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Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

It’s getting harder and harder to communicate the two essential realities of human-caused climate change: that our failure to slow and eventually stop it is contributing to devastating human suffering all over the world, and that it’s not too late to act.

The big picture: Experts have long told climate communicators —including scientists, journalists and politicians — that disaster porn immobilizes people, leaving them cowering in a corner. You've got to give them a sense of hope, the research shows.

Yes, but: Climate news right now continues to be a steady, terrible drumbeat of doom.

Why it matters: Climate change is not an existential cliff that we'll suddenly fall off of, with no turning back. It's more like a hill we're sliding down at ever-increasing speed.

  • We can choose to alter course at any time by hitting the brakes and slashing emissions of greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide, emanating from the burning of fossil fuels and deforestation.
  • But the longer we wait, the faster we'll be traveling, and the more effort it will take to slow down and achieve the cuts that are needed. And we've already waited a long time to start pumping the brakes.

Between the lines: Optimism has its place in climate change discourse.

  • Many of the technologies needed to dramatically reduce emissions, such as renewable energy resources like wind and solar power, are seeing increasingly wide adoption. In most cases now in the U.S., they even have a cost advantage over fossil fuels such as coal and natural gas.
  • Electric vehicles are gaining traction, and money is flowing into next-generation technologies like carbon removal mechanisms.
  • A social movement is pushing for climate action in the U.S. and abroad. And corporations are seeking ways to reduce their emissions in response to pressure from customers and regulators.

But the fact is that we're still on course for at least 3°C (5.4°F) of warming compared to the preindustrial era, based on the latest emissions reduction pledges. And if climate models that project even more warming for the same amount of emissions are correct, it could be closer to 4°C (7.2°F).

  • Almost unimaginable consequences would stem from that level of warming, particularly in the developing world.
  • The planet has only warmed by about 1.2°C (2.16°F) since the preindustrial era, and even that has left us with a summer straight out of "The Day After Tomorrow."

My thought bubble: Being a climate reporter today is like being a chronicler of human-caused disasters, along with a bearer of grim policy news as leaders fail to stem the tide of ever-increasing greenhouse gas emissions.

  • My job is to inform, not to inspire, and that means being blunt about the fact that climate change is ravaging the Earth right now.
  • But I also know that too much doom risks leaving people with a sense of fatalism, obscuring the equally true and equally relevant fact that the damage does not have to keep getting worse at this pace. Choices made today will determine what the planet will be like in just a few decades.

What's next: The doom, for now, is going to keep coming.

  • The U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is set to release a new compendium on Aug. 9 — a policy-neutral, authoritative report that's expected to highlight how difficult it will be to adhere to the Paris climate agreement's temperature targets, while also depicting in more granular details the consequences of failing to do so.
  • The report is expected to detail the differences between a world that warms by only 1.5°C -- an increasingly unrealistic target — versus a world that warms by 2°C or more.
  • Expect alarming headlines to accompany that report, and a renewed push for action.

Go deeper

Updated Sep 22, 2021 - Axios Events

Watch: A conversation on bold climate commitments

On Wednesday, September 22nd, Axios co-founder Mike Allen and energy reporter Ben Geman hosted a virtual conversation on the innovative approaches climate leaders are undertaking to reshape standards for sustainability initiatives in 2022 and beyond, featuring White House national climate adviser Gina McCarthy and Environmental Defense Fund president Fred Krupp.

Gina McCarthy explained the Biden administration’s recent environmental priorities, the importance of mobilizing different communities to fight climate change, and how the White House is incentivizing private industries to reduce their emissions.   

  • On addressing extreme heat problems: "I think everybody’s beginning to understand as the President tours the sites of wildfires and flooding and other really big challenges like drought, there’s this silent killer for climate change that’s called excess heat, that really doesn’t get enough attention."
  • On cross-agency collaboration on climate change at a federal level: “It’s an exciting moment where people across the federal government are working together in ways they have never done before, not just to tackle wildfires and droughts and flooding and heat stress, but also to tackle the challenge of how we motivate our business sector and send them all the signals you would want us to send that shows that President Biden is committed to achieving net zero in 2050, and knows that this decade is a decisive decade.”

