It’s the summer of cascading disasters in the United States: Downpours have made rivers of major metropoles’ transit lines, a coastal condo collapsed, flames have engulfed vast swaths of land, and triple-digit heat has roasted typically temperate regions. The catastrophes have brought a mounting death toll and incalculable trauma.
But, for the first time in over a decade, the U.S. government may actually do something about the emissions destabilizing the climate.
This week, the Biden administration and its allies in Congress announced plans to pack the federal budget with resources and rules that could jolt a country long paralyzed by corporate obstruction and science denial into finally confronting an unprecedented crisis.
Democrats plan to use their slim majorities in Congress to pass a $3.5 trillion spending package that includes mandates to cut 80% of planet-heating pollution from the electricity sector by 2030, fund a new green jobs corps, and make it easier for drivers to swap gas guzzlers for electric vehicles.
Whether enough funding will make it into the final budget to make the programs significant remains unclear. By tacking the proposals to the budget process, which requires only 51 votes to become law, Democrats can circumvent the 60-vote threshold for passing traditional legislation that grants Republicans filibuster power.
But doing so gives Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), widely considered the most conservative Democrat in the caucus, kingmaker status, and already he’s signaled his opposition to anything that disadvantages fossil fuels.
There’s pull on the other end of Democrats’ ideological spectrum, too, as 16 senators, including Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), have vowed to vote against any budget that excludes climate provisions. But, as Mother Jones reported, those in the “No Climate, No Deal” contingent have yet to settle on any uniform demands about what kinds of policy they want to see in the budget.
“We cannot address a small sliver of our carbon pollution and call it a victory. We have to tackle this problem at scale,” Leah Stokes, an associate professor of political science at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and author of ”Short Circuiting Policy,” wrote in The Atlantic this week. “The last chance we had for a federal climate bill was 12 years ago. I’m afraid that Congress will again fail to pass climate legislation that invests at the necessary level. I’m worried that we’ll keep burning time we no longer have.”
While negotiators hash out the budget, other lawmakers are proposing standalone legislation that could ultimately appear in the final funding bill.
The Senate Energy Committee approved Manchin’s bill directing $95 billion to carbon capture and storage technology in fossil fuel plants on Wednesday.
On Thursday, Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.H.) unveiled a bill to provide Americans with rebates to buy efficient new appliances aimed at slashing the 37% of U.S. emissions that stem from household energy use.
And on Friday, Sens. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) joined two Republicanas to introduce legislation to give grants to financially imperiled nuclear power plants in hopes of maintaining the supply of the country’s biggest source of carbon-free electricity.
Progressives in the House of Representatives, meanwhile, are pitching their own vision for how to legislate on climate.
In March, lawmakers announced the THRIVE Act, a $10 trillion spending plan, their banner policy.
In April, Rep. Cori Bush (D-Mo.) put forward a plan to give $1 trillion in federal aid to cities, towns and tribes seeking to slash emissions in a bid to circumvent anti-climate mandates on the state level.
On Thursday, Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.) proposed what he called the “Green New Deal for public schools,” a $1.4 trillion package to fund major retrofits at schools, hire more teachers and help kids living in poverty.
The steeper price tags the left-leaning candidates are seeking may seem big. But the numbers are actually more in line with what economists on the left and right ― from the progressive Roosevelt Institute to George W. Bush-era Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson ― say is needed to rapidly scale down the U.S. output of planet-heating gases.
Yet President Joe Biden and his treasury chief, Janet Yellen, worry that borrowing more money to justify climate spending poses financial risks for the country, despite warnings from economists and forecasters that failing to invest enough now in decarbonization carries even bigger risks as warming worsens. Under those self-imposed restraints, the White House sought to offset all its infrastructure and climate spending with new taxes.
Facing ferocious blowback from industries and their allies in Congress, the federal policymakers could only come up with $2.4 trillion in direct revenue to offset the program and managed to muster another $1.1 trillion through accounting techniques with the budget.
And while the Biden administration has faced mounting protests from climate activists demanding more action to curb emissions, pleas for something as wonky as “more deficit spending” have yet to materialize or gain popularity.
Despite far stricter budget constraints due to its multinational euro currency, the European Union this week took some even more aggressive climate steps, proposing a dozen bills that would, among other things, ban diesel- and gas-powered cars by 2035 and levy new taxes on heating gas.
Expanding on those efforts could prove crucial ahead of November’s United Nations climate conference in Scotland. The world is already 1.1 degrees Celsius hotter than in pre-industrial times, and even if every country adheres to its pledged emissions cuts, the planet would still be on pace to warm by at least another 2 degrees this century. Changing that trajectory depends not only on rich nations cutting emissions, but on poorer countries doing the same, and in many cases forswearing the development of heavily polluting industries that helped North America and Europe grow so wealthy.
If the U.S. and European Union — home to the people most responsible for the accumulated carbon in the atmosphere today — can’t rapidly slash emissions, convincing the majority of humanity in Africa, Asia and Latin America to do the same will be a tough sell.