Clean energy and climate action are in the spotlight this week. It kicked off last Friday with Greta Thunberg leading the worldwide climate strike, and now, it is a central topic at the U.N. meeting in New York.
As our policy leaders are looking for ways to work together globally to address this crisis, it’s important to look at the politics of this issue – particularly at the very local level. In fact, the recent special election in North Carolina’s 9th District taught us a lot. We learned that even in conservative districts, clean energy is a salient political issue.
Throughout the course of the special election, the district saw more than $10 million in outside spending, making it the second highest total for any House special election. I am president of a group (EDF Action) that is responsible for many of those ads. Though the votes are counted, we can take some important lessons from this race. Among them, embracing clean energy is a strong political position even in the reddest districts in the country.
Of course, the clean energy champion lost his election, but polling sponsored by EDF Action shows that Dan McCready’s record as a solar entrepreneur helped make the election more competitive. That record was a large part of why my organization, along with our partners at EDF Action Votes, spent nearly $1 million supporting McCready.
But beyond the rooting interest in the outcome of this race, it provided an opportunity to see how voters viewed the issue of clean energy itself, during the heat of a political campaign. During the last weeks of the campaign, we engaged a pollster, Jill Normington, to understand how voters think about clean energy and whether the ads are effective. If clean energy is a such a popular issue in this district—a district that voted for Donald Trump by a 12-point margin and hasn’t elected a Democrat in 50 years—it can be an effective message anywhere.
The news was good for people who believe clean energy should be a policy priority. First, voters in the 9th District view the solar industry favorably (70%-22%). Moreover, they believe that moving North Carolina to clean energy sources like wind and solar will create jobs (53%) rather than cost jobs (18%). More voters believe moving to clean energy sources will lower utility prices (40%) rather than raise them (27%).
In fact, the voters are right: a Charlotte Observer Fact Check largely debunked the ads claiming that McCready’s support of clean energy policies raised utility rates. Prices for clean energy have fallen so much that, here in North Carolina, building new solar and wind facilities are cheaper than the operational costs of existing coal facilities. The more than 6,000 North Carolinians who are currently working in the solar industry can attest to the industry’s job-creating potential.
Even so, our polling found that the ads can have an impact if left unanswered. Voters found the “McGreedy” ads believable (47%), but when shown McCready’s response ad—touting his record in creating clean energy jobs—they found his reply believable and shifted back to his side. This is an important point beyond political contests. As the case for clean energy policies becomes more clear—both from falling prices of wind and solar, as well as the drawbacks of pollution from other sources — fossil fuel interests will be forced to go to greater lengths to preserve their business models. Negative charges cannot be allowed to go unanswered. McCready was right to pushback.
Of course we were disappointed by the outcome of the election. But discovering that even in conservative districts, voters view clean energy as overwhelmingly positive is an important lesson. We know there is a good story to tell, on the merits, about moving our economy to wind and solar. We’ll be ready to go anywhere and everywhere to make that case to voters.