6th Floor, Woodrow Wilson Center

The Year Ahead in Environment and Energy

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With the Obama Administration moving forward on emissions reductions, the deadline for drafting the Sustainable Development Agenda, and a highly anticipated global climate summit in Paris, 2015 promises to be a crucial year for climate policy. “In many ways, last year was the year of building momentum, and this is the year of getting the work done,” said Lisa Friedman, deputy editor of ClimateWire, at the Wilson Center on January 5. 

But delivering on the promise of climate action will require overcoming significant hurdles, including bitter partisan debates over energy policy and climate science, and disagreement among countries around the structure of a global treaty.

Friedman and a group of leading U.S. reporters and editors reflected on these challenges and offered their predictions at the third annual “Year Ahead in the Environment and Energy” event, organized by ESCP and the Society for Environmental Journalists.

A Super Bowl in December

“If you care about climate change, and the international response to climate change, the first two weeks of December in Paris, France, will be your Super Bowl,” said Friedman. The 21st meeting of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) is expected to be one of the first real chances for a binding global agreement to address climate change.

The negotiations offer the most significant opportunity for environmental cooperation in the year ahead, said Larry Pearl, director of environmental news at Bloomberg BNA. If passed, the treaty is expected to be wholly inclusive, not just of developed and developing countries, but of civil society and the private sector as well.

It would also for the first time reflect a growing consensus on how climate change is closely related to global demographic, economic, and cultural shifts, said Lisa Palmer, a freelance journalist and Wilson Center scholar. “We’ll see a lot more action and activity around research and interest in around how extreme weather events and our environmental health and global population growth will continue to affect our interconnections with food and water and energy.”

However, the treaty’s passage hinges on whether leaders will compromise on contentious issues, including accountability and adaptation.

“At the heart of every single other question in these negotiations,” explained Friedman, “is a question of how do you create a fair new system if you’re leaving a system that neatly divides countries into two boxes[those with binding targets and those without], and one that is fair not just to the U.S., China, and India, but all these new countries finding a place in the regime?”

Also looming over the summit is the possibility that the resulting agreement, expected to be based on countries’ voluntary commitments, won’t be enough to prevent catastrophic climate change, said Neela Banerjee, a news writer for InsideClimate. Friedman added, “A lot of people would say, ‘If you’re trying to get to New York and you only make it to New Jersey, you have failed.”

The Battle for 2016

As the Obama Administration moves ahead with its Climate Action Plan – which includes rules to cut emissions from coal-fired power plants, a new push towards renewable energy, and commitments to bilateral emissions reductions with China – many members of the Republican party are crying foul.

Conservative lawmakers have long argued that such regulations are too onerous and likely to stymie job creation and economic growth, said Pearl. Congressional Republicans will likely challenge the climate agenda and try to accelerate both the approval of the Keystone XL pipeline and review of natural gas export applications.

For example, two Republican senators co-sponsored an amendment to recent legislation on Keystone that would prevent American climate negotiators from signing any deal in which greenhouse gas reductions from the United States were not matched by developing countries, said Friedman. “Were something like that to pass, it would obviously be a poison pill in the [UNFCCC] negotiations,” she said, and even if it weren’t, it could signal that the United States is not serious about reducing its emissions.

Lawmakers’ ultimate target may not be the climate negotiations themselves but what lies beyond; the elections in the following year, said Banerjee. “It has to be looked at through the lens of 2016. So much of this is not just about stymieing a rule or pushing it forward, as it is setting down markers. What do the Republicans stand for, and what do Democrats – under Obama, by extension – stand for?”

Many key support groups have pushed back against the administration’s climate agenda. Businesses directly affected by the Environmental Protection Agency’s rule on coal-fired power plants have mounted an aggressive campaign against it, particularly now that oil prices appear to be staying low, said Wall Street Journal energy reporter Amy Harder.

While some states are in favor of new rules, others have dug in their heels, said Randy Loftis, an environmental writer for The Dallas Morning News. In August, 12 states brought a case against the EPA. “States are having to do something they’ve not done before, which is to create a whole idea of a regulatory scheme,” said Loftis. “This requires a lot more innovative thinking, and a lot of them are starting to feel some pains under that process.” While state leaders won’t be able to push carbon off the national agenda entirely, they might be able to knock it onto the agenda of the next administration – one that may take a different approach to climate change and states’ obligations to address it, he said.

Tribalized America and the Politics of Science

Closely linked to this political gridlock is an increasing politicization of science – and agrowing distrust of it among Americans, Banerjee explained. “We’ve become so tribalized because of various trends over the last 30 or 40 years that it’s really hard for us to accept information without our filters keeping out important things,” she said.

“Scientists are no longer seen as honest brokers. It becomes not just about science, but who’s delivering the message, and this becomes enormously problematic when you’re trying to develop policy based on science. It’s sort of like, ‘Well I have my science, and you have your science,’” said Banerjee.

Pope Francis, who recently spoke out about addressing climate change, might be able to bring environmental issues to new constituencies, both Palmer and Friedman observed. But an effective messenger doesn’t always have to be a household name, said Banerjee. Climate Central, in partnership with George Mason University and Yale University, is working with local news meteorologists to share information on climate change, since they are trusted and familiar figures, she said.

Environmental communicators are most successful when they find “ways to come at it in oblique manner and render the same results without getting at issues underneath,” said Banerjee. She cited a chapter of the Sierra Club that teamed up with Tea Party activists to press utility companies in Georgia to make solar panel installation easier. The distinct agendas of the Tea Party (individual liberty) and the Sierra Club (conservation) found common ground in renewable energy and they became “strange but effective bedfellows.”

Changing Climate, Changing Journalism?

The public perception of science as something political not only complicates the tasks of policymakers, but also leaves journalists in a tough spot.

“The idea that the public is going to read the science and make up their minds is simply not borne out by experience,” Loftis said. Since climate change can often be overwhelming and disengaging for everyday readers, Palmer recommended journalists cover solutions that inspire hope and action, such as an ambitious effort in Colombia to increase resilience to climate change by combining grazing, farming, and tree cultivation, which she wrote about for the Solutions Journalism Network.

It’s also important to look beyond traditional media to new outlets that use multimedia and other dynamic approaches, such as VoxVice, andMattr, said Banerjee.

“There are all of these new things that are coming up for a younger generation that is more accepting of the science of climate change,” she said. “They’re doing some very interesting work and I think there will be some very interesting shifts in that space. Watch them.”

Event Resources:

Written by Sarah Meyerhoff, edited by Schuyler Null.

Speakers

  • Neela Banerjee

    News Writer, InsideClimate
  • Jeff Burnside

    Independent Journalist and Society of Environmental Journalists Board of Directors Member
  • Douglas Fischer

    Director, Environmental Health Sciences
  • Lisa Friedman

    Deputy Editor, ClimateWire
  • Amy Harder

    Energy Reporter, Wall Street Journal
  • Randy Loftis

    Environmental Writer, Dallas Morning News
  • Lisa Palmer

    Public Policy Scholar
    Senior Fellow at SESYNC, Journalist, and Author of Hot, Hungry Planet
  • Meaghan Parker

    Senior Writer/Editor, Environmental Change and Security Program
  • Larry Pearl

    Director of Environmental News, Bloomberg BNA