Spence Featured on Academic Minute 

Who is to blame for slowing the transition to a low carbon energy future? 

David Spence has some ideas.

Spence is a professor of energy law and regulation at The University of Texas at Austin. Spence’s research and teaching focuses on government regulation of the energy industry. He is author of “Climate of Contempt: Rescuing the Energy Transition from Voter Partisanship” (Columbia University Press, 2024), and co-author of the energy law textbook “Energy, Economics and the Environment” (Foundation Press, sixth edition, 2023). Spence earned his Ph.D. in political science from Duke University, his J.D. from the University of North Carolina, and his B.A. from Gettysburg College. 

portrait of David Spence for Academic Minute

The Academic Minute, a nationally syndicated program run by NPR’s WAMC and sponsored by Inside Higher Ed and the American Association of Colleges and Universities, recently featured David Spence, the Rex G. Baker Centennial Chair in Natural Resources Law. 

The Misunderstood Politics of the Energy Transition

Polling tells us that most voters care about climate change and favor a transition to a lower carbon energy future. According to my research, the biggest obstacle to that aspiration is not the energy industry and its affiliated politicians. Rather it is the outsized political influence exercised by the most intensely partisan voters. 

The 2021 Build Back Better bill would have regulated greenhouse gas emissions in the electricity sector. That bill passed the House on a party line vote, but failed in the evenly divided Senate because every Republican plus Joe Manchin opposed it. Manchin is a coal state Democrat, but he also represents a very red state that is only getting redder backing the bill would have provoked a sharp negative reaction from his constituents. 

Today, most congressional seats are safe, and that they are dominated numerically by voters of one party or the other. Politicians in the safe seats keep their jobs not by addressing what their average constituent wants, but rather the demands of voters at the fringes of their party. The most partisan Republicans are often too confident that the energy transition will be impossible, or impossibly costly. Their democratic counterparts are often too certain that it will be easy or bring only benefits to the voting public. Building legislative majorities requires breaching this divide getting outside of our ideological bubbles and talking to our fellow citizens across partisan boundaries. 

Climate policymaking is a bottom-up problem that requires a bottom-up solution. Putting down our phones, thinking critically about our own views, and talking politics with those friends, family and neighbors with whom we disagree.

Category: Faculty Scholarship