Politics and Policy

On the solutions side of this website, we’ve examined the technologies and practices that can reduce greenhouse gas emissions and build up carbon sinks. We have most of the solutions we need! But to deploy most of them quickly enough and at vast enough scale to meet the climate crisis, we need government policies – at every level from international down to local.

This means that careers that set or influence government policy can be powerfully impactful. These include careers in elected politics, from town councilor on up. They include careers as professional staff working to get politicians elected, or working for politicians while they’re in office. They include non-political bureaucrats working in all levels of government ­– as well as at multi-national organizations like the United Nations. And they include workers at political or policy-oriented non-profits – including activists organizing people to exert pressure on politicians. Most of the people in these roles will never be famous. But someone working quietly in a government office may do more to shape the future of life on this planet than many who are much more well-known.

This page is in two parts:

Politics. We start with an opinionated overview of the large forces shaping the political debate over climate action. This account is US-centric, but the same forces we identify in the US are at work, to different degrees, around the globe – although the US is the only large country in which a major political party denies the reality of human-caused climate change.

Policy Then, we then turn to looking at a few, major goals for climate policy. This account is selective too. (There are hundreds of good policies and policy goals that we leave out.) And it’s opinionated. It reflects the understanding of climate solutions we arrived at on the other side of the site. We recommend that you read the Solutions Overview, the page on Energy: The Big Picture, and the page on Agriculture, Forestry and Other Land Use before reading this part of the page.


Politics

Vested interests and predatory delay

In the 1970s, before climate change became a public issue, oil and gas corporations employed leading scientists to study the impact of fossil fuels on the climate. Exxon even outfitted one of its own tankers with sensors so that its scientists could figure out how much CO2 was being absorbed by oceans. These companies built rigorous scientific models that have predicted warming in the decades since with uncanny accuracy. Scientists at these companies issued a steady stream of reports to their senior management reporting their findings and warning that continued burning of fossil fuels would cause heating of around 0.2° C each decade – projections that were “consistent with, and at least as skillful as, those of independent academic and government models.” according to a new analysis.

The chart below shows global warming projections from ExxonMobil scientists (in grey) compared to observed temperature increases (in red).

Credit: the chart was drawn by the New York Times on the basis of one published in Supran et. al (2023)

Oil and gas corporations used the results of this research in their own business planning. By the 1980s and 90s, oil companies were raising the decks of the their drilling platforms by several meters, to account for anticipated sea level rise and more intense storms, and designing pipelines to protect them from coastal erosion and melting permafrost.

Credit: Jan-Rune Smenes Reite

At the same time that fossil fuel companies were adjusting their own business practices based on their impressively accurate understanding of climate science, they began a multi-decade, multibillion dollar misinformation campaign, aimed at preventing climate action by denying the scientific consensus about climate change. 

In Merchants of Doubt, Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway document how fossil fuel companies borrowed the playbook that tobacco companies had pioneered a decade earlier – employing the same public relations strategists, paid lobbyists, and even the same scientific spokesmen. Investigative journalist Amy Westervelt has extended this work in three “true crime” podcast series, Drilled, Damages, and Rigged. If you want to deepen your understanding of how we got to present moment, we recommend these highly.

Just as the tobacco industry delayed regulations on cigarettes by convincing the public and policymakers that there was no scientific consensus that smoking causes cancer, the oil and gas industry has delayed climate action by convincing the public and policymakers that there is no scientific consensus that burning fossil fuels causes climate change. In both cases, industry leaders may have recognized that they could not prevent the truth from reaching the public and policy-makers forever. Their goal, in both cases, was simply to prolong the life of their profit stream ($1.5 trillion each year, on average, for oil and gas) by as much as possible. This is a strategy that the writer Alex Steffan calls predatory delay. 

To execute this strategy, fossil fuels companies have funded “think tanks” like the Heartland Institute and the Competitive Enterprise Institute that churn out reports questioning climate science. They have bought advertising campaigns on TV, radio, print media and the internet – for instance, paying to place a long series of full-page “advertorials” in major newspapers. They have hired armies of lobbyists to convey their preferred narrative to politicians. They have even distributed free educational materials to schools, starting with elementary school, emphasizing the benefits of fossil fuels and dismissing the findings of climate science.

Credit: DeSmog.com

The goal of all of this messaging was not to win the scientific argument about whether climate change is real or about its cause. The scientific community had already answered those questions definitively. The goal was to sow confusion with the public and with policymakers, by perpetuating the idea that there was no scientific consensus, and that the central findings of climate science were still uncertain, in order to delay action. You can see the strategy at work in this full-page ad, placed in the New York Times by Mobil (now part of Exxon Mobil) in 1997, as the world was considering the Kyoto Protocol, a binding treaty to limit greenhouse gas emissions. 

