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Robinson Meyer is demystifying what decarbonizing the economy really means

The Heatmap News cofounder wants to cover all of climate — not just science.

Oshan Jarow is a staff writer with Vox's Future Perfect, where he focuses on the frontiers of political economy and consciousness studies. He covers topics ranging from guaranteed income and shorter workweeks to meditation and psychedelics.

Earth’s climate change began in obscurity some 4.6 billion years ago, as the molten surface of the newly formed planet cooled and volcanoes huffed out the gasses that filled our early atmosphere. But today, as human activity accelerates rising temperatures beyond the boundaries of healthy habitability, we have people like journalist Robinson Meyer to ensure that everyone knows exactly how we’re changing the planet, and whether we’re decarbonizing the economy fast enough to hang around for another few billion years.

For five years, Meyer covered climate, energy, and technology as a staff writer for the Atlantic. In the early months of the Covid pandemic, when information was scarce and the CDC was slow to respond, Meyer helped start the COVID Tracking Project, which became a leading data aggregator informing everyone from local communities to the federal government on the virus’s spread and impacts. In 2021, his work was recognized by the American Society of Magazine Editors, landing him their NEXT Award for Journalists Under 30.

Now, Meyer is the founding executive editor of Heatmap News, a climate media company he helped launch earlier this year. It’s devoted to the details of climate change, and the energy transition it demands of our economy, politics, and culture at large.

His inaugural piece for Heatmap announced “the end of climate science.” According to Meyer, climate issues are evolving away from an exclusive focus on the science of climate change to one that encompasses “humanity itself — and all the rest of the earthly mess.” He calls it “a kind of climate post-science.”

Questions about the Earth’s shifting temperatures across millennia, the culpability of greenhouse gases, and, “If we keep burning fossil fuels, how bad could it be — and how hot could it get?” all have good answers, Meyer writes. Now, the field is evolving from basic research and dire warnings to practicalities, like figuring out how to actually decarbonize the economy, or shift it away from power sources and industrial processes that produce carbon emissions. Once we mostly agree on what to do, we’re confronted with the question of how to achieve it.

This is the animating idea behind Heatmap’s coverage: The site hopes to shift the conversation from general warnings about the perils of unabated warming to the “details, nuances, and hard choices of climate change.” For example, President Joe Biden signed the Inflation Reduction Act into law last year, hailed as the largest climate investment in American history. But how is that roughly $370 billion climate investment actually doing? Decarbonization is tricky business — it means building new national infrastructure from coast to coast, from power transmission lines to electric vehicle charging stations. Meyer has been on the front lines of breaking down how that process is actually going, and what we can do better.

Consider hydrogen, a small molecule that could have immense implications for successful decarbonization. Hydrogen can be burned as a power source, if we can figure out how to make it more efficiently and produce fewer emissions in the process. Thanks to federal investments, the hydrogen industry will receive up to $25.8 billion toward building out new machinery, expertise, and demonstration projects. Then, there’s an uncapped tax credit that could shovel as much as $100 billion toward hydrogen spending in the coming decades.

If all of that funding succeeds in making hydrogen climate-friendly, Meyer wrote in the New York Times earlier this year, “it will change how politicians think about managing the market for years to come. If it fails or misfires, then it will greatly limit the number of tools to fight climate change or a recession. The story of the 21st-century American economy is being shaped now.”

And hydrogen is just one small piece of the massive climate puzzle, which is shaping not only the economy, but also the present experience of the Global South as it shoulders the worst results of climate change, and the kind of world we’ll leave for generations to come.

Meyer is concerned that “we have underestimated just how hard decarbonization will be.” But projects like Heatmap are demystifying exactly what that transition could look like, and building public understanding in a time of crisis.

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