Energy Policy

Threats to Policy Change


It is exceedingly rare to have perfect circumstances under which to develop and pass policy. It's important to recognize that policy development must fit within larger agendas, and sometimes seemingly unrelated issues can make it difficult to pass even a popular policy. Let's take a look at some of the threats to policy change and think about how they relate specifically to energy policy.

Political Disagreement

Sometimes it's not about finding agreement that something should or should not be done, but how it should be done that causes problems. Energy policy is a perfect example of this. On both sides of the aisle, politicians agree that revamping domestic energy policy is a worthwhile venture, agreeing most about the national security benefits of reducing US dependence on foreign oil. However, there is clear disagreement about how to achieve that goal, with Democrats generally more interested in renewable energy but Republicans tend to promote domestic fossil fuel exctraction. Interest groups' influence often weigh heavily in these decisions - especially at the federal level, less so at the local level - though constituents can also be influential. This is particularly true with energy and climate policy, as there are many interest groups that get involved, some of which are quite influential and well-funded (e.g. fossil fuel companies and individuals who make money from the fossil fuel industry). It is also not uncommon for one policy to be "held up" until an agreement is made on a separate policy (aka "horsetrading").

Status Quo

Inertia is a powerful force in politics. While all sides might agree that a current practice isn't the best or most efficient, a known inefficiency is often less daunting than the unknown or possible negative impact, and nothing changes. Economic impacts are an especially potent consideration in energy politics in this regard. Addressing energy challenges often involves internalizing the cost of environmental degradation associated with traditional fuel sources, which increase prices in the short term, and lawmakers and citizens alike approach the idea of increasing costs for energy with great trepidation. (This is why subsidies and other incentives are common in pro-renewable policy.) While this is true irrespective of the broader economic context, it is particularly difficult to justify during times of economic hardship. After the financial crisis in 2008, many lawmakers backed away from the ideas of a clean energy overhaul for the country or a price on carbon. With the economy crippled and Americans struggling to combat rising unemployment and decreasing home values, clean energy legislation was perceived as a luxury we could simply not afford, despite its macroscale cost savings over time.

But does it have to be that way? After the economy recovered (for some), many energy and climate policy advocates focused more on the economic benefits of adopting less carbon-intensive energy policies. Job growth in the design, manufacture, installation, and maintenance of these technologies as well as lowered energy costs due to enhanced efficiency became the lead talking points in the conversations for the advancement of clean energy policy. These were certainly themes before the economic downturn, but now represent a more pressing concern for Americans. One prominent example of this is the Inflation Reduction Act, for which the name speaks for itself. Even though it is as much a climate bill as an inflation reduction bill, it is (justifiably) couched in the language of economic and employment benefits, since they have a broader bipartisan appeal.


Uncertainty is a characteristic of climate change impacts which comes up frequently. While scientists understand the anthropogenic forcing of the climate and can anticipate the types of responses the physical environment may exhibit, it is difficult to pinpoint exactly when and where a climate change impact will be felt and how severe it will be. This uncertainty surrounding the issue provides an opportunity for people and groups opposed to climate and energy reform to suggest the issue is not immediately pressing. Consider this: uncertainty over policy outcomes leads to more reactive -instead of proactive - policies, which are typically more expensive and less effective at addressing the problem. For climate change specifically, this is particularly problematic because despite the uncertainty about some of the specifics, it is quite possible that if we're 'wrong' it is because we've underestimated the possible impacts and severity. And this seems like a good time to (re)share my favorite cartoon encapsulating our efforts to enact climate policy at all scales of governance:

Cartoon of the Copenhagen Climate Summit suggesting that efforts to reduce climate change might make the world a better place based on a 'hoax'
What if? Cartoon of the Copenhagen Climate Summit suggesting that efforts to reduce climate change might make the world a better place, based on a 'hoax'. Presenter has a slide that says "Energy Independence, Preserve Rainforests, Sustainability, Green Jobs, Livable Cities, Renewables, Clean Water/air, Healthy Children, Etc". An audience member stands up and asks, "What if it's a big hoax, and we create a better world for nothing?"
Cartoon by Joel Pett run in USA Today right before the Copenhagen Climate Summit in 2009.
Credit: Joel Pett. "What if it’s all a big hoax, and we create a better world for nothing!” USA Today. December 13, 2009.