Podcast Episode 1.04

Government’s Role in Climate Action with Caroline Spears

Hosts Katherine Gorman and James Lawler interview Caroline Spears, founder and executive director of Climate Cabinet, a nonprofit that helps local, state, and federal candidates run and legislate on climate change. They discuss what the government needs to do at the local, state, and federal levels to solve the climate crisis.


Caroline Spears
Executive Director of Climate Cabinet Action


Caroline Spears

Executive Director of Climate Cabinet Action

Caroline Spears is the founder and director of Climate Cabinet, which supports climate campaign messaging. Before Climate Cabinet, she worked in solar project finance, analyzing 6 GW of solar in 8 markets that represent ~$7.2 billion in solar investment. Caroline graduated with her B.S. and M.S. in Atmosphere and Energy Engineering from Stanford University.

Hosted By:

Katherine Gorman
Climate Now Host


Katherine Gorman

Climate Now Host

Katherine Gorman is a podcast host for Climate Now. She has worked for terrestrial public radio stations across the US, and is also co-host of the podcast “The Talking Machines”. She is excited to democratize the climate conversation and to learn and share knowledge from experts in the field.

James Lawler
Climate Now Host


James Lawler

Climate Now Host
James Lawler is the founder of Climate Now. James started Climate Now as a way to learn about climate change and our energy system. Climate Now’s mission is to distill and communicate the science of our changing climate, the technologies that could help us avoid a climate crisis, and the economic and policy pathways to achieve net zero emissions globally. James is also the founder of Osmosis Films, a creative studio.


Katherine Gorman (00:02):

You are listening to Climate Now. I’m Katherine Gorman. 


James Lawler (00:05):

And I’m James Lawler. 


Katherine Gorman (00:07):

So James climate policy….


James Lawler (00:10):

Yes, we need it. We need it badly. 


Katherine Gorman (00:12):

I mean, you know, sometimes what even is it? How, where do you even begin? And I mean, climate change is so pervasive. Its causes are so entrenched, it seems, and its impacts are so vast. Where does our political leadership even start? 


James Lawler (00:29):

Well, luckily we have an expert today who can help answer this question. If you are listening and you’re an aspiring political leader, or if you’re someone who just wants to understand the role that our political system has to play in solving the climate crisis, this is a good episode for you to listen to. And this is a good person for you to know.


Katherine Gorman (00:46):

Absolutely, absolutely. And our guest on this episode of the podcast is Caroline Spears. She’s the founder and director of Climate Cabinet. And we asked her the same question that we ask all of our guests to start, which is how did you get where you are today? 


Caroline Spears (00:58):

I was working at a solar group doing finance, solar finance, and I started volunteering for different campaigns that were running for the state legislature that needed climate information, climate talking points, that worked for their campaigns and for their communities. So literally, I’m from, I’m from Houston, Texas, and my local Texas state Senate candidate said, “Hey, could you help me?” You know, this is after hurricane Harvey had hit and they said, “Hey, could you help me write a few talking points? How do I message this?” Everything started with that race. I had my normal job. I was doing this on the side and with side projects, sometimes that side project becomes so large that it starts taking over your life. And at that point decided this is probably a big need and I should quit my job and start Climate Cabinet Action.


Katherine Gorman (01:49):

Nice. I love it. Tell us about the work that you do and how you actually get it done. 


Caroline Spears (01:53):

For Climate Cabinet Action, what we do is we have a database of district-specific climate impacts and solutions and vote records for every state legislator in the country and for every state legislative district in the country. What are asthma rates there? What do the clean energy jobs look like? What does polling look like? Who is the current incumbent and how are they voting? Then from that we can create really tailored, localized materials that work for campaigns. We know from climate change and climate messaging and kind of messaging in the policy space, that there are great ways to talk about climate change that will get you votes. I think we saw that with Joe Biden this past year. And so we help take what we learned from the presidential campaigns of the past two years, and we downscale it.


Katherine Gorman (02:40):

I would love to talk more about what your policy recommendations are, can you, can you give us an overview? What, what is good climate policy, what is effective and ineffective climate policy and what do you think creates the right incentives for meaningful change? 


Caroline Spears (02:57):

So I want to differentiate the campaign from policy, because our campaign support really is focused around what are the pieces of information that really can help a candidate win. And a lot of times that’s connecting the policies to people’s personal lives. It’s not necessarily like going into a policy. And the question was what’s, kind of, good climate policy?


Katherine Gorman:



Caroline Spears:

I think one thing that I’ve been really interested in and we’re trying to align with is the recent movement and climate policy towards a standard investment and justice model. And this is really, we like this because this aligns really closely with what we hear from folks running for office as well. So how do we invest in communities? How do we ensure social and racial justice in our climate policy and how do we set standards that make sure that emissions go down? So we, yeah, we’ve moved beyond this idea of we’re going to get a bunch of climate scientists to testify in Washington, DC. 

