Aug 12, 2019 - Energy & Environment
Column / Harder Line

The energy and climate change puzzle

An illustration of puzzle pieces with images of climate protests and newspaper headlines

Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

People often ask me how I decide what to cover in this noisy and disparate energy and climate change beat. My answer: I stay focused on the puzzle.

The big picture: I look at the various factors that go into reducing greenhouse gases in a world that depends upon the energy resources that emit them. That is a simple deduction of what is a complex dynamic. Like puzzle pieces, these numerous factors work in tandem, not in isolation.

Tangible climate change

As the impacts of a warmer world become more tangible to people through extreme weather and more convincing science, the awareness of the issue grows.

How it fits: This is an essential foundation piece, because if the problem feels too far in the future compared to shorter term sacrifices, nothing will happen. And by the way, I’m still not convinced that it feels tangible enough — yet — to drive the level of change scientists say is needed to adequately address climate change.

Social movement

As I wrote in a recent column, over the past year, a concrete social movement has formed that’s far more global, persistent and sweeping than any other like-minded efforts in the past.

How it fits: Big societal changes have often occurred only once a concerted constituency — in this case led by young people — rose up and called for change.

Media coverage

Media companies in both TV and print are covering this issue far more than in the past — including myself.

How it fits: This trend is both a reflection of these other puzzle pieces and an amplifying force in its own right, because the media plays a role in shaping public opinion.

Technology costs

Costs for wind and solar have plummeted in the last decade, and the same thing is happening now in battery technologies that will enable those variable energy resources to last long after the wind stops blowing and the sun stops shining.

How it fits: The dropping costs, fueled largely by state mandates and federal subsidies, help build corporate and political support for greater use of greener technologies.

Corporate and investor concerns

Investors are increasingly investing in energy resources that aren’t the current dominant ones — oil, natural gas and coal. Meanwhile, they’re putting pressure on those companies to do more to ready themselves for a warmer world that is drastically reducing emissions.

How it fits: The planet needs more than altruism to save it in our capitalistic society — it needs the risk of financial losses and the potential for financial gain.

Lobbying shifts

Corporate America is calling on Congress to pass ambitious climate policy in the most aggressive and united way since 2009.

This includes big oil companies that have fought similar measures in the past and are now facing lawsuits alleging they're responsible for billions of dollars in extreme-weather damage due to climate change. That legal pressure is one driver of companies like ExxonMobil putting money toward a carbon tax lobbying campaign.

How it fits: Few major policies get through the legislative process without at least some support from the adversely affected industries.

Republican positioning

After a decade of ignoring or outright dismissing climate change as a problem, a small contingent of congressional Republicans are acknowledging it as an issue and discussing policies to address it. It’s nowhere near what most other political constituencies are calling for, though.

How it fits: Sweeping policy changes rarely get through Washington by one political party pushing it over the opposition of another, which is what many Democratic presidential hopefuls want to do with climate change.

Washington compromise

Many experts believe that ultimately environmentalists must be willing, for example, to trade at least some environmental regulations for a legislative solution like a carbon price. That policy, meanwhile, marks the beginning of the end for fossil-fuel companies as we know them today, an existential compromise on behalf of those industries and workers.

How it fits: Because of the prior puzzle piece about bipartisanship, it follows that all sides involved in the sausage-making that is making American laws must accept some things they don’t like.

What's next: I discussed this topic on a podcast Thursday. Tune in here.

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