Members of Congress face their biggest opportunity in more than a decade to help the US avoid the worst impacts of the climate crisis, part of the intense discussions over what to keep in a pair of sweeping infrastructure bills.
The crux of the fight rests on the price tag. Establishing a series of new tax credits, grants, and initiatives that would dramatically slash US emissions over the next decade, which scientists unanimously agree is necessary to avert climate catastrophe and which President Joe Biden has pledged to do, will cost roughly $600 billion.
“If you add it all up, this would be the single largest thing the federal government has ever done to deal with climate change,” said John Larsen, director of the climate research organization Rhodium Group.
The bills will require nearly all Democrats in Congress to pass, since they have such a slim majority in both the House and Senate. But as of right now, Democrats can’t agree on whether the cost is worth it.
“It is possible to find middle ground in many areas of politics. I know because I have done it,” Sen. Ed Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat, said at a Thursday press conference on Capitol Hill. “But we cannot compromise on science. There isn't a middle ground between livable and unlivable worlds.”
Markey has been burned before. Back in 2009, when he was in the House, he championed a bill to cut climate emissions using a market mechanism called “cap and trade.” Often called the Waxman-Markey bill, the legislation narrowly passed the House. But then the bill died in the Democrat-controlled Senate, where it never even got a vote.
This time, Markey is making an ultimatum to his colleagues: “Climate cannot be cut and will not be cut. No climate, no deal.” He’s one of about three dozen Democrats in Congress who have made the pledge, including Green New Deal champions Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont.
The two pieces of legislation under debate are the bipartisan infrastructure bill and the larger reconciliation package, also called the Build Back Better plan. The goal is to pass the two bills together. The Senate already passed the infrastructure plan in August, but the House then postponed a September vote on it because the reconciliation package was still up in the air.
The reconciliation bill is the one most important to climate advocates, even though climate makes up just one potential chunk of it. As it was originally envisioned, the $3.5 trillion legislation would also provide two free years of community college, universal pre-K and other child care support, expand Medicare, and institute comprehensive family and medical leave.
On the climate side, one of the most significant pieces proposed is the Clean Electricity Performance Program, a $150 billion program that will incentivize utilities and other electricity power providers to rely on carbon-free energy, such as wind and solar, by 4% or more each year.
It’s a “carrots and sticks” program, said Patrick Drupp, deputy legislative director for climate and clean air at the Sierra Club. The federal government will pay the power providers that meet or surpass the target and charge a fee to the ones that don’t. “That’s a pretty strong market signal to the industry” to shift away from fossil fuels, Drupp said.
Then there are massive tax breaks proposed for boosting clean energy, electric vehicles, and energy efficiency, some of which would benefit producers and others that would go to consumers. Biden specifically called for $300 billion to fund these back in June. While there are some climate-related tax breaks that already exist, “the new idea is to put that on steroids,” Larsen said.
An analysis by Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer’s office concluded back in August that these two programs alone would represent nearly two-thirds of the climate pollution cuts delivered by the bills.
“[W]e are on the precipice of the most significant climate action in our country’s history,” Schumer wrote in an Aug. 25 letter announcing the analysis. “I do not believe we have the luxury of failure if we are to provide a good future for ourselves and our children.”
Another big-ticket item is charging oil and gas facilities for emitting methane, a potent greenhouse gas, into the air.
A separate analysis by Larsen’s Rhodium Group determined these three programs and a few others would result in almost 1 billion metric tons of emissions reductions just in the year 2030. For context, in 2020, the US generated roughly 5.16 billion metric tons of emissions.
The climate savings are equivalent to taking every single vehicle off the road in the US, according to Larsen, or wiping out the annual emissions from Texas and Florida combined.
At this point, it’s unclear which, if any, of the climate programs will make it into the final package that Congress will pass. All signs point toward $1 trillion to $2 trillion being lopped off the reconciliation’s initial $3.5 trillion valuation. Sen. Joe Manchin, a Democrat from West Virginia, has repeatedly said he’d like to see the final number come down to $1.5 trillion. Sen. Kyrsten Sinema has reportedly said she wants to see $100 billion specifically cut on climate programs.
Even though the price tags under discussion for climate programs are enormous, the cost of inaction on the crisis will be even higher, climate advocates have warned. “It is a fraction of what the costs will be to our society if we don’t take action to address the climate crisis,” Lena Moffitt, campaigns director of the environmental group Evergreen Action, told BuzzFeed News by phone. Just last year, for example, the US experienced a record 22 weather and climate disasters that each caused at least $1 billion in damages.
As if the stakes weren’t high enough already, climate advocates are pushing for a decision by the end of the month. That is when the US will attend an international climate summit in Glasgow to hammer out each country’s progress toward reducing carbon and other climate pollution.
“President Biden must be able to put a deal on the table that reflects what we then expect from the rest of the world,” Sen. Markey said.
Every country participating in the Paris climate agreement agreed to submit updated climate targets going into this conference. Earlier this year, the Biden administration made an aggressive pledge to cut economy-wide emissions in half by 2030 compared to 2005 levels. The ability to deliver on that promise now rests with Congress.
Environmental activists are viewing the bills as a do-or-die moment for political action on the climate crisis. “If the Democratic Party passes a deal, without full effort for climate, it will be evidence of what so many of us already feel: that our elected officials are so far removed from the reality of the climate crisis and they govern without thought to us and value of human lives,” Nikayla Jefferson, a Sunrise Movement activist, said last week. “No climate, no deal.”