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Climate change hits local ballot boxes

ADRIAN FLORIDO, HOST:

We begin tonight's program focusing on two events that will shape the future of climate policy, the midterm elections and the U.N. Climate Conference, which starts tomorrow. In a minute, we'll hear from a climate negotiator who's attending the U.N. conference in Egypt. But first, we want to start our focus on the U.S. election. Issues like the economy and which party will take control of Congress have dominated election coverage. But the climate is also an issue showing up on many local ballots here in Tuesday's midterm elections.

So to learn more about how these races could shape climate policy, we've called Rebecca Leber. She's a senior reporter for Vox who covers climate change. Welcome.

REBECCA LEBER: Hi.

FLORIDO: I think a lot of people don't often think of climate change as an issue that gets decided at the local ballot box. Why should they?

LEBER: Yeah. We don't always think about state and local officials as really the people on the ground who are implementing climate policy. So this year, Congress passed this huge climate law and the Inflation Reduction Act, which means billions of dollars that are now going to go to local and state officials to actually implement. That's what makes these races so critical, even if they don't always get as much attention as the top of the ballot.

FLORIDO: Well, before we jump into specifics, would you say that there are common themes that emerge across the country when climate change does appear on local ballots?

LEBER: We're seeing the cycle - climate play a complicated role in the election. It may not be the most visible issue on the airways, but it's coming through in other debates like over energy and gas prices. Republicans are accusing Democratic incumbents of implementing policies that raise energy prices, while Democrats are accusing Republicans of being beholden to big oil and trying to boost oil profits.

FLORIDO: Well, let's jump into some of these local races then. I'd like to start in North Carolina, which, unlike most Southern states, actually has a plan to address climate change, including by promoting clean energy. Why will this election be so consequential for North Carolina's plan?

LEBER: This is one of the races I'm watching closest because in North Carolina, Republicans are just a few seats away from gaining a supermajority in the legislature. If they gain that, that means they have this veto-proof majority where they can overturn these kinds of executive orders and actions that North Carolina has to reverse, basically, what the state has done so far to make some progress on its flooding resiliency and its climate goals. So North Carolina is not the only state where Republicans could gain that supermajority, but it's certainly the most interesting one because we could see a true role reversal on climate.

FLORIDO: Even in conservative states, cities can get a lot done on climate policy. Tell me about Corpus Christi, Texas. Why is a city council race in a city of 300,000 people so consequential for climate policy?

LEBER: Corpus Christi is really important because it is a major site for exporting crude oil in the U.S. It actually gets lots of oil from the Permian Basin, the most active oil field in the country. And it is in the process of building all of this infrastructure that exports it to other countries. So it turns out that the city council has a really important say over the infrastructure getting built and who in the city has input into how it's built and whether it is even built or whether the city should focus more on boosting its clean energy.

So this year, we're seeing the slate of climate candidates run for the city council. And if they do win, then we would see the city actually change its course from being fully beholden to oil interests, like we usually expect from Texas, to actually charting forward a more climate-friendly path that we might not expect in oil country.

FLORIDO: With potential implications for the state, the region and the whole country.

LEBER: Right. I think that's the important point here, that these are very local races, but they have outsized impact beyond their borders.

FLORIDO: You know, Rebecca, some of the things we hear from Republican candidates in these local races is that these local entities are not the places that are going to solve climate change. The Inflation Reduction Act, which the federal government passed over the summer, includes some landmark provisions to address climate change at a much bigger scale. What...

LEBER: You're seeing in a lot of these races the Republican candidates saying that this particular position or part of government shouldn't be responsible for climate change. But I'd argue the opposite - that this is actually the most important place to see climate policy in action because city and state officials are responsible for siting all kinds of projects, for deciding what gets built, for deciding whether a state or city even has clean energy goals that it's striving for.

One other important point here is the federal government has to do a lot on climate in order to reach this goal of slashing U.S. pollution in half in a decade. But it's not the only part of this picture. Local action is so important here because it needs to go above and beyond the floor the federal government sets to get all the way to the U.S. as goals to cutting climate pollution. So it's important that local offices and the federal government are all working in the same direction. And if it's not, then the U.S. really doesn't have a shot for hitting those targets and addressing its climate pollution.

FLORIDO: Well, Rebecca Leber, thanks for following all these races for us. I've been speaking with Rebecca Leber, a senior reporter at Vox News who covers climate change. Thanks for your time.

LEBER: Thanks for covering it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.