Image reproduced in Washington DC v Exxon BP Chevron Shell Filed Complaint 6/25/2020

The ad warns:

…[N]ations at Kyoto are being asked to embrace proposals that could have potentially huge impacts on economies and lifestyles. Nations are being urged to cut emissions without either knowing the severity of the problem – that is, will Earth’s temperature increase over the next 50-100 years? – or the efficacy of the solution – will cutting CO2 emissions reduce the problem?

Within a decade, science is likely to provide more answers on what factors effect global warming, thereby improving our decision-making. We just don’t have this information today.

This 1998 internal memo from the American Petroleum Institute explains the goal of ads like this: “Victory will be achieved when… average citizens ‘understand’… uncertainties in climate science; [and] recognition of uncertainities becomes part of the ‘conventional wisdom.’”

Credit: Union of Concerned Scientists

The fossil fuel industry has achieved decades of predatory delay not only by swaying the public, but also by going straight to politicians – and in the US, by capturing the major funding networks of the Republican party. If you are from the U.S., you might take it for granted that climate change is a liberal or progressive issue, and you might think that it is natural that conservative politicians oppose climate action. But around the world, many parties representing fiscally conservative and socially conservative values care about climate. The UK became a world-leader in decarbonizing its economy while the Conservative Party was in power. The US is almost unique in having one of its major parties unified in opposing climate action.

In the US, the fight over climate action was not always partisan. In the early days of the climate movement, there were both Democrats and Republicans calling for climate action. As recently as 2008, the Republican presidential nominee, John McCain, had a real climate plan; and in the same year, the Democratic Speaker of the US House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, and the Republican former Speaker of the US House of Representatives, Newt Gingrich, made this video calling for bipartisan action.

In the time since then, whenever a Republican office-holder has advocated climate action, the fossil fuel industry has found another Republican to challenge them in a primary election (the contest to determine who will be the Republican candidate in the general election); and it has poured money into the challenger’s campaign. This is how conservative, seven-term Republican congressman Bob Inglis was forced out of office when he said the US should act on climate change. And it’s how Republican Senator John McCain was pushed to reverse his own position on climate action, even though he managed to stay in office.

In this way, the fossil fuel industry has managed to capture the Republican party as an institution, so that Republican candidates who support meaningful action cannot run with their party’s support. Polls show that a majority of ordinary Republican voters believe in climate change and want to do something about it, and this is especially true among younger Republicans; but the fossil fuel industry has so far kept an iron grip on elected Republican politicians, and has used it in service of predatory delay.

This is why the biggest, most important piece of climate legislation in history, the (confusingly named) Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), had to pass in Congress without a single Republican vote; and it’s why Republican state governments have sought to rollback standards that require renewable energy, and to make it difficult or impossible to build new renewables – for instance, by eliminating “net-metering” policies that make it economical to put solar panels on homes, by imposing “set-back” requirements that prevent wind or solar power from being built near roads or property lines so that there is little or no space on which it is practical to build renewables, and by making it illegal for cities and towns to prevent gas infrastructure in new home building. If you want a deeper understanding of the way in which the fossil fuel industry has gained control of the Republican party and used that control in state-level politics to block the growth of renewable energy, read Leah Stokes’s wonderful book, Short-Circuiting Policy


Economic Forces in Politics

For most of the history of the climate movement, the opponents of climate action had a powerful ally: economic forces. Renewable energy was far more expensive than energy from fossil fuels; and there were big parts of the economy that we called “hard to abate,” because we didn’t really know how to decarbonize them. Solving climate change was widely understood to require economic sacrifice, because we would have to pay more for energy and things made with it; and it was understood to require giving up parts of modern life that people in rich countries were used to and people in poorer countries aspired to. These costs to climate action were powerful, political tools in the hands of opponents – as in the ad from Mobil we included above, which warns that “nations… are being asked to embrace proposals that could have potentially huge impacts on economies and lifestyles.”

Against this background, most people thought that the only way to solve climate change was through a binding international treaty, which would divide sacrifices up fairly between nations. This was the goal of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC) when it was founded in 1992. During the decades of negotiations that followed, such an agreement proved impossible, because nations disagreed about how the world’s remaining “carbon budget” could be divided fairly. (Developing nations like China and India argued, reasonably, that the burden of cutting emissions should fall on developed countries that had already grown rich burning fossil fuels, while poor countries needed to increase their consumption of fossil fuels in order to grow their economies to the point that they could afford alternative forms of energy. The United States and some other wealthy countries argued that it was unfair to ask them to endure the economic sacrifice of cutting emissions while India, China, and other countries were still increasing theirs.) The effort to reach a binding treaty capping each country’s emissions was abandoned in 2015 with the Paris Agreement, which allowed that each country would decide voluntarily on its own emissions target.