Caroline Spears (03:51):

They’re going to pass one climate bill, and then we can kind of check that off and move on. And we’ve really moved into this, this realization that the task of decarbonization is so large and this speed that this needs to happen on is so fast that we are going to need decades of climate policy, and we’re going to need it at every level of government. Um, it’s not, it’s not enough to just focus on DC. We live in a, in a Federalist government system where every level of government has unique and specific responsibilities. That pretty much goes to the heart of, of why we need kind of action at every level. And so that’s what we’re really focused on. 


Katherine Gorman (04:28):

Can you take us through level by level? What does effective climate policy look like? You know, and, and maybe drawing some lines where appropriate with ineffective climate policy. Like what, what types of policy, you know, really kind of pushes the wrong levers as you ladder up.


Caroline Spears (04:47):

At the local level. Um, local governments have immense authority over two things that we’re really looking at right now. So the first is housing density, transit options, which make transportation just more affordable for people. The idea that everyone is going to buy into having a $25,000 car, you could argue, wasn’t a great idea to begin with. We’re going to put this barrier to participation in society, the barrier to participating in society, the barrier to having a job in most of our major cities is owning a very expensive piece of equipment, even like you, okay, you want to buy it used? $5,000. That’s where local governments can really step in to make our living spaces more affordable, and more, and solve climate change at the same time. So we’ve got urban planning. The other place that local governments have so much impact is in building codes, or what are we going to do on efficiency standards on electrification, all of these pieces, local governments have huge authority and, and great leadership potential. 


Caroline Spears (05:42):

And I think we’re seeing that leadership in a lot of cities across the country, local governments also determine kind of where natural disaster money gets spent. So we have these kinds of waves of climate disasters now happening every year, and they determine who gets the money. The state, like obviously, everyone knows, oh, the federal government kind of comes in when there’s a natural disaster and funds things. States are just responsible for who gets natural disaster risk funding. Responsible for what does the electricity grid look like? Responsible for clean cars? Are they going to adopt the advanced clean car standard, which is like the best in class option for states? And then we have the federal government, the federal government is the best positioned piece of government to really be thinking about research and development over time. We’re going to need a whole host of new carbon and climate solution technologies in 2050, the best commercialization timeline anyone can come up with reasonably is a 30 year timeline. So we need to be embedding that now. And that’s the federal government’s job. 


James Lawler (06:39):

Could you unpack that a little when you say the best commercialization timeline, these are technologies that are being talked about now? 


Caroline Spears (06:46):

Right. So, it’s interesting thinking about climate change over a time of climate policy over a timeline, because there are policies we need for the next 10 years of deployment. And this is what I mean when we really say we need decades of climate policy at every level of government. There’s the next 10 years, how do we get solar wind and batteries in the ground as fast as possible, employ as many people as fast as possible building de-carbonization is going to pick up. Those are jobs that cannot be outsourced. These, this is what we’re looking at in the next 10 years. Once we get to 2050, there’s a lot of technologies that are just being, starting, to be commercialized now. And it really takes decades for those to get widely scaled. Looking at, people are talking about hydrogen right now, people are talking about advanced geothermal. There’s been a lot of press around direct air capture, carbon negative technologies. These are all things that the federal government step in and ensure steady funding for. So that if we have any hope of getting those commercially viable by 2050, it has to start. It has to start now. 


James Lawler (07:45):

You’ve included, which I thought was interesting when you first shared your PDF with me last time, sort of racial justice and social equity kind of part, and parcel to this climate mission. Those are just sort of intricately woven, those two objectives, can you explain that? 


Caroline Spears (08:04):

The reason we’ve included this fundamentally, we’re driven by what do legislators want and need to pass strong climate policy. And so we are going to stick to, uh, and, and when folks say I want to center racial justice, our job is to make sure that they center racial justice. And I think that’s important for us as an organization. It’s also important for the people we talk to. And so that’s why that’s there. It’s because we’re trying to be very responsive. Black Americans are 75% more likely to live next to a polluting facility. There are clear red lining patterns, patterns of racial inequity and how we’ve built polluting infrastructure. And that has massive implications on people’s ability to live and breathe. So one of the things about climate change and all of the pollution, that’s, that’s come with it. I think it makes sense to include.


Katherine Gorman (08:55):

I would love to ask about the role of social pressures on business. What’s going to be the requirement, the social requirement, of our politicians. If we see public motions from our businesses, that may seem interesting, but also maybe lip service, like, is this just adding more to the lip service cloud? Or is this actually going to get something done? 


Caroline Spears (09:16):

I mean, I would say it’s up to whoever’s listening to this. I think what we’ve seen with climate change is an initial thought. I thought it was based on, you know, this is how we solved the ozone hole is that we put a bunch of scientists in front of policy makers and that worked, and that pattern turned out to be not effective for climate change. And the social movement is crucial. 