Fred Krupp highlighted how companies must be held accountable to pledges to reduce their emissions, how some corporations are breaking with lobby associations to become more vocal about climate change (and others are not), and how he believes debates surrounding the infrastructure bill will play out in the near future. 

  • On how corporate lobbying has fallen short: “Right now, we don’t see enough corporations lobbying on behalf of the climate sections of the reconciliation bill. This bill that’s pending in Congress is our once in a decade opportunity to get something done on climate.” 
  • On public support for the infrastructure bill: “I see an enormous amount of support in the American public for moving ahead with a sort of clean energy economy that are going to create tremendous numbers of jobs, clean the air, make people healthier.” 

Axios VP of Communications Yolanda Brignoni hosted a View from the Top segment with GE’s Chief Sustainability Officer Roger Martella, who discussed how GE is following through on their ESG goals by investing in sustainable energy technologies. 

  • “We create some of the most technically complex and critical technologies the world needs, and we’re focused today on innovating these technologies on a path to decarbonization.” 

Thank you GE for sponsoring this event.

Ben Geman, author of Generate
Sep 24, 2021 - Energy & Environment

Finance regulators becoming involved in climate change

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Biden-era financial regulators are getting increasingly involved in climate — if not as much as some advocates want — and this week is bringing fresh signs of the trend.

Driving the news: The Securities and Exchange Commission revealed that it's sending letters to corporations seeking more complete disclosures about their climate-related risks.

Updated Sep 23, 2021 - Axios Events

Watch: A conversation on investing in advanced climate tech

On Thursday, September 23rd, Axios business editor Dan Primack and Axios Today host Niala Boodhoo explored how alternative energy investments toward climate solutions function in the private and public sector today, featuring Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Galvanize Climate Solutions co-founder Tom Steyer.

Sen. Ron Wyden explained his support for overhauling the existing tax code to incentivize companies to reduce their emissions, his belief that all Americans should pay their fair share of taxes, and Congressional efforts to increase electric vehicle usage.

  • On his support for modifying the tax code: “One of the little secrets about the tax code is that many billionaires pay little or no income taxes. The way they do that is they don’t take a wage, and so Americans have read all these stories about prominent billionaires paying virtually nothing in the way of income taxes for years and years on end. I don’t think that’s right.”
  • On the future trajectory of electric vehicles: “Getting a critical mass of these electric vehicles on the road is going to bring down costs. It’s going to be good for the environment, good for marketplace forces, and the American economy.”

Tom Steyer highlighted the importance of cleaning up electricity generation across the country, how the climate tech investment landscape has changed over the last decade, and what areas of climate tech he believes need more attention and investment.

  • On the future of the infrastructure and reconciliation bills: “I believe that the Democratic Party will come to a negotiated place which will include very important climate regulations, climate initiatives, and that specifically they will be encouraging the move to clean electricity generation across the United States during this decade.”
  • On the need for more tangible innovations in climate tech: “It’s going to be incredibly important for us too to do well in the businesses like manufacturing, where you can touch the product. We have dominated the kinds of businesses like software that you can’t touch.”

Axios co-founder and CEO Jim VandeHei hosted a View from the Top segment with HSBC’s Group Chief Sustainability Officer Celine Herweijer, who discussed how sustainability is moving to the forefront of many corporations’ long-term goals.

  • “We’ve committed to essentially have a net zero target across all of our finance commissions portfolio. So to be able to do that, that means fundamentally changing how we finance it, fundamentally changing our risk appetite, changing our culture, our policies, our processes of capability.”

Thank you HSBC for sponsoring this event.

Go deeper: Get smarter, faster on the growing field of climate tech with our free short course.