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The Geography of Climate Politics

02/27/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

When it comes to the geography of climate politics, it doesn't break down along the much-ballyhooed "red state/blue state" divide. It's really more about coal states vs. clean states, as John Broder reports in yesterday's New York Times. That's a rift that risks dividing Senate Democrats as climate policies move forward in the 111th Congress.

By coincidence or design, most of the policy makers on Capitol Hill and in the administration charged with shaping legislation to address global warming come from California or the East Coast, regions that lead the country in environmental regulation and the push for renewable energy sources.

That is a problem, says a group of Democratic lawmakers from the Midwest and Plains States, which are heavily dependent on coal and manufacturing. The lawmakers have banded together to fight legislation they think might further damage their economies.

"There's a bias in our Congress and government against manufacturing, or at least indifference to us, especially on the coasts," said Senator Sherrod Brown, Democrat of Ohio. "It's up to those of us in the Midwest to show how important manufacturing is. If we pass a climate bill the wrong way, it will hurt American jobs and the American economy, as more and more production jobs go to places like China, where it's cheaper."

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Broder notes, "This brown state-green state clash is likely to encumber any effort to set a mandatory ceiling on the carbon dioxide emissions"... that is, unless climate advocates heed the concerns of the "Technology Fifteen." That's the group of moderate Democratic Senators who have banded together to ensure that the concerns of their "middle America" states are not ignored in the upcoming climate debates.

At the Breakthrough Institute, we initially dubbed this group the "Technology Ten" in June, when a letter (pdf) was penned expressing concern that the Lieberman-Warner "Climate Security Act" did too little to control the costs of climate policy and invest heavily in clean energy technologies. That letter was signed by Senators Debbie Stabenow and Carl Levin of Michigan, John Rockefeller of West Virginia, Blanche Lincoln and Mark Pryor of Arkansas, Jim Webb of Virginia, Evan Bayh of Indiana, Claire McCaskill of Missouri, Sherrod Brown of Ohio and Ben Nelson of Nebraska.

In October, that group grew to sixteen members, with the addition of Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico, Robert Byrd of West Virginia, Kent Conrad and Byron Dorgan of North Dakota, Tim Johnson of South Dakota and Ken Salazar of Colorado.

Mr. Salazar has since accepted the position of Secretary of Interior and it's unclear if his replacement (or other new senators for that matter) will join the group. For now, it seems the group stands at fifteen members, making it the "Technology Fifteen" (which we prefer to the rather Soviet-esque moniker given them by other media outlets, the "Gang of Fifteen").

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In October, we warned, "the concerns of the Democrats in the Technology Sixteen cannot be ignored, and real, substantive issues around cost-containment, technology deployment and the effects of climate legislation on business and consumers are far from resolved in the halls of Congress." That warning seems just as relevant today as it was before the November elections.

One quote in Broder's article from Senator Debbie Stabenow of Michigan sums up the Technology Fifteen's concerns clearly and concisely:

"My message over all is that for us to support what needs to be done in addressing global warming we need to demonstrate that, in fact, jobs are created," Ms. Stabenow said. "It's not a theoretical argument. We have to come up with a policy that makes sense, that is manageable on the cost end, that creates new technology, and that treats states equitably and addresses regional differences."

So, for climate advocates, that's our test: if we want climate policy passed in the US, we need to convince Senators Stabenow, Brown and the rest of the Technology Fifteen that (a) our policy proposal is actually good for their states' economies (rhetoric aside), (b) the costs of compliance are manageable and contained, (c) it will invest heavily in clean energy technology development and deployment, and (d) it will not disproportionately impact different states. It doesn't get much clearer than how she lays it out there.

Will we succeed in crafting a policy that can win over the Technology Fifteen? For all our sakes, I sure hope so...

Jesse Jenkins is the Director of Energy and Climate Policy at the Breakthrough Institute and the Founder and Blogmaster of WattHead - Energy News and Commentary

Originally posted at the Breakthrough Institute