A frequent focus is reality-based paths through the political muck and mire around climate and energy policy. Read on below and read my recent piece on Rhode Island Senator Sheldon Whitehouse's crusade against fossil-fuel lobbying power. 🍃🍁
I fear we're stuck, if not quite sunk.
For more than a decade, thanks largely to Republican obstruction, the only path to durable progress on curbing climate-heating greenhouse gases in the United States seems blocked. That path is bipartisan legislation.
Week after week, the Biden climate package, built into a bipartisan infrastructure bill and the massive Democrat-crafted budget reconciliation bill, has been steadily eroded, with the shrinkage of the reconciliation package largely due to opposition from West Virginia's conservative, coal-invested Democratic Senator Joe Manchin.
But of course Manchin is pivotal only because Republican lawmakers remain in full blockade mode against almost any legislative steps on climate. A reconciliation bill was never going to be a good fit for climate-scale action. Read Heather Smith at Sierra Magazine for a primer on this "arcane, complicated form of budgeting that Congress resorts to when all is not harmonious in the halls of government."
Given the standoff, it's no surprise to see Coral Davenport at The New York Times reporting that a familiar backup plan is emerging. The White House, pressed to have something in hand when President Biden heads to Glasgow for the COP-26 edition of climate treaty talks, appears to be falling back on a suite of executive and regulatory actions, echoing steps President Obama took long ago.
As Davenport writes:
"The administration’s strategy now consists of a three-pronged approach of generous tax incentives for wind, solar and other clean energy, tough regulations to restrict pollution coming from power plants and automobile tailpipes, and a slew of clean energy laws enacted by states."
As Davenport also writes:
"The process of crafting regulations could take years and the conservative-leaning Supreme Court could overrule them or a future president could simply roll them back. And relying on states to amp up their clean energy laws just shifts the fight to statehouses for environmentalists and fossil fuel interests to battle it out on the local level."
I would still love to think there's wiggle room left between Manchin, the White House and progressives. One idea floated by the Breakthrough Institute's climate and energy team is expanded tax credits for existing and new nuclear power plants. Given that Manchin had written to Biden pressing the nuclear case in April, that might offer a point of reengagement.
I don't see much hope in this and other last-ditch efforts, including a new surge of carbon-tax talk.
But there's even less hope in the administration pivot to a vulnerable basket of regulations and other executive moves that are implicitly ephemeral given the likelihood of court challenges and chance of empowering Republican congressional candidates in the 2022 election.
For years, I've sensed that retreating to this form of climate policymaking, as the Obama White House was forced to do, is ultimately damaging if the goal is to build a sustained shift in this country toward leading the world to energy choices that work for the long haul - fostering thriving societies while limiting warming.
Making climate policy through executive action is akin to building a beautiful sand castle below the high tide line on a beach frequented by bullies.
Sadly, this approach may in fact be the only path unless and until some dynamic shifts in Washington toward true reconciliation - between Democrats and constructive Republicans (do they really exist?).
Only with such a shift is there a chance that "Biden can be Biden" - the master compromise-seeking negotiator he long claimed to be.
In fact, the infrastructure bill does reflect this possibility, as Robinson Meyer explored in The Atlantic back in August, even as he also noted its insufficiency. "I think this could be what the future of climate legislation looks like," he wrote.
He's likely right, sadly. Climate-relevant legislative steps that can become law will always be incremental and always insufficient. That's yet another reason to be sure work to cut climate vulnerabilities proceeds with vigor.
It's not hard to see warning signs in the context of the talks in Glasgow on next steps to solidify the structures outlined in the 2015 Paris Agreement.
China's recent moves, including President Xi Jinping's United Nations announcement of an end to Chinese investment in coal-powered plants in other countries, seem bound to give him plenty of leverage and hero status in Glasgow. This Washington Post story, focused on Vietnam's energy and policy scramble following the China announcement, provides a solid primer and case study: "China’s overseas coal ban raises pressure on developing countries to go green."
I hope I'm proved wrong when I warned on Twitter that Biden faces big risks in Glasgow.
But I also want to hear from you!
Please post your thoughts below, along with links to analysis and commentary on U.S. climate politics that you value.
On Wednesday, October 27th at 4:00 p.m. Eastern, I hope you'll join me in what's guaranteed to be an amazing discussion. I'll be hosting a special Sustain What webcast on paths to Avoiding a Climate Disaster, featuring Noam Chomsky and the Columbia Climate School's Jeff Schlegelmilch, director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness, and Dr. Belinda Archibong, a Barnard College economist focused on African development and perspectives on climate and energy policy. Paste the Facebook livestream link or the YouTube link in your calendar:
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And here's a parting gift from the Hudson Highlands - our 15-year-old dog Maddie having a leafy bath in this too-warm fall.