The Electrifying Leah Stokes
Saving the Planet with
Heat Pumps, E-Bikes, and Induction Stoves
By Nick Welsh | April 20, 2023
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Leah Stokes is too damn busy for despair. A recent mother of twins, a UCSB professor, and a one-person media whirlwind on the subject of climate change, Stokes doesn’t have the time to get overwhelmed either. “Action gives me hope,” she explained in a recent interview from her recently all-electrified home in San Roque.
Translated, that means Stokes now rides an electric bike; drives an electric car; and heats and cools her houses with a heat pump, the green technology equivalent of a perpetual motion machine. She heats her water the same way and cooks with an electrified induction model stove, a technology said to rival that of gas stoves, still the preferred method for most cooks. Stokes’s roof is adorned with solar panels, and she’s installed an electric charging station in her yard. City Hall, she rued, could have made it significantly easier for her to get all permits necessary, but that’s a fight for another day.
Such a major infrastructure makeover is admittedly not cheap, but Stokes cited studies showing it will bring her home energy costs down by $1,800 a year. Thousands of dollars of rebates and tax breaks are now available to offset a significant chunk of the up-front costs needed to exorcize fossil fuels from the infrastructure of one’s abode. These tax breaks are baked into the $369 billion climate bill — better known as the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) — signed into law by President Joe Biden last summer. That bill, Stokes said, will reduce greenhouse-gas emissions to the tune of 40 percent. And given that fossil-fuel costs account for 41 percent of recent inflation, she said, the name makes sense.
Stokes would know more than a little about this legislation. She has the scar tissue to show for it. Not an ivory-tower intellectual content to wage the good fight from the safe distance of theoretical models, Stokes spent the past three years in the thick of the bloody battle that led to the eventual passage of the IRA, which is the single biggest and most sweeping climate-change legislation the federal government has ever passed. In various interviews since, Stokes has described it as “huge,” “cool,” and “a BFD.”
In reality, it almost didn’t get passed. In fact, just one day after Stokes’s newborn twins came home from the hospital, West Virginia’s Joe Manchin walked away from negotiations with Senate Democrats. The deal appeared DOA. Stokes was crestfallen. Democratic negotiators were forced to sharpen their pencil and cut from the proposal. Given the rapacious speed with which climate change has been accelerating, not passing a climate change bill, Stokes argued in countless media interviews, was simply not an option. Fires, floods, and drought were achieving critical mass not just at home in Santa Barbara — where she’s been teaching since 2015 — but throughout the entire planet. “We still have time,” Stokes insists, “but we don’t have another 10 years.”
Part poindexter and part samurai, Stokes — who got her PhD from MIT — brings a rare and formidable skill set to the equation. She can talk both science and political science with astonishing detail, nuance, and academic authority while translating it all for public consumption without dumbing it down. As a public speaker, she’s commanding, fluid, and accessible; there’s no know-it-all arrogance to her delivery. Little wonder her op-eds run with such frequency in the pages of the New York Times and other media outlets. On top of that, Stokes does a regular podcast — A Matter of Degrees — devoting three episodes to what individuals can do to combat climate change. And then there’s her much acclaimed book — Short Circuiting Policy — published in 2020.
All this makes Stokes the fossil-fuel industry’s worst nightmare. For the past 20 years, she has studied how utility companies — just like the fossil-fuel industry — spend billions of dollars sowing seeds of doubt of whether climate change is real and what the causes were, and fighting to delay action. Like a football coach scouting the opposition, Stokes scrutinizes their tactics and tendencies when confronted with legislative threats.
In Santa Barbara, Stokes was one of the first to expose SoCalGas’s effort to use a false front “grassroots” organization — paid for with ratepayer dollars — to arouse public opposition to a proposed city ordinance that would ban natural gas from new developments. Not long after Stokes exposed the utility company’s role, the organization’s text campaign ceased and representatives from the group stopped testifying in front of the council. The proposal passed, and the organization has been sanctioned by the California Public Utilities Commission for improperly using ratepayer money.
In her research, Stokes talks about “the fog of implementation” and “the spectacle of passage.” Too much focus, she says, is directed at the latter, with not nearly enough — at least by environmental advocates — on the former. It’s often the case that even the lawmakers don’t know what’s really in major bills they’ve passed. For example, Donald Trump’s much-ballyhooed tax cut for the rich, she said, actually increased corporate tax rates, much to the chagrin of proponents, who then were forced to spend much political energy getting it the way they intended. In addition, she has found, many complex bills aren’t actually implemented for as long as 20 years. In that intervening time, special interests with a stake in the game exploit the ambiguity to wage a spirited resistance.
Passage of major legislation, Stokes noted, should be seen as the beginning of the process, not the culmination. Already she’s on alert about some inadvertent vagueness contained in the IRA. It involves a $100 billion tax credit for the production of hydrogen, but the law does not specify what technologies can and cannot be used to produce this hydrogen. She starts with the words, “Down on page 118….”
Page 118? Leah Stokes is too busy for despair.
The Association of Women in Communications (AWC-SB) is honoring Dr. Leah Stokes and Hillary Hauser of Heal the Ocean at its annual Women of Achievement Awards luncheon on April 27. A limited number of tickets are still available. For information, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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