In the last decade, the background conditions for climate politics (from international down to local) have changed in three, big ways.

(1) Solar power, wind power, and lithium-ion batteries have plummeted in price, so that energy from new renewable sources is now cheaper than energy from new fossil-fuel power plants almost everywhere in the world; and building new renewables to replace existing, already-built and paid-for fossil energy sources is cheaper than continuing to operate those fossil sources in most of parts of the world.

Credit: RMI, with data from BNEF

(Read our page on Energy: The Big Picture to understand why this is true, and why this trend will accelerate in coming years.) In the United States, the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) signed by President Biden in 2022 is now supercharging this cost decline by pouring hundreds of billions of dollars into renewables and other clean technologies.

(2)  Cheap renewables and energy storage have opened up a clear, economically-viable strategy for decarbonizing parts of the economy that we previously thought of as “hard to abate,” including parts of heavy industry, long-haul trucking, shipping, and even aviation – either through direct electrification or by using hydrogen or electrofuels made using renewable electricity. Three laws passed in 2021-22, The CHIPS act, the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, and the IRA together steer hundreds of billions of dollars to the US Department of Energy’s Loan Programs Office, which it is now using that money to support businesses deploying clean technologies in these sectors. (To understand the decarbonization pathways using direct and indirect electrification that cheap renewables open up, see our pages on Industry, Energy use in Industry, and Transportation).

(3) Because of the first two changes, decarbonizing a nation’s economy is no longer primarily about sacrifice. Even when measured in purely financial terms, economies that take the steps necessary to decarbonize stand to benefit. This does not mean that we need no lifestyle changes at all to fight climate change. (Right now, there is no good carbon-free way to fly; and we cannot meet our climate goals while eating large quantities of meat – especially beef.) And it does not mean that every clean technology will be cheaper than the dirty technology it replaces. But it does mean that even if we have to pay more for some things and make some lifestyle changes, taking the steps we need to decarbonize will make us richer overall. 

Where we are now

None of these shifts in the economics of decarbonization mean that the fossil fuel industry will fight less hard to slow climate action. But borrowing an image from the energy analyst Kingsmill Bond, it does means that whereas a decade ago, decarbonizing an economy was like rolling a heavy snowball up a hill against gravitational economic forces, now it is like pushing a snowball downhill, with economic forces already pulling in the same direction, toward decarbonization. Agents of predatory delay are working to place obstacles and sources of friction in its way, to slow it down. Our job is to clear away those obstacles, and push to accelerate the snowball, so that it will travel fast enough to head off the worst effects of climate change.

These changes also mean that a great deal of climate action no longer depends upon international coordination: nations have self-interested reasons to take aggressive action, regardless of what other countries do. Here’s one way you can see this change. Ten years ago, European countries complained (rightly) that the US was not spending its fair share on climate action. But in 2022, when the IRA passed, European governments complained that by investing so much in clean technologies, the US was giving itself an unfair economic advantage. Since that time, countries in Europe and around the world have tried to match American climate investments, because they do not want to be left behind economically.

Policy

So far, we’ve sketched large forces that shape the political landscape on which fights over climate policy happen. But suppose you want to work in a job where you can help win those fights. What policy goals should you be fighting for? The answers we discuss here are just a few of the most important among many good answers to this question – and they entirely leave out answers having to do with agriculture and land use. (Our page on Agriculture, Forestry and Land Use offers some policy ideas in that area.)

Build renewables fast

Our page on Energy: The Big Picture gives us a starting point. We saw there that the production and use of fossil fuels for energy is responsible for about ¾ of GHG emissions worldwide. (We’ll return to the other ¼ below.) And we saw that we know how to eliminate most of these energy emissions:

  1. Clean up electricity, by replacing dirty electricity generation from fossil fuels with clean, zero-emissions generation (mostly renewables);
  2. Electrify (almost) all energy end-uses, either directly or indirectly.

This is conceptually simple, but it a gargantuan task. The globe-spanning, multi-trillion-dollar system that provides energy to the world economy – from extracting fossil fuels, to refining them, transporting, distributing, and ultimately using them in billions of homes, vehicles, and factories – took more than a century to build. The part of this system that generates electricity alone produces about 27% of global GHG emissions. We need to build enough wind, solar, and other zero-carbon energy capacity not only to replace the coal, oil and gas generators that produce electricity today; we need to double or triple global electricity production by 2050, to meet the needs of people around the world who do not currently have sufficient access to electricity, along with the new demand that will come from electrifying vehicles, building heat, and industry. To meet our climate targets, we need to do all of this in the next two and half decades – and we need to electrify energy end-uses around the world at the same time.

