Biden's climate change agenda hangs in balance as Congress debates budget

·Senior Climate Editor
·5 min read

If Congress passes President Biden’s ambitious plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, he will go down in history as the nation’s first leader to usher in a transformative climate change agenda. But with the scope of the federal budget in limbo, should those measures be cut from the final package, the U.S. will, once again, come up short on helping to avert climate change catastrophe, according to environmentalists.

“The urgency couldn’t be greater,” Matthew H. Davis, senior director of government affairs at the League of Conservation Voters, told Yahoo News. “We need to get our emissions cuts on track to go down by 50 percent by the end of this decade or we will see more summers like this one, in which 1 in 3 Americans experienced a climate-related natural disaster.”

Joe Biden
President Biden prior to receiving a third dose of a COVID-19 vaccine on Monday. (Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

As climate change makes extreme weather events such as this summer's record wildfires and hurricanes more common, numerous studies show that humanity will pay the price for inaction for decades to come. Democratic congressional leaders are echoing those findings. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi held a press conference Monday afternoon with House members from swing districts to promote the cause of climate action in the budget. The latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, she noted, calls the climate crisis “code red for humanity.” That report also finds that only rapid emissions reductions this decade and beyond will allow the world to stay below the 1.5 degrees Celsius threshold for catastrophic climate change.

“It’s clear the climate crisis is here and it’s taking its toll,” Pelosi said on Monday. “Our Democratic majorities are taking action.”

While its ultimate fate is unclear, the president’s Build Back Better agenda contains a variety of measures to limit greenhouse gas emissions and move the national economy away from a reliance on fossil fuels. The most significant, in terms of limiting climate change, include the clean electricity performance program, which would reward utility companies for shifting rapidly to renewable energy sources such as solar and wind and penalize them for failing to do so. It would also incentivize the purchase of electric vehicles, put a fee on leaking methane in oil and gas production and give tax breaks for boosting clean electricity production. Failure to sign on to any of those options would likely cause the U.S. to fall short of Biden’s emissions reduction target, according to modeling by a coalition of environmental advocacy organizations and think tanks.

On Monday, Pelosi emphasized the immediate economic and other benefits of investment in green infrastructure. “This is a jobs bill,” said the speaker. “It’s a health issue — clean air and clean water for our children right now. It’s a security issue.”

Nancy Pelosi
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi speaking about the Build Back Better agenda on Tuesday. (Andrew Harnik/AP)

“Low-cost clean energy and American-made electric cars and trucks are coming off the assembly line,” said Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Fla., who chairs the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis.

Castor and her colleagues, perhaps in an effort to boost support among moderates from other politically competitive districts, talked about the effects of climate change already being felt: “This year has sent us many warnings,” Castor said. “July was the hottest month in history.”

Rep. Lauren Underwood, D-Ill., who represents suburbs of Chicago, noted that “climate change has been threatening the livelihood of Illinois farmers for years.”

Biden has pledged to set the country on a path to reduce its emissions by half (from 2005 levels) by 2030, and he hopes to go to the United Nations climate negotiations in Glasgow, Scotland, next month with strong U.S. contributions to climate action in hand. Without that, it will be harder for the U.S. to impel other major climate polluters to do their part in reducing emissions as well.

“As the biggest historical emitter, we have to do something about our emissions if we're going to expect anyone else to do something about theirs,” Davis said.

In theory, not every policy to address climate change needs to be crammed into a budget bill. However, because congressional Republicans won’t provide any votes for climate action and Senate Republicans now filibuster every significant bill they don’t support, efforts to transition the nation to renewable energy can realistically pass only as part of the budget reconciliation process, in which Democrats can legislate with a simple majority.

Joe Manchin
Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va. (Stefani Reynolds/New York Times/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Some centrist Democrats, such as Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, have expressed a desire to reduce the scope of the reconciliation package and to put off some issues until next year. Typically, however, out of political caution, Congress tends to shy away from passing broad legislation in an election year.

Further complicating the hopes of future action on climate change, midterm elections usually favor the party that is out of the White House. If Democrats, who hold slim majorities in the House and Senate, were to lose one chamber in Congress in 2022, the chances for the kind of sweeping legislation that scientists say is necessary to dramatically curb emissions will all but evaporate.

The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Davis expressed optimism that the votes for strong climate action can still be marshaled, pointing to a recent poll of swing states and congressional swing districts that found a majority of voters in those battlegrounds say they “feel strongly” that “taking action to deal with climate change ... should be a priority” for the president and Congress. That poll, conducted by Hart Research on behalf of the League of Conservation Voters, also found that most voters support the clean energy policies in the Build Back Better Act.

“The Biden-Harris administration and Congress are lining up to do something transformational on climate change,” Davis said. “We believe that negotiations have been positive in the past few days, and we look forward to continuing to highlight for members of Congress and members of the Biden-Harris administration just how important these policies are and just how much the public supports them.”

Correction: Matthew H. Davis is senior director of government affairs at the League of Conservation Voters.

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