Conventional wisdom holds that democracy is structurally ill-equipped to confront climate change. As the story goes, because each of us tends to dismiss consequences that befall people in other places and in future times, “the people” cannot be trusted to craft adequate decarbonization policies, designed to reduce present-day, domestic carbon emissions. Accordingly, U.S. climate change policy has focused on technocratic fixes that operate predominantly through executive action to escape democratic politics — with vanishingly little to show for it after a change in presidential administration.
To help craft a more durable U.S. climate change strategy, this Article scrutinizes the purported incompatibility of decarbonization and democratic politics. It argues that well-designed citizen input and control could advance U.S. efforts to address climate change, rather than hinder them. To foster such input and control, the Article contends that decarbonization can be disaggregated into three distinct questions: (1) whether to decarbonize; (2) how fast; and (3) how to decarbonize. Although people’s tendencies to prioritize the present and the local may render them ill-equipped to answer the first two questions, the third question, “how” to decarbonize, is different. That question focuses on the shape we want our economy and communities to take in the decades to come, and is thus amenable to more citizen engagement. The Article then traces how more citizen engagement and empowerment on this question of how to decarbonize could advance decarbonization efforts. Across partisan lines, Americans consistently prioritize clean energy to a degree not reflected in our national climate politics, institutions, or energy mix. These dynamics suggest that reforms that shift decisionmaking authority away from the energy industry, and into the hands of communities and citizens, have the potential to transform the political economy of decarbonization.
After making the case for more citizen control of decisions around how to decarbonize, the Article offers two complementary reforms to help achieve this aim, which venture well beyond the standard administrative law solution set. It proposes that states harness the power of public utility law to require utilities to better gauge and respond to their customers’ values, and offer communities more control over their energy supply as a method of counteracting utilities’ economic and political dominance.
Shelley Welton, Decarbonization in Democracy, 67 UCLA L. Rev. 56 (2020).