down, but the PSC opted to wait until the next IRP, in 2025, to make a final decision. It also approved purchase agreements for natural gas, which contributes to global warming. (Georgia Power’s parent company, Southern Company, has articulated its own emissions goal: net zero by 2050.)

Though the PSC is an elected body—more on that later—it’s responsive to the legislature, said Southworth: “If the legislature were to provide clear direction to the commission, they absolutely have to do it.” After Drawdown Georgia released its 20 solutions, Brown said, she was asked to suggest a list of legislative actions that would help make it a reality. In a document drafted earlier this year, Brown proposed, for instance, initiatives to help capture methane gas released by landfills; requirements for new buildings to meet efficiency standards; a $2,500 tax rebate for new electric vehicles; and other proposals inspired by Drawdown Georgia’s research. As with the broader Drawdown vision, the idea is a wide-ranging suite of actions that would add up to a meaningful reduction in Georgia’s emissions, and quickly. “These are some of the little things,” she said. “I mean, they’re little but they’re really important. And what a plan needs to do is find these simple changes that could be made.”

Various proposals have been in front of the legislature before. During the 2022 session, the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy highlighted five bills in progress, none of which made it past the finish line: They include a “homeowners’ solar bill of rights,” which would prevent homeowners associations from blocking a solar installation if an individual homeowner wants it; setting fair rates for electric vehicle charging; enabling EV manufacturers to sell directly to consumers (they’re currently shut out of the market by auto dealer franchise laws); and a policy called monthly netting, or net metering—which sounds wonky, but would help make rooftop solar more accessible to more consumers.

“Right now, if you have solar on your roof, and you’re generating more electricity than you use, you’ll send that power back into the grid, and Georgia Power will pay you what they call voided costs for that energy—roughly three cents per kilowatt hour,” Gayer explained. “And then they’ll turn around and sell it to your neighbor for roughly 11 cents per kilowatt hour, and they’ll pocket the difference.” Net metering “basically requires Georgia Power to pay you what they would then turn around and sell it to somebody else for.”

In 2020, the PSC ordered Georgia Power to adopt a pilot program that would involve fairly compensating consumers for the electricity generated by their rooftop panels—but capped the program at 5,000 participants, a tiny fraction of Georgia Power’s 2.5 million customers. Advocates are asking for the cap to be removed. “It makes your solar more valuable and, for people interested in putting solar on their roof, it makes the math a lot easier,” Gayer said. “It makes it so your solar system pays off in years as opposed to decades.”

Georgia’s legislature could also take action to remove other barriers to climate initiatives. Recently, California approved a policy to phase out the sale of gas appliances, including furnaces and water heaters, by 2030; commercial and residential buildings are responsible for about 13 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions yearly, mostly through space and water heating. The first state to adopt such a plan, California followed various cities around the country; meanwhile, according to the New York Times, more than 20 Republican-led states have passed laws that would prevent municipalities from electing to phase out gas appliances, citing concerns like consumer choice and low energy prices. Georgia joined them in 2021, though no city or county in the state had pursued such a policy. As one lawmaker, a Dalton Republican, said at the time: “We’re all for local control until locals get out of control.”

How climate will impact the 2022 elections
Farmers are already feeling the effects of global warming; a 2017 study estimated that the American South is more vulnerable to climate-related economic damage than other areas of the country.

Photograph by Virginie Kippelen

Getting money in the right places (and out of the wrong places)

That kind of preemptive action, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council, is part of a “concerted legal strategy” by the fossil fuel industry to forestall movement toward clean energy. It’s not the only place where the industry acts as a counterweight: The New York Times also reported that the State Financial Officers Foundation, a Kansas-based nonprofit with ties to climate-denying groups like the American Petroleum Institute and the Heritage Foundation, has worked with state treasurers to push back against climate action. Earlier this year, nearly two dozen Republican state treasurers, including Georgia’s, signed a letter criticizing a proposed rule by the Securities and Exchange Committee that would require companies to inform potential investors about climate risks. “The Proposed Rule,” they wrote, “indulges in irrational climate exceptionalism, elevating climate issues to a place of prominence in disclosures that they do not deserve.” (Though Georgia’s treasurer is not an elected position, it’s appointed by a panel of other elected officials, including the governor.)

Republican state officials have also attacked BlackRock, the world’s largest capital management firm, for its moves toward what’s known as environmental, social, and governance criteria, or ESG—which refers to investment choices that take into account environmental and other factors, and has been derided as “woke” by officials like Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. In August, Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr—facing Jen Jordan in this fall’s election—joined 19 state attorneys general in a letter to CEO Laurence Fink decrying BlackRock’s embrace of ESG; the AGs argued that BlackRock should be “neutral” on the climate question, and that to do otherwise would “circumvent the best possible return on investment.”

