Welcome to our wild and wonky climate future

Executive Editor

Our climate debate just went from black and white to shades of gray all over.

After decades of mostly binary debates over whether climate change is real and whether Washington, D.C. should pass laws addressing it, the Inflation Reduction Act is helping usher in a new, byzantine reality that is scrambling everything and everyone.

That law is the largest pillar in a triad of recently passed laws in the United States that pour nearly $80 billion a year into clean energy, dwarfing any past federal spending in this area.

These laws, including the infrastructure law passed in November 2021 and the CHIPS and Science Act passed in August 2022 alongside the IRA, are thrusting to the forefront complex technological debates that had, in the congressional debates of yesteryear, been mostly left on the horizon for the future.

Well, the future is now.

“For 30 years, we were having a debate about whether or not to do something,” said Jason Grumet, CEO of the American Clean Power Association, which represents companies developing renewable energy in the U.S. “Now we’re actually trying to solve the problem, and we have the tools and resources to do it. That makes for much more honest, much less certain, much more interesting coalitions.”

This new reality manifests itself in three ways:

  1. Battles are now wonky and weighed down with technical jargon. Out: climate hoaxes and whether human activity is to blame for our warming world. In: Electrolyzers and interconnection queues.
  2. DC trade groups are creating new allies—and new adversaries. Terms like “strange bedfellows,” “unlikely alliances” and “surprising splits” are becoming so common that perhaps they’re not so strange, unlikely or surprising anymore.
  3. The protagonists and antagonists of our old climate debates were binary and clear: Environmentalists versus Big Oil. The protagonists of our climate debate today are unclear, as environmentalists grapple with a changed landscape and big oil eyes big renewables.

Grumet’s organization is a poster child for this new era.

His organization is facing criticism from the liberal Revolving Door Project for, among other reasons, having companies with fossil fuel ties as members and expressing support for a House Republican bill that would streamline permitting for fossil fuel and renewable energy projects alike.

ACP is also reckoning with internal differences. In at least two separate letters, Grumet’s members have taken conflicting positions on how the government should write rules for the IRA’s hydrogen tax credit.

That debate is laden with jargon like the aforementioned electrolyzers and other abstruse but important terms like additionality, deliverability and hourly matching.

In another sign of our wild and wonky world, The New York Times and The Washington Post have recently run guest essays on this topic’s complexities. (Cipher covered it too.)

These articles and ACP’s internal disagreements reflect the messy debate unfolding with new battle lines among different stakeholders, all of whom agree on the problem—that we must address climate change—but are increasingly disagreeing on how to solve it.

“Solutions are always much messier than problems,” Grumet said.

ACP’s rise in power highlights another aspect of our new reality: the protagonists are shifting.

ACP formed in 2021 with the evolution and merger of the American Wind Energy Association and the Energy Storage Association. It now represents a cross-industry group whose members span utilities, renewable-energy developers, startups and even some oil and gas companies investing more in renewables.

It’s increasingly playing in the Washington big leagues alongside other major energy trade associations like the American Petroleum Institute and Edison Electric Institute. In fact, ACP just poached the oil lobby group’s top policy officer, Frank Macchiarola.

In the decades leading up to the passage of IRA, environmentalists (think Bill McKibben, Greta Thunberg, the Sierra Club and the Sunrise Movement) were the loudest voices calling on Congress to act by protesting fossil fuel projects and filling streets. Corporations of all stripes have been lagging activists.

Now companies are, whether you like it or not, in the driver’s seat.

“The people who get credit for forcing society to fix this problem are in many cases advocates and movement politics,” Grumet said. “But the people who now have to fix it are giant corporations.”

Environmentalists, meanwhile, are having their own identity crises.

In announcing layoffs and restructuring in April, Sierra Club Executive Director Ben Jealous told staff: “We are retooling for this climate moment, and that means retooling to be strong everywhere across the country,” according to E&E News (subscription required).

The organization is seeking to expand its footprint in Republican-led districts that house most of the country’s renewable energy, E&E News reported.

Bill McKibben, a high-profile environmentalist known for protesting almost any fossil fuel-funded enterprise (banks, pipelines and more), issued a call to action to his fellow campaigners in the May-June edition of the progressive Mother Jones magazine.

“In a world where giant corporations, and the governments they too often control, ceaselessly do dangerous and unnecessary things, saying no is a valuable survival skill for civilizations,” McKibben wrote. “But we’re at a hinge moment now, when solving our biggest problems—environmental but also social—means we need to say yes to some things: solar panels and wind turbines and factories to make batteries and mines to extract lithium.”

These are early snapshots of our upended reality within the first year since IRA’s passage. But buckle up because our new world will leave no one and nothing unscrambled.

Other battles you’re probably hearing about: credits for electric vehicles being either too restrictive or not restrictive enough, and carbon capture projects being either a bailout for fossil fuels or necessary climate technology.

“It’s very hard to predict at the time of negotiation what these laws are going to do,” said Leah Stokes, an associate professor of political science at the University of California, Santa Barbara, who authored the aforementioned New York Times hydrogen article. “It’s only during implementation that these things get sorted out.” In her book, Short Circuiting Policy, Stokes calls this the “fog of enactment.”

Well, the fog is lifting, and our wild and wonky new world is emerging.