All of this means that one paramount policy objective is to build new, clean energy infrastructure, at a scale and speed that is hard to wrap our heads around. As Jesse Jenkins lays out in this eye-opening article, just in the United States, by 2035, we will need 75,000 miles of new high voltage transmission lines to bring renewable energy from the places it is generated to the places it can be used; and by 2050, we’ll need utility-scale solar projects covering an area equal to Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut, and wind farms spanning an area equal to Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Kentucky, and Tennessee combined. (Wind turbines are often placed a quarter mile or more apart from one another, and the land between their bases can still be used for other things.) The map below shows the smaller amount of land that would be required for a zero-emissions grid in 2035.

Credit: NREL

In most of the world, we are not yet deploying new renewable electricity generation at anything like the pace we need. However, the uptake of new technologies, from Model-T Fords and electric lights to airplanes, laptops, and smart-phones tends to proceed along “S-curves,” like the one shown below. At first, while costs are high, deployment is slow; as adoption slowly grows, costs fall, until adoption reaches an inflection point, turns steeply upward, and takes over the mass market; it then levels out again as it gets close to full adoption, while the new technology is being slowly accepted by the last few laggards.

Credit: RMI report: Harnessing the Power of S-Curves

In many rich and middle-income countries, the plummeting costs of wind, solar, and batteries mean that these technologies have reached their inflection points and are now starting on a steep, rapid climb. So, even though they are not yet being deployed at the rates we need, in these countries there is a clear path from where we are to the annual deployment levels we need. In most poorer countries, by contrast, renewables are stuck at the bottom-left of the S-curve, having barely begun to climb. (We’ll return below to what the world must do to accelerate renewables adoption in poor countries.)

Credit: RMI X-change: Electricity

If economic forces are already pushing renewable adoption up S-curves in wealthy countries, why can’t we just sit back and watch those forces do their work, as they have with other technologies, without putting new policy in place?  One reason we cannot rely on this kind of “economic determinism” is that both political and commercial institutions stand between renewable energy developers and the consumers and businesses that might want to buy their power. These institutions can slow or block renewable adoption by creating friction and adding obstaclesand the forces of predatory delay can weaponize those obstacles.

One kind of obstacle is permission to site renewables and the high voltage transmission lines that are needed to transport their power. Solar and wind power are different from coal or gas-fueled electricity generation because they need to be distributed over tens of thousands of sites – and the sites with the most abundant sunshine and wind are often in parts of the country far away from the population centers that consume the most electricity.

Solar, wind, and transmission developers will all pay farmers steady, high rent to use their land. This can be a lifeline for farmers, supplementing their fluctuating income from crops. And renewable developments pay taxes that fund locals schools and services, and often come with “community benefit agreements” that support other local projects and causes. For these reasons, farmers and farm states have historically been some of the most enthusiastic proponents of renewables, even though they are often not motivated by climate concerns.

However, in the last few years, as solar and wind have started to expand into parts of the country where they have not been before, rural communities have offered more and more opposition to wind, solar and transmission siting – with more and more county and town boards passing moratoriums on new renewable or transmission development within their boundaries, and whole states passing severe restrictions – for instance, requirements that renewables be “set back” from property lines so far that it is impractical to build renewables on most parcels of land at all. This sort of opposition is growing rapidly, and it is now slowing the build-out of renewable energy nationwide.

Local campaigners against wind, solar, and transmission development offer a number of reasons for their opposition. Some are aesthetic: they would rather look at corn than solar panels. But many are based on health and environmental misinformation: they worry that wind turbines and solar panels will leach toxic chemicals or cause cancer; or that they will catch on fire; or that they will kill birds. These worries are either completely unfounded (renewables do not have any health effects at all), or they are wildly overstated (wind turbines kill far fewer birds than household cats – and also far fewer than fossil fuel power plants).

Credit: Statista

The misinformation fueling local opposition is not “homegrown,” however. A long series of articles by investigative journalists has uncovered overlapping networks, with paid operatives, dedicated to seeding and spreading this misinformation on social media sites like Facebook, as well as providing tools and tips for organizing local groups against renewables; and the funding for these groups has been traced back to fossil fuel companies. This is predatory delay, fought by means of guerrilla tactics at the local and state level. And it is working: with every county that votes itself off-limits for renewables development or transmission lines, the transition away from fossil fuels goes more slowly.

