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The US is closer than ever before to making major progress on the climate crisis

Democrats might never get another opportunity like this. The global climate certainly won’t.

President Joe Biden speaking in front of construction equipment bearing a “build back better” sign.
President Joe Biden’s climate promises rest on Democrats’ spending bills in Congress.
Matthew Hatcher/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The United States — the largest carbon polluter in history — is closer than it’s ever been to taking sweeping and lasting action on the climate crisis.

The bad news is that if Democrats can’t pull it off, they may never get another opportunity like this — and the planet certainly won’t.

Democratic leaders are trying to pass two major pieces of legislation — the $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill and the up to $3.5 trillion Build Back Better Act — that they say can slash US pollution by up to 45 percent in the coming decade. In the outlined Build Back Better Act, Congress would flex its power to transform the electricity sector so that it runs on mostly clean energy, steer the transportation sector toward electric vehicles, and finally take action on methane pollution, one of the most harmful greenhouse gases.

But there have been many recent moments when the precarious dealmaking in Congress seemed close to falling apart. One of the biggest sticking points has been with West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, who has questioned the party’s approach to passing both bills simultaneously. “What’s the urgency that we have?” Manchin asked on CNN’s State of the Union in late September.

In part because of Manchin’s opposition, even progressive leaders have begun to manage expectations, signaling the ultimate bill will be less ambitious. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont suggested that the $3.5 trillion figure would see some “give and take.” The package is likely to shrink to $2.3 trillion or less, the New York Times reported on Wednesday.

So what is the urgency?

Democrats only have one year before midterm elections could take away their narrow majorities in the House and Senate. That would leave them powerless to pass any legislation without help from Republicans.

At the same time, the planet faces a rapidly closing window to avert the worst catastrophes of global warming. Every fraction of a degree will translate into lives and livelihoods lost. The world can’t afford another decade of American inaction, and what Congress does next will help determine the future of the climate.

A last chance for Democrats

Historically, the president’s party loses seats in Congress in midterm elections. Next November, Democrats could lose their narrow control of Congress if they lose even one Senate seat or more than a few House seats.

“The middle of that Venn diagram — when we have leaders who care about science and we still have that window of opportunity — is now,” said Lena Moffitt, campaign director at the climate advocacy group Evergreen Action.

Democrats in Congress are also relying on a roughly once-a-year process, known as budget reconciliation, to try and push the Build Back Better Act through the Senate. Reconciliation allows them to pass a budget with a simple majority, instead of the 60 votes that are usually required in the Senate. There might not be time or political will to make a similar move in 2022. And some Democrats remain unwilling to eliminate the Senate filibuster, which is the other way they could pass progressive policies.

In short, if the historical pattern holds, Democrats may not get another chance under President Biden — or even this decade — to take serious action on climate. Some Republicans have been hinting at taking climate change more seriously, but much of the party’s leadership continues to downplay and deny climate science.

The next time the US has an opening like this, climate change will likely be dramatically worse — and that much harder to stop.

A flooded street of shops at night reflecting the lights in the water.
Hurricane Ida caused record flooding in New Jersey in September. Climate change is already intensifying extreme weather such as tropical storms and heat waves.
Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

The best chance for the global climate

Climate scientists have warned that once the atmosphere warms more than 1.5 degrees Celsius, we will live in a drastically changed world. If countries, corporations, and individuals don’t take immediate action to reduce pollution, the world may hit that grim milestone in just 10 years.

Over the long term, if the world continues on its current polluting path, the world will warm more than double that amount, risking catastrophes humanity has never had to confront. The window to chart a new course is rapidly closing.

And the world’s “last, best chance” to take decisive collective action is less than a month away, as John Kerry, who serves as President Biden’s climate envoy, has said. In early November, world governments will gather in Glasgow for the United Nations climate conference, COP26. Following up on the Paris climate accord, countries will pledge more ambitious pollution targets and tackle the challenge of financing a worldwide transition to clean energy.

The US bears the most responsibility of any country for global warming, having released 20 percent of the world’s greenhouse pollution since 1850. Today, the country ranks second in emissions behind China. But the US also has the power to magnify its impact if it leads by example, or if it flexes its influence on the global economic system, for example by affecting global prices of fossil fuels by ending government subsidies.

Climate experts say progress at the COP26 conference depends on the United States proving it can do its part, for symbolic as well as practical reasons. This is the first year the US officially returns to global negotiations after former President Donald Trump withdrew the country from the Paris climate accord. Now, Biden has to lead by example by showing that the country can swiftly change direction for good, demonstrating progress on its national pledge of cutting emissions 50 to 52 percent by 2030.

“There is this sense of exhaustion about how long is it going to take for one of the biggest emitters in the world to do its fair share,” said Rachel Cleetus, the clean energy policy director at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

It’s unclear whether Congress will deliver on climate-change legislation by the time the international community meets in Glasgow. But any steps forward would send “a very important signal that can really help catalyze more ambition from other countries,” Cleetus said.

