The Energy Policy Culture War Is an Absurd Fantasy

What a surprise — the Texas energy disaster has been turned into a yet another culture war scrimmage field, pitting right-wing advocates of fossil fuels against liberal supporters of renewable energy. But the red vs. blue framing conceals something important: when it comes to the climate, Texans are far to the left of their representatives.

Icicles hang off the State Highway 195 sign on February 18, 2021 in Killeen, Texas. (Joe Raedle / Getty Images)

As can now be expected in relation to virtually every major news event, the human disaster currently unfolding in Texas was hastily taken up as yet another front in America’s unrelenting culture war. Leading the charge was Republican representative Dan Crenshaw, who decided to blame the chaos on “a mix of over-subsidized wind energy and under-investment in gas power.” Earlier this week, the state’s GOP governor, Greg Abbott, used an appearance on Sean Hannity to make a nearly identical case. Rounding things off was Tucker Carlson, who declared: “The windmills failed like the silly fashion accessories they are, and people in Texas died.”

As Fred Stafford explains, the debate has to some extent been mirrored by liberals as well, who have taken up the cause of wind turbines with almost the same zeal conservatives have embraced oil and gas. In fact, while fossil fuel–based energy is undeniably the greater culprit for the state’s extreme weather–induced energy woes, neither has served Texas particularly well over the past week — the culture war framing many have internalized obscuring an awful lot about realities on the ground.

In different ways, both the fossil fuel identity politics of America’s Right and Texas’s conservative reputation in some liberal circles may be working to obscure the potential for a more radical environmental politics in the state. Indeed, based on recent empirical evidence, the political terrain in Texas looks a lot less hostile to a transformative green agenda than many might assume.

One 2019 poll, for example, identified considerably stronger support for a transition to renewable energy sources and high levels of concern about the threat posed by climate change. More comprehensive evidence appeared in a survey conducted last fall, which found that an overall majority of Texan voters (65 percent) would be more likely to support a candidate pledging to achieve 100 percent clean energy by 2035. In the same survey, a plurality endorsed an end to government tax advantages for the fossil fuel industry — a position strongly supported by Democrats and only rejected by a thin majority of Republicans.

Even natural gas, in some ways the fulcrum of right-wing energy politics, looks to enjoy less general support than many might expect. The same study identified a plurality of Texans who favor a reduction in fracking (46 percent) compared to around a third who support increasing it (34 percent) — the first position finding majority support among Independents as well as Democrats. Its findings also suggest a growing public understanding of the link between a more ambitious green agenda and jobs, with even a narrow plurality of Republicans favoring an emphasis on the creation of clean energy rather than natural gas–based employment.

Conservative cultural warriors are obviously wrong to blame the disaster in Texas (and the unnecessary deaths it has caused) on windmills and renewable energy sources. But, as the case also illustrates, these alone will be insufficient to weather the environmental challenges the state will almost certainly face in the decades ahead. That will ultimately require a much more comprehensive overhaul of the Texan economy and a plan that goes well beyond the market-driven construction of wind farms or solar panels. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez had it right when she tweeted: “The infrastructure failures in Texas are quite literally what happens when you *don’t* pursue a Green New Deal.”

Though such a plan will undeniably face strong opposition from fossil fuel interests and their elected surrogates, the political terrain in the Lone Star State looks a lot more amenable to a transformative environmental agenda than America’s culture war suggests. Make no mistake: a Green New Deal can win, even in Texas.