Jan 13, 2020 - Energy & Environment
Column / Harder Line

Amid chaos, new decade brings big global warming changes

Illustration of a man in a maze made up of question marks and exclamation points

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

We’ve had enough news in recent days to suggest we’re 13 months, not days, into this decade.

Driving the news: President Trump pushes the biggest changes to environmental law in 50 years, the world’s biggest investor is going big on global warming and House Democrats are going it alone on climate policy. And this all just happened last week!

Where it stands: It was easy to miss those developments with all of the alarming headlines of the last 13 days. America flirted with a Mideast war, the oil market surprisingly shrugged it off, a plane was shot from the sky, the impeachment saga feels like old news but is still very much a thing, and Australia is burning.

Cue a modern-day rendition of 1989’s We Didn’t Start The Fire.

“How does one be productive in the midst of all the unpredictability? I think it forces you to choose between nihilism or pragmatism and loud or quiet.”
— Jason Grumet, Bipartisan Policy Center president

Grumet represents a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, the Bipartisan Policy Center, whose mission seems out of fashion. Nonetheless, his group is quietly working with Congress, industry officials and others to try to find a way forward on climate and energy policy.

The big picture: Amid all this chaos, big changes are happening on the energy and climate change front that suggest more polarization and acrimony that could last long after the presidential election.

1) Democratic leaders of the House Energy and Commerce Committee introduced a sweeping legislative framework last Wednesday laying out policies that the lawmakers say could achieve net-zero U.S. greenhouse gas emissions within the next three decades.

Why it matters: It adds policy substance to what has otherwise been mostly rhetoric coming from House Democrats.

  • Chairman Frank Pallone (D-N.J.), isn’t even putting up a pretense of possible Republican support anymore, given that none of them support such a reduction goal.
  • The bill is on a road to nowhere for now, and maybe forever, given the dicey politics of aggressive climate policies within even the Democratic Party.
  • Nonetheless, Pallone says he needs to keep pushing. “What choice do we have? Australia is burning,” he told reporters at the Capitol last week.

As for Republicans, some are offering narrow bills focused on innovation.

  • Wednesday also saw Rep. Tom Reed (R-N.Y.) tout his recently introduced legislation providing subsidies for all types of clean-energy technologies.

2) Trump announced proposals on Thursday to drastically narrow the scope of a law governing environmental reviews of America’s infrastructure as a way to hasten the construction of everything from bridges to pipelines.

Why it matters: The proposals are likely the biggest changes to the law — the National Environmental Policy Act — in its 50-year history, and could implicitly exclude climate change from consideration.

  • For now, experts say, this is likely to create more (dare I say) chaos.
  • “The proposal puts 50 years of NEPA precedent into disarray and causes massive confusion for the agencies and courts,” said Leslie Hayward, business and content director of business and content at the consulting firm Rapidan Energy Group.
  • Lawsuits are inevitable and the rule’s ultimate fate hinges on the presidential election, Hayward says: “Don’t expect any expedited permitting in the meantime, or in fact the opposite, but it does have significant implications for long-term energy investments.”

3) BlackRock, the world’s largest asset investor, joined Climate Action 100+, an investor network pushing companies to be more transparent and aggressive in cutting greenhouse gas emissions.

Why it matters: Time will tell how aggressive BlackRock will be within this group, but even joining is significant.

  • This group now represents $41 trillion in assets, and although it’s hard to pinpoint what percentage that is compared to the world’s overall assets, Axios’ Felix Salmon, one of our in-house money experts, says no matter how you slice it, it’s a “substantial” share.

4) On Friday, the Trump administration issued more sanctions on Iran, deepening a policy whose centerpiece is sanctions on Iran’s oil exports.

  • Oil markets are responding with a shrug. Prices are reliably low despite a persistent bout of geopolitical unrest emerging from the oil-rich Middle East. Thanks, American oil!

Flashback: In August 2017, I wrote an article with the headline: “Chaos obscures Washington's biggest policy change.”

  • Its purpose was to underscore how the chaos unfolding in Washington at that time —Trump’s prolific tweeting, the FBI’s Russia investigation and the Mooch’s 15 minutes of fame — was diverting attention from Trump’s near-complete reversal of America’s environmental policies.
  • People probably have a better understanding of Trump’s environmental policies now, but chaos remains. Different tweets, investigations, characters — but same chaos.

The bottom line: “The chaos is now predictable," says Grumet. "I think anybody who is trying to advance policy recognizes that this is the boundary condition. And we have had to figure out how to work through it."

What’s next: My guess is on more chaos — and more fires.

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