None of the candidates for major statewide office in Georgia are talking about carbon emissions or climate change, despite major new policy from the EPA that will make these issues central to their terms in office.
The Environmental Protection Agency’s groundbreaking new carbon emissions proposal hedges some pretty hefty bets: the new rules require the equivalent of taking two-thirds of all cars and trucks in the U.S. off the road. The proposal will cost the economy more than $7 billion annually, but will lead to public health benefits accruing to more than $55 billion. The heated discussion it has prompted from environmentalists, industry, and lawmakers has centered on the multi-billion dollar question: what is the role of government regulation in addressing climate change?
The EPA rule has assigned each state a separate pollution reduction target, and under the plan, Georgia would need to reduce its carbon dioxide output by 44 percent by the year 2040. Notably absent from the debate, however, are the individuals who will soon be directing the discussion through their policy decisions: the current gubernatorial and Senate candidates. Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jason Carter, endorsed by the Sierra Club in May, has only noted that he wants residents to get credit for progress they’ve already made in carbon reduction. His “On the Issues” online platform fails to include environmental policy as a broad topic, let alone talk of pollution.
Although Governor Deal may want to distance himself politically from Carter, the candidates are remarkably similar in their lack of talking points on the EPA standards. A spokeswoman for Deal said it was too early for the governor to comment on the emissions proposal back in June, and apparently it’s still too early three months later, even as the election approaches in November.
Former Dollar General CEO David Perdue, who beat out Rep. Jack Kingston to win the Georgia GOP Senate nomination, has dismissed the emissions regulations as altogether too burdensome. In June, it was revealed that Perdue has sat on the board of the Wisconsin-based Alliant Energy Corp. since 2001.
Democratic Senate candidate Michelle Nunn has served as the sole light in this matter; although she has offered a ‘wait-and-see’ on the emissions plan until what will go into the state calculations is made clear, she has at least affirmed her support for reducing carbon emissions.
The candidates’ insubstantial weigh-in on how to tackle these rapidly approaching EPA deadlines provides voters with an incomplete policy platform, and one that is myopic in scope. For example, what is to be of Georgia’s Plant Scherer? It’s been identified as the dirtiest power plant in the United States, and under the EPA policy, there will be significant pressure to shut the coal plant down. What would the next steps be for evaluating Georgia’s energy portfolio, and how would the candidates handle claims that the limits will crush jobs and the economy?
By failing to more concretely enter into discussions on how to tackle these EPA deadlines, candidates also lose the ability to capitalize off the new regulations. For example, a comprehensive report released last month ranked the Atlanta-based utilities provider Southern Company 31st among 32 utilities across the U.S. in percentage of sales tied to electricity from renewables. Individuals in the gubernatorial and Senate races should work to address mounting pressure to improve Georgia’s national ranking in energy efficiency and renewables by connecting it to the EPA guidelines, and proposing to tackle the emission standards through increasing emphasis on clean energy infrastructure.
The most critical issue left unaddressed, however, stems from our Georgia candidates’ inability to define issues such as carbon emissions within the larger sphere of climate change. Just as the esteemed evolutionary biologist Dobzhansky noted that nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution, nothing in environmental policy really makes sense except without accepting the involvement of climate change. Although both Deal and Carter have campaigned extensively for improved water conservation methods and the protection of Georgia’s coastline, these issues cannot be adequately examined without including factors symptomatic of climate change into the picture, such as sea level rise, the decreasing reliability of water supply networks, threatened coastal infrastructure, and increased risk of drought.
The question that remains is why our Georgia political candidates aren’t talking about the EPA standards in the context of climate change. Perhaps I already know the answer: it is not in the interest of the candidate to do so. Climate change is a loaded, divisive phrase, and an intensive analysis into the Georgia public’s views on the matter has, to date, been overlooked. However, Florida’s open emphasis on climate policy as a major bipartisan issue during the election, as well as the overwhelming amount of public witnesses at the EPA Atlanta hearing prove that the topic is ripe for public discourse and political opportunity. Georgia candidates would do well to remember that these issues are not simply environmental issues, but fundamentally economic and public health issues. For the sake of Georgia voters, candidates should view these issues as mandatory to offering a more complete and expansive view for the future of the great state of Georgia.
Torre Lavelle is the Roosevelt Institute Campus Network Senior Fellow for Energy and the Environment. She is majoring in ecology and environmental economics at the University of Georgia.