By Published: April 30, 2021

Renae Marshall, the College of Arts and Sciences’ Outstanding Graduate for spring 2021, produced an ‘impressive’ thesis examining the fate of more than 700 decarbonization bills in the past five years

Renae Marshall wanted to understand what kind of climate-mitigation legislation passed (or failed) state legislatures in recent years, and her undergraduate research yielded not just important answers, but also noteworthy recognition.

Marshall, who is graduating summa cum laude from the University of Colorado Boulder with a BA in environmental studies (and a minor in environmental planning), has been named the College of Arts and Sciences Outstanding Graduate for spring 2021. 

In a thesis that a member of her honors committee said was good enough to be a master’s thesis, Marshall explored bipartisan decarbonization policies, suggesting lessons to be learned from state-level successes and failures.

Renae Marshall

Renae Marshall

During her research project, Marshall analyzed more than 700 legislative bills, then performed three types of statistical analyses on them. Her research yielded three key results:

  • About a third of bills were passed into law by Republican-controlled legislatures. “This suggests that we may be entering a moment of opportunity for bipartisan cooperation on climate mitigation,” said Roger Pielke Jr., an environmental studies professor.
  • Bills that cleared Democratic legislatures differed from those that passed Republican-controlled legislatures. Democratic lawmakers tended to pass goals or dictates such as renewable energy portfolio standards, while Republican lawmakers were more likely to favor economic incentives such as tax credits for solar installations.
  • Bills that expanded consumer or business choice, that did not focus specifically on environmental justice from a critical theory lens, or that were introduced in “purple states” were most likely to become law in a bipartisan way according to vote share and co-sponsorship metrics.

These results could show a path to successful legislation, Marshall said in her thesis abstract: “Though climate change is a polarized issue, my results provide tangible insights for future bipartisan successes.”

Her thesis committee concurred, saying, “Renae’s thesis inspires hope, because it addresses important questions on how to bridge partisan divides to pass climate legislation.” 

For instance, Marshall noted that the 700 bills she analyzed were introduced between 2015 and 2020, a time not known for widespread bipartisanship. The data she gathered suggest that there are “really nice seeds of bipartisanship in red states,” she said recently.

In those cases, she said, successful bills combined expanded choice and financial components. “And these components generally made these bills a lot more popular for Republicans, and they’re really effective at either reducing regulatory barriers for solar and wind or incentivizing those types of energy.”

Marshall, who is a Colorado native, credits her research focus in part to a class on energy policy and society that she took during her junior year at CU Boulder.

“I loved thinking about the really technical issues … making sure that people have electricity to turn their lights on vs. where’s that electricity coming from and what are the sources and what are the social and political problems that are intertwined with each other.”

Additionally, decarbonization “is just really interesting” partly because there are many interconnected aspects, she said, adding, “It's a hugely important area and it needs to happen very soon, like now.”

One of the most important things I want to convey is that the goal of finding common ground can extend to the classroom, families, friends, a workplace, overseas and beyond.”

During her undergraduate research project, Marshall was advised by Matthew Burgess, assistant professor of environmental studies. Burgess’ bioeconomics lab sports the motto, “We are interested in anything that is interesting.”

She and Burgess plan to submit a version of her honors thesis to a peer-reviewed academic journal. Last summer, she and Burgess published an article in Medium, in which the pair imagined a presidential candidate who ran on a platform that two-thirds of Americans supported.

Marshall credits Burgess with her interest and motivation to study bipartisanship and a truth-informed approach to tackling climate change. Burgess recently won an Open Inquiry Award from the Heterodox Academy, which is committed to this line of thinking. 

While at CU Boulder, Marshall did internships and research for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Boulder County’s Resource Conservation Division and the CU Environmental Center. 

Next fall, she will begin working on a PhD in environmental politics at the University of California, Santa Barbara. 

When she wasn’t tackling climate change, Marshall has been a part-time professional Irish dancer. She’s been struck by the “unifying force of dance that transcends cultural boundaries,” she said.

Sharing her craft with audiences in the United States and internationally “feeds my constant curiosity and drive to learn more about people and places that I am a complete stranger to, and to capitalize on commonalities rather than differences,” she said in a speech for fellow honors graduates.

The search for common ground amid different traditions, experiences and beliefs is a thread that runs through both her artistic and academic work, as she notes: “One of the most important things I want to convey is that the goal of finding common ground can extend to the classroom, families, friends, a workplace, overseas and beyond.”