The website of a group opposing wind development. Credit: Distilled

Surveys show that opponents of renewables are usually in the minority, even in places where they succeed in passing bans. Most Americans in both parties have positive views of renewables development in general and have no objection to renewables development where they live. But a small, committed, well-organized group of people who show up to town or county meetings in matching t-shirts and make their voices heard is almost always more politically effective than a larger group that is less organized and less committed. Something similar is true in state-level politics: deeply-committed and organized interest groups willing to invest in lobbying politicians, donate to their campaigns, and if necessary fund their opponents are more politically effective than a larger group of citizens or businesses that are more diffuse and less organized around a single issue.

(For these reasons, community engagement jobs with renewable energy developers can be an extremely impactful climate career. Often, renewables developers treat community engagement as an afterthought – and by the time that they hold public meetings or present their proposed projects to town boards, they face well-organized opposition. But research and experience shows that when developers reach out to communities early, and work actively with local citizens to craft community benefit agreements that meet a community’s own real needs and priorities, their projects can win strong local support. To learn more about the crucial role community engagement organizers can play, listen to this great Volts podcast.)

Other obstacles come from electric utilities and larger “Regional Transmission Organizations” (RTOs) over which utilities have strong influence. If a developer wants to build a wind farm, solar farm, or a transmission line that can bring renewable electricity from somewhere else, they need to “interconnect” it to the grid. In order for this to happen, the local utility or RTO needs to do an engineering study to determine whether existing wires and substations will need to be upgraded to handle the additional electricity at the point of interconnection. In 2018, new projects in the US waited two years, on average, for these studies. In 2024, as renewables have become cheaper and so make economic sense in more places, the wait time for permission to interconnect has grown to five years.

These long delays result partly from processes that were designed long ago for interconnecting a few, large, centralized power plants – not the hundreds or thousands of smaller, renewable projects that developers are now trying to build. But it’s also true that proposed renewable projects often compete with a utility’s own projects. Analysts have joked: asking utilities for permission to interconnect new sources of electricity is like asking a person for permission to date their spouse. They have no incentive at all to make the process quick or easy. 

Delays for building long-distance, high-voltage transmission lines are even worse: many take fifteen or twenty years from the time they are proposed to the time they are built – and many more are never built, because developers run out of money while waiting for approval. Russel Gold’s wonderful book, Superpower, tells the surprisingly gripping story of how vested interests killed a decade-long attempt to build a transmission line that would have made almost everyone better off by bringing cheap wind power from Oklahoma to the Eastern US.)

Electric utilities that slow-walk permission to interconnect renewables and transmission may not have anything against renewables – in fact, they may want to build some renewable projects of their own, from which they can profit. But fossil fuel companies have noticed that existing regulatory structures have the effect of slowing renewables – and so they are fighting hard, in state-level and national-level political and regulatory bodies, against reforms that would speed these processes up. Again, the forces of predatory delay use guerrilla-style tactics to slow the build-out of renewables.

These obstacles (and others) to building renewables at the speed and scale we need can all be overcome with good policy at federal, state, and local levels. But we need politicians, staffers, and regulators who understand these problems and who are ready to fight hard against the forces of predatory delay to solve them. It matters who our politicians are, from town council up to senator and president; it matters who works on their staff; and it matters who staffs the administrative and regulatory agencies at all levels of government. Most of the activists, staffers, bureaucrats and local politicians who engage in these battles will never be famous; but they will nonetheless play crucial roles in accelerating the renewable snowball downhill.

Image credit: Kamyar Adl

Electrify (almost) everything

Cleaning up electricity generation solves half the problem of decarbonizing our use of energy. To solve the other half, we need to electrify almost all of the end-uses of energy that currently burn fossil fuel. That means using electricity, rather than gasoline, to power our cars, trucks and busses; using electric heat pumps, rather than gas boilers or furnaces, to heat our homes and businesses; using electricity to drive our many industrial processes; and eventually using electricity to generate hydrogen or hydrogen-derived fuels to power our largest ships and planes. (See the separate pages under Energy: The Big Picture on the Solutions side of the site to understand what all this looks like in more detail.)

Some of these transitions are well underway and are beginning to have economic forces on their side. (EVs are becoming less expensive than comparable gas cars as lithium ion battery production ramps up and battery costs decline.)  In other cases, though, the technology is still young and costs are still high. (We are still a long way from having an affordable, scalable, decarbonized alternative to fossil jet fuel.) And in some cases, like heat pumps for residential heating, there are good reasons to expect that costs will not decline much. (A lot of the cost of heat pumps is the cost of installation by skilled workers thinking carefully about the particularities of each house they work in; and their labor is not something that will – or should! – become less expensive.) Society as a whole will benefit, and in fact save money, if all of these transitions occur as fast as possible; but in many cases, this requires public subsidies and other supportive policies.