Elected officials can also steer money into the right places—an especially important job now that the federal government, through last year’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and this year’s Inflation Reduction Act, has turned on the faucet of climate money. Katie Southworth, of the Southface Institute, said the Georgia governor could create a kind of coordinator to make sure the state is availing itself to the fullest of the climate funds it has access to: At least $14.3 billion dollars is headed our way, according to a Southface estimate, that could go toward making energy-efficient appliances more affordable for low-income households, addressing public health problems that have resulted from racist urban-planning practices, and incentivizing the manufacturing of green tech like EVs and rooftop solar systems. “I am concerned, with all of the federal funding that’s coming, that Georgia’s not going to get its fair share, number one,” Southworth said. “And number two, that it’s not going to be used to maximize climate and community resilience.”

Various state agencies will have access to funding, she said: “But they may not be talking to one another. That money could be weaved together for a comprehensive, holistic view—a plan. That’s something I’d love to see in Georgia, is having a point agency or person who’s responsible for coordinating the funding as it’s coming, making sure that the state is taking advantage of awards that are competitively allocated—so it’s not getting sent to California or Colorado. We’re all paying for this money with our taxes. But if Georgia doesn’t apply, we won’t get it. We’ll leave money on the table.”

How climate will impact the 2022 elections
The famous Hotel Tybee on Tybee Island, which has ambitiously pursued plans to adapt to the changing climate. A majority of Georgians support the adoption of a statewide emissions-reduction goal.

Photograph by Virginie Kippelen

Equity at the center

One race that will not be on the ballot this fall is the contest for two seats on Georgia’s Public Service Commission. In August, in response to a lawsuit filed in 2020 by residents of Fulton County, a judge postponed the election. At the heart of the suit was how representation works on the five-person body. Currently, each member of the PSC represents one of five geographical districts, but each is elected by all of the state’s voters—an arrangement that, plaintiffs charged, dilutes the power of Black citizens and violates the Voting Rights Act. Since its creation in 1879, only one Black candidate has won election to the PSC. Black people now constitute about a third of Georgia’s population, and the state is famously becoming more “purple” than it’s been previously, but today’s PSC is made up of all Republicans.

“Georgia is not only ground zero for the general democracy conversation but also the energy democracy conversation,” said Nathaniel Q. Smith, the founder and chief equity officer of the Partnership for Southern Equity, which works on issues of racial justice, energy equity, and economic inclusion. (Smith also cochairs the leadership council of Drawdown Georgia.) “Since the Public Service Commission races are usually downballot, and also statewide, those two pieces alone have collaborated to disenfranchise Black voters and other voters who really need to pay attention.” Smith’s organization has worked to communicate the stakes of the PSC’s decision-making to communities of color and low-income communities: Georgia has the fifth-highest utility costs of any state in the country, and the PSC is currently considering a rate hike that would amount to a $200 spike in the average household’s yearly Georgia Power bills.

“It’s well-known that we have a housing affordability crisis—people need to understand that energy is a part of that,” said McCorkle, of Georgia Conservation Voters. There are policy opportunities, she said, that can simultaneously address the affordability crisis and the climate crisis, like programs to retrofit older buildings so they’re more energy-efficient: “We need to make sure that you’re not paying for energy that’s ultimately leaking out the cracks of your house.”

For all of the talk of expensive-sounding technologies—electric cars, rooftop solar panels—the work around affordability undertaken by groups like Smith’s and McCorkle’s is a reminder that the people most burdened by climate change have often been the people most shut out of the conversation around it. (On a global scale, the people most burdened by climate change also happen to be the people least responsible for causing it; Pakistan, the site of this summer’s catastrophic flooding, has contributed less than 1 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions over time. The U.S. is responsible for about a quarter.) “There was a time where frontline organizations and organizations led by Black people and people of color were relegated to the kids’ table at Thanksgiving,” Smith said. “And now, I think, the traditional environmental community is beginning to understand that real change can’t happen without communities of color being involved in the advocacy.”

It’s imperative—historically and looking ahead—to understand the connection between environmental and other forms of exploitation, Smith said: “As a Southern person of African descent, we’ve always been stewards of the land. Now I’m at the point of understanding that the extraction and impact and trauma that has been perpetuated on the earth—because of the insatiable appetite for growth and the maximization of profit—is no different than the spirit that caused folks to go over to another country and bring Black folks over to be slaves. The utilization of the power of free labor helped build the South and this country. And in the same way, the extraction of fossil fuels from our mother, the Earth, came from the same place, in my opinion. So, I believe the fight for equity for marginalized communities is connected to the fight for climate justice.”

McCorkle also connects the climate question with the broader, more existential questions about American democracy that have arisen out of, among other things, legislative efforts that make it harder for people to vote. “All the voting-rights stuff, all of the things that have been implemented that voting-rights groups have said create barriers for turnout—those barriers usually disproportionately impact communities of color, low-income people, and young people,” she said. (Strict voter identification requirements, for instance, have been shown to particularly affect Black voters and out-of-state college students.)

“Well, guess what: Communities of color, low-income people, and young people are also the groups that are highest in reporting concern about environment and climate change,” McCorkle continued. “So, if they’re not able to vote, if they’re prevented from voting, their desires and needs around climate change also get deprioritized. If we’re keeping environmental voters from being able to vote, that’s a big deal.”

This article appears in our November 2022 issue.

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