Climate COP26 US Governors

FILE - In this March 13, 2016, file photo provided by Louisiana State Police, Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards surveys floods in Vinton, La. At least half a dozen U.S. governors, all Democrats, are heading to the U.N. climate conference in Glasgow, Scotland, to tout their state's climate progress at a critical moment in the United States' efforts to ramp down carbon emissions. (Col. Mike Edmonson/Louisiana State Police via AP, File)

Gov. John Bel Edwards is at heart a realist. He’s had to be, in order to chart a successful path as a Democrat leading a Republican state during these deeply divisive times.

So it was refreshing to see him bring some of that realism across the pond to Glasgow, where world leaders gathered last week for the big UN conference on climate change. Edwards was a visible presence at the event, appearing alongside leaders such as White House climate czar Gina McCarthy and climate envoy John Kerry and sharing the view from an avowedly oil and gas state.

Aggressive policies to move beyond polluting fossil fuels, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and avert further danger to the warming planet can prompt defensiveness and even ridicule in some corners here. But Edwards has been putting a different, pragmatically minded spin on the effort, emphasizing that it gives Louisiana its best shot at remaining an energy state far into the future.

In some ways, he represented a counterpoint to officials from states such as California, which are enacting climate policies that push industry innovation. In Louisiana, Edwards’ call to “embrace the transition” isn’t about forcing business’s hand but about keeping up with the changes that are already happening.

“When the world market turns, it turns,” Edwards said on one panel, “and if you want to continue to be a leader in energy, you’re going have to pursue cleaner energy if that’s what the world is wanting to buy and to consume.”

Even though the state is particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change, that message is still tough to swallow for some Louisianans, he acknowledged. Where oil and gas have long driven the economy and provided generations of jobs, “there’s a lot of concern that the life that they’ve known for decades will change and that what comes next may not be as good.”

What helps get the conversation moving beyond that, he said, is to focus on jobs in the new energy economy. At the conference, Edwards described forward-thinking ventures, from servicing of offshore wind instead of offshore oil in the Gulf of Mexico to the giant new carbon capture installation that’s planned for Ascension Parish.

Pivoting Louisiana’s economy has actually been something of an under-the-radar theme of the governor’s second term. He’s launched a climate initiatives task force and a series of goals culminating in net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. In Glasgow, he spoke of the project’s urgency and said he plans to be far enough along by the time he leaves office in 2024 so that his successor won't be able to walk it back, "even if they're not thinking like I am." 

If he succeeds in framing the conversation and putting Louisiana’s economy on a sustainable course, it could be one of his most important and long-lasting legacies. And if he shows leaders of other fossil fuel states how to reframe the conversation, all the better.

The alternative is to be remembered as the governor who didn’t do those things, who instead put his head in the sand and refused to face reality.

“You get to the end of that road, and you’ve been whipping that same horse, and it just goes out,” Edwards said. “You don’t have another one to get on.”