Here again, the forces of predatory delay understand the stakes, and so are fighting hard against policies that could speed these transitions. Here’s just one example: starting in 2019, climate-forward cities around the U.S. began to pass laws requiring that new-built homes be fully electrified, rather than connecting to fossil gas networks. The costs of converting an existing home from fossil fuels to electric heat pumps can be high (depending on the specifics of the home); but building new homes to be all-electric from the start is a money-saver from day one. In response to these local “gas-bans,” for new homes, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a fossil fuel-funded conservative organization, wrote model “pre-emption laws” for states to pass, that would prevent cities within those state from enforcing gas bans. At least 24 Republican-controlled states have now enacted these preemption laws, prohibiting their cities and towns from banning gas in new home construction. (Listen to this Carbon Copy podcast for the story of how the Florida state government stopped its cities from moving away from fossil fuels.)

Climate Justice, Environmental Justice, and Energy Justice


Climate Injustice

One sometimes hears people say that, because we all share the same planet, when it comes to climate change, “we’re all in it together.” Unfortunately, this is not true. It is a reliable rule that the poorest and most voiceless within each nation suffer the effects of climate change first and worst. In New Orleans, as in many cities around the world, the wealthy live well above sea level, while the poorest live close to it – and so, during Hurricane Katrina, it was the poorest communities that were devastated by floods. Black and brown neighborhoods in US Cities that were subject to the practice of government “redlining” have been systematically underinvested in for decades. One consequence is that they lack the mature tree canopy that now shades wealthier neighborhoods; and so surface temperatures are from 5° F to 20° F hotter on the same day. As a result, climate-induced heat waves cause more hospitalizations and death from heat stroke, heart attacks, asthma, diabetes, and other heat-related illnesses in black and brown neighborhoods.

Among nations, the poorest and most voiceless suffer a similar disparity in the effects of climate change. Many of the poorest countries of the world lie near the equator, where climate-induced heat is most dangerous. Many of these nations depend on subsistence agriculture without irrigation, and so can be devastated by drought. And huge populations in these nations, like most of the 170 million people in Bangladesh, live in low-lying lands subject to catastrophic flooding from sea-level rise and increased hurricanes. 

The irony, in each case, is that the poor people who are already suffering from climate change, and who stand to suffer the most, contributed almost nothing to causing it. The average Bangladeshi has only 4% the annual greenhouse gasses of the average American; and even within wealthy countries, poor people are responsible for only a fraction of the emissions of their wealthier neighbors.

Source: Oxfam

Environmental Injustice

Climate injustices are layered on top of more local environmental injustices caused by our fossil fuel powered energy system. Extracting fossil fuels from the earth, transporting them, refining them, and finally combusting them are all extremely dirty activities, polluting air and water in the places where they happen. In order for our fossil fuel powered economy to exist, these activities have to happen somewhere. So as a society, we create “sacrifice zones” where people will have to endure a disproportionate burden of pollution, and the disproportionate health harms that go it. Inevitably, these sacrifice zones end up in poor, marginalized communities (in the US, these are disproportionately black and brown communities) that do not have the resources or political power to resist – places such as “Cancer Alley,” the 85 mile stretch of land in Louisiana where over 200 oil refineries and other petrochemical facilities are located, and where asthma rates, heart disease rates, and cancer rates – are all significantly higher than the national average. In American cities, major highways, where heavy trucks spew diesel exhaust, cut through the poorest neighborhoods, and these neighborhoods have disproportionate heart disease and asthma. (There is also strong evidence that pollution in these neighborhoods impairs learning in school children.)  The same is true in neighborhoods around ports and warehouse facilities. And the same thing is true on an international scale: the poor people of the Niger Delta, the Ecuadoran Amazon, and the Guyana coastline endure terrible pollution so that the oil under their feet or their waters can be extracted and sold on international markets.

Energy Injustice

The people who cannot afford to move outside of sacrifice zones, on which our fossil-fueled energy system depends, are the people for whom energy is least affordable. In the US, most poor people rent their homes; and rental properties tend to be far less well insulated, and to have less efficient heating and cooling, than owner-occupied homes, because landlords often have little incentive to invest in those things; and renters are more likely to live in urban heat islands. The result is that poor people pay more than wealthier people to keep their homes at safe temperatures (for instance, during heat waves caused by climate change); and they are more likely to have their electricity or gas shut off because they are unable to pay their utility bills. Even when they own their own homes, poor people are least able to take advantage of cost-saving innovations like rooftop solar or heat pumps, because they are unable to afford the upfront costs, and unable to obtain loans to cover them. And of course, internationally, the poorest people, who suffer most from climate change, have no access to electricity and the services that depend on it at all. This is energy injustice.

