Energy Policy

Threats to Policy Change


There are no ideal circumstances under which policy is developed and passed. It's important to recognize that policy development must fit within larger agendas, and sometimes seemingly unrelated issues can make it more difficult to pass policy. Let's take a look at some of these 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. Interest groups and constituents alike heavily influence the motivations of elected officials.

Status Quo

Inertia is a powerful force in politics, and while all sides might agree that the current practice isn't the best or most efficient, a known inefficiency is less daunting than the unknown. Economic impacts are an especially potent consideration in energy politics. Addressing energy challenges involves internalizing the cost of environmental degradation associated with traditional fuel sources, and lawmakers and citizens alike approach the idea of increasing costs for energy with great trepidation. While this is true no matter what the broader economic context is, it is particularly difficult to justify during 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 isas 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 might 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, scientists have strong consensus that if we're 'wrong' it's 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:

What if we make the world a better place for nothing?
What if it's a big hoax and we create a better world for nothing?

Credit: Joel Pett. "What if it’s all a big hoax and we create a better world for nothing!” USA Today(link is external). December 13, 2009.