James Lawler (09:36):

Can you talk about, you know, other sort of larger policies like cap and trade, for example, or other sort of structures that are set up through legislation that would be important that are important for, you know, let’s say the US to, to adopt. 


Caroline Spears (09:51):

Absolutely. I’m really excited about clean energy standards. Um, that’s the classic, you know, carbon free by 2035 carbon free by 2045. I’m really interested in permitting and, and streamlining for wind, solar, transmission, batteries. I worked at a solar company before this, and products died because of the county commission. People would come and say, these solar panels are going to suck up all the sun in our area, or these solar panels are gonna leak into our groundwater, things that just aren’t true. And, um, unfortunately I think society is getting more and more conspiratorial and especially in, in rural areas and, uh, projects die over that. And if we’re really going to be thinking honestly, and strategically about decarbonizing the economy, which is challenging, um, and creating those jobs, then let’s talk about it. 


James Lawler (10:45):

So what are, what are some effective ways of effective permitting structures that we should have in this country that you see elsewhere?


Caroline Spears (10:55):

Clean energy standard? I think we’ve seen great work on that in 30 it’s, like 30 states have passed some type of renewable portfolio standard, which is just a requirement. You have to get a certain percentage of your electricity from renewable or clean sources by a certain year. North Carolina has passed some really good legislation around this. We’ve seen good legislation in Virginia around this. Um, we don’t have to look internationally. We’re already doing it here and we’re not just doing it in California. Permitting, there’s really a great example from New York state just passed, permitting, streamlining for, kind of the clean energy economy and creating those clean energy jobs.


James Lawler (11:31):

To get a little clarification when we say permitting streamlining, what exactly does that mean versus the way permitting normally happens? 


Caroline Spears (11:38):

So it really depends on the state and this is a fun, like, state and local policy moment. One way of doing this is say, if you are a solar or wind producer, a clean energy producer, you don’t have to get one set of permits from the water quality department and one set of permits from, you don’t have to go to all of these different departments to get all of your permits. You can just go to one. The folks working at that department are really excited about making the clean energy transition possible. And that’s kind of the general concept. 


Katherine Gorman (12:10):

Like how would that even work? Like how would you go about permitting large numbers of houses all at once? Don’t you still have to go and measure roofs to figure out how big the panels should be? Like, how is it not still a house by house labor intensive process? 


Caroline Spears (12:28):

One way you can do it in the way that we’ve already started doing that. Here is, uh, the California energy commission, all new residential homes after rooftop solar, we’re just going to do all new houses are all to this build. And it gets very used to those specs in those standards. So that’s something that’s happening with new build. And that’s a separate thing with building de-carbonization too. There’s this growing movement to say no gas in new buildings, uh, that lowers home costs because you don’t have to run a second line of pipes through a house. You only have to electrify it, it lowers, yeah, lowers new building costs a great decarbonization tool at the same time. 


James Lawler (13:04):

Yeah, it’s amazing to see the, how much of our emissions come from buildings. It is actually a significant portion, um, so that and transport really are the dominant, you know, percentages when it comes to energy used, fossil fuels burned for energy as opposed to used in other ways. Can you talk about that? 

Caroline Spears (13:23):

Absolutely. And when it comes to buildings, I think this is a classic example of state. This is where state and local comes in really, really strongly. States can adopt energy efficiency, requirements and buildings. Some of them have, many of them have not. New building codes that require, you know, stronger energy efficiency standards or rooftop solar. So, uh, the problem is if there’s an international code standard and states can choose to adopt it and then local governments can choose to adopt it. And states can say, okay, local governments, you’re only allowed to adopt the basic international code. And so sometimes cities and counties can adopt that. Sometimes they can’t. It depends on the state. Some states are home rule where they let cities and counties have a ton of authority states like New York, some states aren’t at all. And so the states can really set a lot more boundaries for local governments, but we’re seeing massive fights over this right now, local governments and art it’s you know, housing, as we’ve seen is a torturous topic. And we’re really letting every city kind of decide for themselves what they want and every state decides for themselves what they want. And, it’s creating a very, if we don’t find a solution to that, it’s going to be slow going. 


Katherine Gorman (14:44):

Caroline Spears of Climate Cabinet. It was so amazing to be able to talk to her. And I think it’s so crucial to be able to think about how we approach climate change policy and thinking about it on these different levels and really breaking down the action that we have to take to these very, very granular levels. 


James Lawler (15:06):

Climatecabinetaction.org founded by Caroline Spears is active across every state, legislature and congressional district in America and helps politicians design their communications, grassroots engagement. 


Katherine Gorman (15:17):

Amazing, amazing to have that reach. So that is it for this episode of the podcast, head over to climatenow.com to check out other interviews, watch our videos and sign up for a newsletter. If you want to get in touch with us, email us at info@climatenow.com or tweet at us @weareclimatenow.

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