President Donald Trump’s drive to rescind the federal efforts to combat global climate change is highlighting another chasm between Republican- and Democratic-leaning states.
From wildfires to droughts, heat waves to intensifying hurricanes, the destabilizing impacts of climate change are growing more apparent to states on both sides of the political divide, especially after this sizzling summer.
But states diverge dramatically in how much they contribute to the carbon emissions from fossil fuels linked to climate change and whether they will support limits on those emissions.
In the presidential Electoral College and the Senate, Republicans rely overwhelmingly on the states most tightly bound to the fossil fuel economy – as producers, consumers or both. Democrats rely mostly on the states that have transitioned most rapidly into a lower-carbon economy.
This pattern means the states that emit the most carbon provide an imposing phalanx of support for Republican elected officials almost uniformly hostile to action on climate. To the frustration of blue states – and indeed most nations around the world – red America has become a brown barricade against confronting the escalating challenge of climate change.
That dynamic was apparent in the Environmental Protection Agency’s proposal last month to revoke former President Barack Obama’s plan to regulate carbon emissions from power plants.
Obama’s proposal to reduce carbon emissions would have demanded cuts in all states, but it would have required the most wrenching changes in the states that emit the most carbon and rely most heavily on coal to generate electricity. With only a few exceptions, those are the red states central to the GOP’s political fortunes.
Many of those states responded during Obama’s presidency by suing to block the regulation and the Supreme Court agreed to freeze it while lower courts considered their challenge. Now Trump, after winning the White House primarily with support from the high-emitting states, has formally proposed allowing states to set their own limits, a plan that effectively frees those high-emission states from any requirement to reduce.
This history suggests that even as the risks of climate disruption become more palpable, the nation faces a sustained deadlock between high-emitting red states and low-emitting blue states that precludes national action. Environmentalists hope that standoff will eventually tilt their way as the evidence of climate-induced risks grows more irrefutable and clean energy industries increase their economic clout, even in red states.
“The job growth is occurring not in these old fossil fuel industries,” says David Doniger, senior strategic director for the climate and clean energy program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, a leading environmental group. “The actual economic opportunity even in the red states is with the cleaner industries.”
But for now, whether measured per person or per dollar of economic activity, the states that emit the most carbon provide the foundation of Republican electoral strength.
The most recent federal data on per capita state carbon emissions is from 2015. Of the 22 states that emitted the most carbon per person in 2015, according to the federal Energy Information Administration, Trump won every one in 2016 except New Mexico, which ranked 13th overall.
In all, Trump won 25 of the 30 states with the highest per capita emissions. Hillary Clinton, in turn, won 15 of the 20 states with the lowest emissions per capita.
The relationship is even slightly more powerful when examining how states rank in the amount of carbon they emit for each dollar of economic output that they produce. That’s a revealing measure of a state’s economic structure.
Many of the states that emit the most carbon per dollar of economic output are big producers of oil, gas or coal, such as Wyoming, West Virginia, North Dakota, Louisiana, Montana, Alaska and Texas. Others are major agricultural producers, such as Iowa, Nebraska and Kansas. The remainder tend toward significant manufacturing centers, including Michigan, Wisconsin, Indiana, Pennsylvania and South Carolina. Employment in each of these three industries leans toward the blue-collar workers who have emerged as Trump’s most reliable supporters.
Virtually none of the states near the bottom of the list in emissions per dollar of output produce many fossil fuels – California is one exception – and few are manufacturing or agricultural centers, either. Their economies revolve more around services and information technology and bend more toward the white-collar workers who have resisted Trump far more than a typical GOP president.
“Being part of the knowledge economy doesn’t result in much in terms of emissions,” said Joseph Aldy, an associate professor of public policy at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.
These differing economic foundations create a stark political contrast. Trump won 26 of the 30 states that emitted the most carbon per dollar of economic output in 2015, including all but one of the top 27. Clinton captured 16 of the 20 states that emitted the least carbon per each dollar of economic activity.
The Senate follows these same tracks. Republicans hold nearly three-fourths of the Senate seats in the 30 states with the most emissions per dollar of economic activity – 43 of 60 – while Democrats hold 80% of the seats in the bottom 20 states (32 of 40).
Most strikingly, Democrats hold all the Senate seats in the 14 states with the lowest carbon emissions per dollar of economic output – and each of those states voted for Clinton as well. After November, Republicans, in turn, may be even stronger in the highest-emitting states: Some of their top Senate targets in November include Democratic incumbents in West Virginia, North Dakota, Montana, Indiana and Missouri, all of which rank in the top 17 for per-dollar emissions.
One of the central dividing lines between the high- and low-emitting states is their reliance on coal to generate electricity. Most states across the country are depending less on coal than they were even a few years ago, but it remains a critical power source in many of the states that emit the most carbon.
Federal figures show that coal accounts for about 85% of electrical generation in Wyoming, 93% percent in West Virginia, 66% in North Dakota, 50% in Montana, almost 80% in Kentucky and over half in Wisconsin and Ohio, all Trump states.
By contrast, coal accounts for less than 5% of the power mix in low-emitting coastal states, from New York, Massachusetts and New Jersey to California, Washington and Oregon, all of which voted for Clinton. Underscoring this contrast, the California Legislature recently voted to require all of the state’s power to be generated by zero-carbon sources by 2045.
All these patterns of energy consumption and production reinforce the divergence between red and blue America in their exposure to demographic and cultural change, and the transition more broadly to a knowledge-based information economy. Across all these divides, Democrats now rely on a “coalition of transformation” centered on the states and voters that are most directly experiencing these changes, while Republicans depend on a “coalition of restoration” revolving around the places that are least affected by them – and often most hostile to them as well.
“This is a function of how economies have evolved and diversified,” said Aldy, who served as Obama’s chief environmental economist in the White House. “You see over time different areas of specialization around the country.”
Environmentalists hope that long-term shifts in these states’ economies may ultimately shift their perspective. Environmental Entrepreneurs, a network of business executives and investors affiliated with the Natural Resources Defense Council, has calculated that clean energy industries – led by wind, solar, energy efficiency and clean cars – already generate more jobs in 42 states than industries tied directly to fossil fuels.
Reductions in the cost of solar and wind power, as well as natural gas, are already tilting the energy mix away from coal even in many of the high-emitting states that historically preferred it because it was cheaper. Texas now leads the nation in installed wind-energy capacity and all five of the states that generate the highest share of their electricity from wind – in order Iowa, Kansas, Oklahoma, South Dakota and North Dakota – lean toward the GOP.
Simultaneously, the mounting price of climate disruption – such as the devastating rainfall last summer during Hurricane Harvey – is growing impossible to ignore in any state.
“There are people in Houston who get it, that climate change contributed to the severity of the rainfall in Hurricane Harvey,” said Doniger. “As those impacts pile up, I think that also will have a political impact in those red states.”
All these dynamics may slowly melt the resistance to limiting carbon emissions in red America, even as the warmer climate itself is melting chunks of the polar ice caps. Few questions may be more consequential to the planet’s long-term health than which process advances more quickly.