Fitting the pieces of energy, climate together: This is how things change

Executive Editor

Climate change is like a puzzle whose pieces are constantly changing in size and shape.

Our focus at Cipher is on the technological transformations needed to get to net-zero emissions of greenhouse gases by 2050. Nothing, including technology, lives in a silo. Like a puzzle, we can only fully understand the opportunities and challenges when they fit together.

For change to happen in any part of society, I see three factors at play:

  • Politics and policy
  • Money and finance
  • Technology

“Advocacy is about harnessing power—financial power or people power—in order to affect one or all of these levers of change,” said Tzeporah Berman, a long-time environmental activist based in Canada who is international program director at Stand.Earth. “That’s how change is made.”

Operating within these three levers, I see eight puzzle pieces within the energy and climate space that drive change.

1. Tangible climate change
Unlike most problems facing society, this one is cumulative. The longer we wait to address it, the worse it gets, and that makes it even harder to address. As the impacts of a warming world become ever more tangible, this will galvanize the public’s attention—particularly via politics.

2. Social movements
The public, particularly younger people who will inhabit this planet longer than the rest of us, are increasingly concerned about climate change. Big societal changes have often occurred only once a concerted constituency rose and called for change.

Climate change poses uniquely global and omnipresent challenges that will make it a lot harder for a social movement to drive change compared to, say, civil rights campaigns in the past.

3. Clean-energy technology costs
Unlike a lot of society’s problems, tackling climate change is deeply intertwined with technologies and commodities.

Costs of some clean energy technologies, like wind and solar, have plummeted over the last decade, buoyed by state mandates and federal subsidies. That price drop has in turn helped build political and financial support for these technologies.

Now the focus must also turn to reducing the cost of even more complicated technologies—like sustainable aviation fuel and clean manufacturing.

Ideally, the same virtuous cycle that helped bring down the costs of renewable energy will prevail here: costs drop and political and corporate support grow, which in turn help prices to drop even more. The biggest challenge is doing this faster than what happened with wind and solar given the urgency of the problem.

4. Fossil fuel costs
Clean-energy technologies must compete with oil, natural gas and coal. These fossil fuels have traditionally been cheaper because they’ve been around longer, receive permanent government subsidies and aren’t economically penalized for their environmental toll.

The last few weeks have reminded us how volatile fossil-fuel prices can be. Such a predicament could actually make it more difficult to transition to cleaner energy because volatility creates consumer unrest and political chaos.

5. Corporate and investor concerns
Wall Street is finally starting to think that investing in clean energy—and compelling publicly traded companies to green their assets—makes good business sense. This trend has been accelerating since 2017 in response to these other puzzle pieces, including pressure from employees and falling cleantech costs.

This is critical because our planet can’t depend on altruism alone to save it. Our capitalistic capitalistic society needs the risk of financial losses and the potential for financial gains.

6. Media coverage
Media companies on both TV and in print are covering this issue far more than in the past—including me when I was at Axios and now here at Cipher. Cipher is a prime example of how journalism can help support action on climate change through objective scrutiny.

This trend is both a reflection of these other factors and a force for change because the media plays a role in shaping public opinion.

7. Political shifts
Politics tend to follow, not lead, societal trends. That’s why corporations and their usual Republican allies in Congress are just now beginning to support policies reducing greenhouse gas emissions to at least some extent, after decades of fighting or ignoring them.

The shift is subtle and uneven, not to mention unsatisfying to many Democrats and activists who want drastic action immediately. History suggests that the most long-lasting laws Congress passes are those that have at least some level of bipartisan support, so their role is central.

8. Political compromises
On that note, bipartisanship begets compromise. In March, President Biden pledged $15 billion for electric-vehicle charging, yet he compromised with half that amount in the bipartisan infrastructure legislation. Washington is now in the throes of further compromise with the bigger reconciliation bill.

The inherent problem with compromising on climate change leads us back to the first puzzle piece: The longer we wait to address it, the bigger the problem it becomes and the more aggressive the policy solutions must be. That’s leading progressive Democrats to want even more than they did a few years ago. Republicans and corporations, on the other hand, are (still) slowly coming around to the policies Democrats wanted a few years ago.