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Governor races really matter for climate change. Here are the ones to watch.

Several states could radically change course on clean energy and greenhouse gas emissions after Tuesday’s elections.

North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper has made fighting climate change a key part of his administration, pulling the state in the opposite direction of some of its past policies.
North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper has made fighting climate change a key part of his administration, pulling the state in the opposite direction of some of its past policies.
Sara D. Davis/Getty Images
Umair Irfan is a correspondent at Vox writing about climate change, Covid-19, and energy policy. Irfan is also a regular contributor to the radio program Science Friday. Prior to Vox, he was a reporter for ClimateWire at E&E News.

In 2012, North Carolina set a new low bar for climate change denial: Its governor allowed a law to pass that blocked state agencies from considering the best science on sea level rise in policymaking. “If your science gives you a result you don’t like, pass a law saying the result is illegal,” Stephen Colbert quipped at the time. “Problem solved.”

Fast-forward to last week, when North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper signed an executive order pledging that the state would uphold its share of the Paris climate agreement, aiming to cut greenhouse gases 40 percent below 2005 levels by 2025. In making this pledge, he joins 16 other governors in the United States Climate Alliance who want to cut greenhouse gases and accelerate clean energy even as the Trump administration runs in the opposite direction.

Yet North Carolina’s decision stands out because it is a U-turn from where the state was just six years ago. Storms like Hurricane Florence, worsened by higher sea levels and warmer temperatures, have made climate change impossible to ignore for North Carolinians. But the biggest reason the state has seen such a radical shift is that it elected a governor willing to address climate in a serious way.

Voters now have a chance to flip climate change and clean energy policies in other states in the upcoming midterm elections, from renewable energy mandates to pricing carbon. But gubernatorial races are particularly important because governors have executive authority and can make some changes to state policies unilaterally. So several states — Maine, Nevada, New Mexico, and New Hampshire — could radically change course depending on who wins and what measures pass.

Some of the most important actions on climate change have happened at the state level

Back in 2012, the North Carolina Coastal Resource Commission found that the state’s coast would see upward of 39 inches of sea level rise by the end of the century. That forecast for sea level rise would have made it almost impossible to insure existing properties and build new ones, so developers lobbied against it.

The initial version of the House Bill 819 would have barred using the most up-to-date climate science indefinitely, but the version that passed instituted a four-year moratorium on using the most dire forecast. Instead, planners had to look just 30 years ahead rather than to the end of the century, using a projection of roughly 8 inches of sea level rise based on an earlier projection that didn’t account for melting ice caps and the thermal expansion of water due to rising average temperatures.

The governor at the time, Democrat Beverly Perdue, who declined to run for reelection in 2012, allowed the bill to pass without her signature.

She was then succeeded by Republican Pat McCrory, giving Republicans complete control over North Carolina’s government.

Then in 2016, Democrat Roy Cooper was elected governor, defeating McCrory. With a nudge from Hurricane Florence — which caused record flooding and extensive damage to properties in North Carolina, and was exacerbated by climate change — Cooper had the political capital to sign the EO to committing to hit the Paris climate agreement targets.

Now he’s committed the state to increasing the number of zero-emissions vehicles, decreasing the energy consumption of state-owned buildings, and creating a clean energy plan for the state, even with the legislature still in Republican hands. His recent executive order also directs state agencies to incorporate the latest climate science in their planning and operations.

And North Carolina is far from the only state to dramatically turn around its climate policies in recent years. When New Jersey elected Democrat Phil Murphy, he reversed the decision of his predecessor, Republican Chris Christie, to withdraw from the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a carbon trading scheme to limit carbon emissions. Democrat Ralph Northam, who was sworn in as governor of Virginia this year, proposed joining the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative as well, which would make Virginia the first Southern state to do so.

Climate change is a midterm campaign issue

This November, voters in many states will have the chance to choose between candidates with plans to reduce emissions and price carbon and those who don’t want to do anything to address climate change.

The governor races in Maine, Nevada, New Mexico, and New Hampshire are particularly important. They all passed renewable energy bills through their state legislatures that were vetoed by incumbent Republican governors, according to Inside Climate News. These bills could get another shot depending on the outcome of the election.

Florida’s gubernatorial race has also seen climate change become a wedge issue between Democrat Andrew Gillum and Republican Ron DeSantis.

Governors also appoint public utility commissioners in 38 states, which helps them shape the future of energy investment in those states. This is critical for long-term bets on clean energy.

Climate change is coming up in federal campaigns too, like in the Senate race in Texas between incumbent Republican Ted Cruz and challenger Beto O’Rourke. Cruz has voted down efforts to price greenhouse gas emissions while O’Rourke has framed fighting climate change as an economic imperative.

In Florida’s 26th Congressional District, Republicans are actually attacking the Democratic challenger, Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, for taking “dirty coal money” from donors whose pollution threatens the Florida Keys due to climate change. The incumbent in the race, Republican Carlos Curbelo, has introduced a bill to tax carbon dioxide emissions.

Meanwhile, Florida’s Republican Gov. Rick Scott, who once banned state agencies from using the terms “climate change” and “global warming,” is now running for Senate against incumbent Democrat Bill Nelson, who has made climate change a central campaign issue.

One group, Vote Climate US PAC, has put together a voting guide scoring incumbents and challengers on their climate bona fides.

There are also ballot measures for renewable energy mandates in Nevada and Arizona. And in Washington state, voters will have the opportunity to weigh in directly on a major climate policy. A measure known as Initiative 1631 is on the ballot and would attach a fee to carbon dioxide emissions and use the revenue to fund a green New Deal.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reported earlier this month that the world may have as little as 12 years to act to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

To reach this goal, or even to limit warming to 2°C, countries, states, and cities will have to accelerate every tool they have to ratchet back emissions and remove carbon from the atmosphere. Even with a White House that is aggressively undoing climate policies and trying to boost coal, oil, and natural gas, the midterms are a chance to affect state and local governments’ say in the fight.