Passion burns hot despite cool reception

It’s not easy being green at

the Statehouse.

Earlier this year, the Republican-led Legislature killed a program to cut energy consumption in homes, schools and businesses after some of the state’s biggest electricity users complained about its cost.

Gov. Mike Pence and the head of the Indiana Department of Environmental Management have both questioned the prevailing science on climate change. Both object to proposed federal rules aimed at curbing greenhouse gas emissions from the state’s coal-fired power plants.

Recently an organization backed by the billionaire industrialist brothers David and Charles Koch — whom Pence

has praised — launched negative ads against two conservative Republican congressmen from Indiana — both pro-coal — for supporting tax incentives to boost wind energy.

Into this lion’s den steps

Jesse Kharbanda, an articulate advocate for cleaner energy

as a means of protecting

the environment.

Kharbanda is an idealist

armed with impressive credentials. Before moving to Indiana to head the Hoosier Environmental Council, he collected two economics degrees. One is from the University of Chicago, which has a reputation as a defender of conservative economics and

capitalism. The other is from the University of Oxford, where he was a Rhodes Scholar.

Kharbanda, 37, is averse to hyperbole, preferring to cite research. In Indiana politics, that often means he has a tough time being heard.

Preparing for the next year’s legislative session, he’s girded himself with optimism.

He told me recently: “It’s

our aspiration that even in this very difficult environment — in which those who have different views from ours can be very critical of our positions and sometimes be personal in their attacks — that we can continue to maintain an ethic of the positive and focus on a vision we think people across the political spectrum would embrace.”

Kharbanda grew up in St. Louis, visiting on occasion his ancestral home of India, where he saw terrible poverty and environmental degradation. For vacations in the states, his mother took him to the childhood homes of American presidents. His favorite was Abraham Lincoln’s.

Those experiences fueled his interest in advocacy.

“My passion is helping people,” he said. “I see politics and

policy as the vehicle for helping a lot of people.”

For Kharbanda, that means

focusing on some specific issues in 2015. He’ll work against bills, sure to be introduced, to freeze new environmental regulations and keep Indiana from imposing any rules more stringent than those of the federal government.

He’ll also be on watch for new attempts to roll back incentives for renewable energy. And he’ll advocate, during this budget-making session, for the Legislature to return the dollars cut in past years to agencies that oversee environmental management and natural resources.

Kharbanda is a realist about what lies ahead.

He’s sat through enough committee hearings to see what lawmakers sometimes do when they’ve already made up their mind and decide their time is being wasted. They roll their eyes, surf the Web on their laptops and send text messages to each other on their smartphones.

Reluctantly, he admits he

and fellow environmentalists can be cynical.

“There is a sense that even though our testimony can be carefully developed and carefully communicated and grounded in excellent research, it will simply not carry equal weight to those with different views,” he said.

Still, Kharbanda remains

a believer.

“It’s hard,” he said. “But it’s meaningful work. We’re talking about how we make sure everyone in our state has a good quality of life.”

Maureen Hayden is Statehouse bureau

chief for CNHI newspapers. Send comments