The fossil fuel economy is a root cause of each of these forms of injustice, and a clean economy powered by renewables will, in itself, help to alleviate each of them. But the transition to a clean economy will take decades – and it can easily happen in a way that perpetuates these injustices, or makes them worse, while the transition is underway. To seize the opportunity for justice that the energy transition offers, we need to make sure that communities that bear disproportionate burdens are among the first to benefit from the energy transition, not the last. There is no single recipe for accomplishing this; we need to make all of our policy decisions with justice in mind.

Here’s one, good example of what justice-minded climate policy can look like. In February, 2021, President Biden signed an executive order establishing an initiative called Justice40 – based on an idea that was first implemented at the state level as part of New York’s 2019 climate law. It says that when the government invests money to combat climate change or fight other environmental harms – for instance, by providing subsidies for home insulation, heat pumps or rooftop solar, or supporting new factories that build decarbonization technologies – at least 40% of the benefits should go to “frontline communities” or “environmental justice communities” – those that suffer disproportionate environmental, climate, and energy burdens. 

Keeping it in the ground

There has been a long debate among climate advocates about the importance of policies that seek to destroy demand for fossil fuels (for instance, by subsidizing EVs and phasing out gasoline-powered cars), as compared to policies that reduce the supply of fossil fuels (for instance, by refusing to permit new fossil gas wells and pipelines).

The case for limiting supply ­– for “keeping fossil fuels in the ground” – is intuitive: if the world produces less, then it will necessarily burn less. This intuitive understanding is backed by an analysis from the International Energy Agency that finds that just burning the fuel in already-developed oil, gas and coal fields, without exploring and developing any new ones, will be enough to bring global warming to 1.5 degrees C. If we do not want to pass this target, we should stop investing money in finding and developing new fossil fuel supplies. And basic economics tells us that if we increase the supply of fossil fuels, that will make them less expensive, which makes people likely to consume more.

Cutting supply can have unintended political consequences, however. If we cut the supply of gasoline and fossil gas before EVs and heat pumps are widely adopted, the price of driving and home-heating will rise for many people. Eventually, this might spur more people to purchase EVs and heat-pumps. But many poorer people may not be able to afford to do this, or to do it immediately. Even if people can make the switch, many will do so because they are forced by a painful rise in prices. And around the world, rising prices for fuels have consistently led to mass protests (as in the 2018 Yellow Vest protests in France), and often to governments being voted out of office and replaced by governments that are willing to keep fossil fuel prices low. So, there’s a strong argument that it’s better to get people to switch away from fossil fuels by making better and cheaper alternatives available, rather than by making fossil fuels expensive by cutting their supply.

Yellow Vest Protest, Paris, 2018. Credit: France24

Does this mean we should focus only on demand, after all?  The possibility of unintended political consequences from cutting supply too fast gives us very good reasons to be very careful about cutting supply – to actively manage supplies so that they don’t fall faster than demand. But two, further arguments suggest that we should focus on both demand and supply nonetheless – that we should cut using “both sides of the scissors.” 

The first argument concerns what scholars call “political economy.”  We have already seen that the economic clout of fossil fuel companies translates into political clout: they invest a portion of their large profits in the politics of predatory delay. This is, in itself, a reason to want to reduce the revenue of fossil fuel companies. But the immense political power of fossil fuel companies also means that when a company invests in new fossil fuel infrastructure that turns out not to be needed to meet demand, that money-losing “stranded asset” usually does not just go away. Fossil fuel companies are skilled at using the political process and the courts to shift the costs of stranded assets onto others – often in a way that keeps the asset operating at a cost that does not reflect its true cost. For example, when the coal plants and nuclear plants operated by First Energy Corp in Ohio became uneconomical to run, the company spent millions of dollars working (successfully) to elect – and, it turns out, also bribe – legislators in Ohio who then voted to subsidize the plants with taxpayer money to keep them operating. The Speaker of the Ohio House and others have since been convicted of bribery, and executives at First Energy have been indicted – but the law they passed subsidizing coal-plants remains in place.

Likewise when US demand for coal fell in the 2000s, many big, US coal companies declared bankruptcy. The new, “restructured” companies that emerged from court bankruptcy proceedings no longer had to pay the bankrupt companies’ debts, including the costs to cleanup hazardous waste for which they had been liable, or the pensions and health care costs that they had promised their retired workers. Because they did not have to pay these costs, they were able to keep mining and selling coal at a lower price than before bankruptcy. Similar things happen in the oil and gas industry, where bankrupt companies regularly abandon wells, leaving the costs of environmental clean-up in the hands of taxpayers. They are able to this, because they have used their political clout to shape the laws and regulations that they operate under – so that, for instance, states require operating companies to put down only a very small amount of money, insufficient to clean up wells, as bonds in case the companies go bankrupt.