The climate policies on the line

As Democrats fight over the details of the infrastructure bill and pare back the Build Back Better agenda, the proposals that would tackle climate change are changing.

Pressure to shrink the size and scope of the Build Back Better agenda could wind up pitting environmental priorities against one another, Dana Johnson, federal policy director at WE ACT for Environmental Justice, told Vox. This could reduce protections for communities that are most vulnerable to climate change.

“Are we going to prioritize clean air over people having clean water? Are we going to prioritize water over reducing the energy burden in homes?” Johnson asked. “People of low wealth and people of color will still get the short end of the stick.”

The impact of both pieces of legislation depends heavily on which proposals members of Congress can agree on and which they cut.

Cleaning up the power sector is the easiest and fastest way to address US emissions, climate experts told Vox, because clean electricity can fuel everything from cars and trucks to homes and offices. The 183 active coal-fired power plants left in the nation are heavy polluters that can be replaced with “off-the-shelf, ready-to-go technologies that are commercially available and easy to build up in America today,” said Jesse Jenkins, an environmental engineering professor at Princeton University who is advising lawmakers on the bill.

The Build Back Better Act could accelerate this transition with a Clean Electricity Payment Program (CEPP), which would reward utilities for increasing clean energy by 4 percent year over year and ding them if they don’t. In an interview with Vox this summer, Sen. Tina Smith (D-MN) called this part of the package “the biggest change in our energy policy since the lights went on.” But as the chair of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Manchin will ultimately set the terms of the CEPP.

The program tops a list of six leading climate policies that Congress is currently considering, according to the consulting firm Rhodium Group. Next on the list are:

  • Between CEPP and clean energy tax credits, the bill allots $235 billion for utilities, producers, and consumers in subsidies extended for the next decade
  • $80 billion in rebates and investments in electric vehicles and public transit before 2030, which would mean fewer gas-guzzling cars added to US roads
  • Fines for oil and gas producers that leak an excessive amount of methane. This is the most direct way lawmakers want to target emissions from fossil-fuel production.
  • Funding for “natural carbon removal,” which takes the form of agricultural and forestry programs that would focus on soil conservation and reforestation.

Any of these could wind up dropping out of the final legislation under pressure from holdouts like Sen. Kyrsten Sinema and Sen. Manchin.

Manchin, who profits personally from family investments in coal and has relied on campaign donations from the oil and gas industry, has said he wants more coal and natural gas to be part of the Build Back Better Act. He has also suggested increasing funding for carbon capture and storage, which have divided environmentalists but are supported by many fossil-fuel companies. (One ExxonMobil lobbyist bragged in an undercover video, taped by the climate activist group Greenpeace UK, that he meets with Manchin’s office every week, the HuffPost reported.)

If the proposed investments are left alone, however, Rhodium Group found that the six top climate proposals in the two-pronged Democratic approach would eliminate up to a billion tons of carbon pollution. A billion tons is equivalent to taking “250 million cars off the road forever,” John Larsen, the consulting group’s energy research director, told Vox — roughly the impact of disappearing every vehicle that has driven on US roads in 2021. Most of these gains would come from the reconciliation package, Larsen added.

Another way to measure the importance of these climate policies is to consider what happens without them. Domestic emissions could flatline and possibly even increase in the next decade if existing US policies continue, according to Rhodium’s modeling. (That’s based on the pessimistic assumption that there will be no federal legislation, no new EPA regulation, and no further state action.) Pollution levels in 2030 would remain just 15 to 25 percent below the US peak in 2005.

Basically, a business-as-usual approach to climate change would not get the US anywhere near Biden’s target of 50 percent reductions by the end of the decade.

You can see the huge gap between Biden’s promises for 2030 and the current course of the US in the chart below. Biden’s target for this decade appears as a vertical line in the bottom right corner, just above the year 2030. The green and blue area is where the country is headed if nothing changes. (Since there’s a fair bit of uncertainty baked into these predictions, the colors reflect the possible range of scenarios.)

A chart showing projected United States greenhouse gas emissions. Rhodium Group’s Taking Stock report, July 2021

The gulf between current practices and Biden’s pledges represents 2.3 billion tons of pollution that the country somehow needs to prevent.

Infrastructure is not easy to change once it’s in the ground — just think of all the old buildings, bridges, highways, and pipelines that are still in use after decades or even centuries. If the government doesn’t slow the construction of new fossil-fuel infrastructure, and gas continues to power many buildings, America’s dependence on dirty energy will be baked in for years to come. Congress has the power to shape how quickly the country manages to bend its current path — a path that leads to disastrous warming.

Jenkins, the Princeton professor, called on the House and Senate to play a leading role in the US solution to climate change. “It will be impossible for the Biden administration to make up for congressional inaction,” he said. If Congress is not “putting its shoulder into accelerating the transition, then it’s going to be really hard to keep up the pace.”

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