A second argument for focussing on the supply of fossil fuel concerns environmental justice. Building new fossil fuel extraction sites, pipelines, refineries, and port terminals harms the climate for everyone; but it also imposes terrible local environmental and health burdens on frontline communities where that infrastructure is located – usually, communities that are already disproportionately burdened. Existing environmental injustice is horrible enough; but imposing further harms on communities for infrastructure the world does not need is even worse.

This has a political consequence. We said earlier that intense political engagement around some cause, even by a small numbers of actors, is almost always more powerful than broad but less intense political support. That’s why local opponents of renewables development can be so effective, even when they’re in the minority; and it’s why fossil fuel companies can be so effective in getting politicians to do what they want. But frontline, environmental justice communities are also often engaged with an intensity that other parts of the climate movement do not have, because they are fighting in an immediate way for their health and communities. Disregarding these communities’ demands to stop new fossil fuel infrastructure would be morally wrong and it would be politically unwise, because these communities often act as a powerful counterbalance to the forces of predatory delay. And in fact, environmental justice communities have played huge, important roles in securing recent climate victories in US states (such as New York’s CLCPA) and in the federal government (the Inflation Reduction Act).

International Investment + Loss and Damage

In rich and middle-income countries, economic forces are on the side of renewable energy. In many low-income countries, this is not the case: in these countries, trying to shift to renewables is still rolling a heavy snowball up hill. The reason is that the costs of getting energy from solar, wind, and batteries are almost all “capital expenditures” – that is, up-front costs necessary to purchase and install equipment. Once the equipment is installed, it needs no fuel beyond wind or sunlight, and so it costs very little to operate. In countries with well-functioning banking systems, renewable energy developers simply borrow the money to pay up-front costs, and then pay lenders back over the 25-year or 30-year life of the project, using the money developers make each year selling electricity from the project. Of course, just as when a homebuyer takes out a mortgage, developers have to pay banks interest on their loans – perhaps 5% or 6%, for example. But even with these interest payments factored into its price, the renewable electricity they sell is still cheaper for customers than electricity generated by burning gas or coal. 

In poor countries, the picture looks different. Many of these countries do not have banking systems with enough money to lend to finance significant renewables development. So, the only way to pay the up-front costs for renewables is to borrow from international lenders (often through local intermediaries). But the interest rate that developers have to pay to borrow money in a different currency from their own, from international lenders, is often very high – sometimes 20% or more. This means that a renewables project that would be economical to develop in a wealthy country is often completely unaffordable a poor country, once the cost of borrowing is added in. The result is that while rich countries and some middle income countries are building renewables and batteries at around the pace that would be needed to meet the world’s climate targets, almost all of the $1.7 trillion invested in clean energy globally in 2023 went to those countries – while poorer countries were left behind. This is bad for the world as a whole, because we need to deploy clean energy everywhere in order to meet our climate targets. It is also unjust, because poor countries, who could most benefit from renewables, are left with no choice but to continue to spend their limited foreign currency to import fossil fuels, without enjoying the savings and access to affordable electricity for their citizens that renewables could bring.

The developed world needs to find a way to fix this. The president of Barbados, Mia Motley, has proposed one promising solution, called the Bridgetown Initiative. (Listen to this great podcast interview with the plan’s architect, Avinash Persaud.)  

Others have argued that the best way to fix it is just to forgive the foreign debt that is already crushing poor countries. The details of a solution will need to be hashed out by the heads of governments and financial institutions. But those of who are not part of governance and finance at this level can demand that the problem be fixed: both justice and the world’s climate goals depend on finding a way to steer trillions of dollars into developing renewables in the world’s poorest economies.

In principle, finding a way to steer the trillions of dollars in investment to poor countries that they need to develop renewables (and other aspects of a clean economy) should be easy, because it will be a win for everyone: for poor countries, which will be better off financially and will suffer from less of the air and water pollution that fossil fuel economies bring; for investors, because they will be able to share in the financial savings created for poor countries by their investments; and for the planet, which needs to find ways to allow every country in the world to decarbonize. 

However, justice requires more than this. In 2023, one third of Pakistan was submerged by devastating, previously unheard of flooding, which scientists say could not have happened without climate change. In Africa, people are dying from climate-induced draughts. Countries like the US became wealthy by burning fossil fuels, and now people in poor countries who have contributed almost nothing to climate change are suffering and dying as a result – and those countries are being made even poorer. Investing in (and profiting from) these countries’ transitions to renewable energy will not repay them for the loss and damage that richer countries have inflicted upon them. No amount of money will compensate the deaths that climate change causes in poor countries. But it is possible at least to compensate poor countries financially for their lost income and wealth as a result of climate change. Again, how this will work will depend on international negotiation among heads of government. But ordinary people can demand that it must happen.