WASHINGTON – President Joe Biden has called this moment the country’s best chance to save the planet.
“The nation and the world are in danger,” he said weeks ago in the New York borough of Queens, where eleven people drowned in their basement apartments after Hurricane Ida flooded communities from Louisiana to New York. “And that’s not an exaggeration. It is a fact. They warned us that the extreme weather would get more extreme over the course of the decade, and we are now living in it in real time. “
Biden’s plan to strengthen the United States against extreme weather – and reduce the carbon dioxide emissions that heat the earth and fuel disasters – is embedded in two pending laws on Capitol Hill. The future of both bills remains in question as tensions exist between moderate and progressive Democrats over the scope and breadth of many details.
Together, they contain the most significant climate change action the United States has ever taken. With Democrats could lose control of Congress after 2022 and Republicans have shown little interest in climate legislation, it could be years before another opportunity arises – a delay the planet cannot afford, according to scientists.
Climate regulations are designed to quickly transform energy and transportation, the country’s two largest greenhouse gas sources, from systems that today primarily burn gas, oil and coal to sectors that are increasingly powered by clean energy from sun, wind and nuclear power.
The impact will affect a broad cross-section of American life, from the types of cars Americans drive, to the types of crops grown by farmers, to the way homes are heated and buildings are built. One measure could bring virtually all of the country’s remaining coal-fired power plants to a standstill, which could force major change in mining-dependent communities, but also, according to one study, could prevent up to 50,000 premature deaths from pollution by 2030 Forests, hiker repair paths and clear bushes, to reduce the risk of forest fires.
“Every time you slip these opportunities through your fingers, you are passing on a much more difficult problem to the next generation,” said Kim Cobb, climate scientist at the Georgia Institute of Technology and mother of four. “It is very difficult to swallow the fact that we are banishing children born today and not yet born into a future with dangerous climate consequences.”
The United States has contributed more to global warming than any other nation, and its actions will be felt well beyond its borders. Failure would hinder Biden next month, when he is expected to attend a major United Nations climate change summit in Scotland to convince other world leaders to take stronger climate action.
“The whole world is watching,” said Rachel Kyte, dean of the Fletcher School at Tufts University and climate advisor to the UN Secretary-General. “If these bills don’t materialize,” she said, “the US will come to Glasgow with some fine words,” but “not much more. It won’t be enough. “
As part of the Paris Climate Agreement of 2015, almost 200 nations agreed to limit global warming to below 2 degrees Celsius compared to temperatures before industrialization. This is the threshold above which scientists say the dangers of global warming – such as deadly heat waves, water scarcity, crop failures and the collapse of ecosystems – are increasing immensely.
But the world is far from achieving that goal. As countries continue to pump carbon emissions into the atmosphere, the earth has already warmed 1.1 degrees Celsius. Nations need to cut emissions in half by the end of the decade to avoid the most catastrophic effects of warming and to start that change immediately, scientists say.
Biden has pledged to cut U.S. emissions by at least 50% below 2005 levels by 2030, but his ambitions are constrained by wafer-thin Democratic majorities in the House and Senate and the fate of the two bills.
The first bill, a $ 3.5 trillion budget package proposed by the Democrats in the House of Representatives, with no Republican support, was a focal point of debate as it came with social programs like free community college, paid family and sick leave, and expanded Medicare is filled.
But it also contains hundreds of billions in tax credits for companies that build wind, solar, or retrofit polluting assets to capture and bury their carbon dioxide emissions before they get into the atmosphere. And it expands the tax incentives for Americans to buy electric vehicles, giving consumers up to $ 12,500. It would also penalize oil and gas companies for leaking methane, a powerful greenhouse gas.
The most effective climate change measure in this legislation is a $ 150 billion Clean Electricity Performance Program that would reward utility companies that generate more and more electricity from wind, solar, nuclear, or other clean energy sources and punish those who don’t . The directive aims for the United States to get 80% of its electricity from non-carbon dioxide sources by 2030, up from 40% today.
“If that happened, it would surely be the greatest thing Congress has ever done on climate,” said John Larsen, director of Rhodium Group, an energy research and consultancy firm. In a recent study, Larsen found that the United States with the biggest climate regulations would only hit half of Biden’s emissions pledges. But, he said, “getting halfway through with just one bill would be huge.”
It could transform states like Florida, Mississippi, and Alabama, which are still dominated by fossil fuel power plants.
“A policy like this would really have an overwhelming impact in the Southeast,” said Maggie Shober of the nonprofit Southern Alliance for Clean Energy. “We generally lag behind when it comes to clean energy.”
The second major bill in Congress, a $ 1 trillion infrastructure plan, has bipartisan support. It would be the largest single infusion of funds to prepare communities for extreme weather conditions fueled by climate change already underway. It includes $ 47 billion over five years in resilience funding to improve the country’s flood protection, limit forest fire damage, develop new sources of drinking water in drought-stricken areas, and relocate some communities from high-risk areas.
The bill comes after a record high summer in the United States in which cascading disasters struck almost every corner of the country: overflowing rivers in Tennessee, a hurricane that unleashed record levels of rainfall and left a swath of destruction from Louisiana to New York; a heat wave that killed hundreds in the Pacific Northwest; and wildfires that blazed in the Sierra Nevada, pumping so much smoke into the air that Boston was hazy.
The infrastructure bill would change America’s approach to climate threats that can no longer be avoided. Instead of reacting hectically after disasters, the country would be better prepared to reduce damage.
“We have long been telling lawmakers that climate change could continue to weigh on freshwater supplies in the west and that we need to plan ahead before a crisis hits,” said Dan Keppen, executive director of the Family Farm Alliance, which serves farmers, ranchers and irrigation districts 17 western states.
That summer, when the worst drought in history hit the American West, Keppen saw those terrible warnings spread. An irrigation district in Oregon was forced to turn off water in the summer before crops in local vineyards and orchards were ready. California ranchers had to ship their cattle because there was no more food.
Keppen said the infrastructure bill, which includes $ 8.3 billion for water projects, could make a big difference by improving water storage and funding conservation efforts. “If we had done that 20 years ago, I think we would be much better prepared for this year’s drought,” he said. “The only silver lining this year’s drought is that it really raised awareness of the problem.”
The infrastructure bill also provides billions to make buildings more energy efficient. Around 30 percent of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions come from the energy used to heat, cool and operate buildings.
“To so many of us, too often, climate change feels like there’s nothing we can do about it,” said Donnel Baird, who runs BlocPower, which aims to convert gas and oil heating to green electricity. especially in low-income communities. “But no, we can actually green all buildings in America.”
However, there is no guarantee that not even the Infrastructure Act will be passed. Many Democrats in the House of Representatives have announced that they will not vote for the law unless it is passed in parallel with the Reconciliation Law, which aims to tackle the root causes of global warming.
Environmentalists fear if Democrats fail to reach an agreement on the bill in Congress this year, it could be the last chance for big climate action in a long time, as the party could lose control of Congress next fall. While many Republicans are in favor of funding climate resilience, they have shown far less support for federal measures to reduce emissions.
How hot the world eventually gets depends on many factors – including how other major polluting countries like China and India deal with their emissions. Even so, scientists say, the chances of limiting global warming to around 1.5 degrees or at least below 2 degrees are getting smaller and smaller.
“Even if the window slams for 1.5 degrees, it is still worth doing everything possible to keep the additional warming as low as possible,” says Michael Oppenheimer, professor of geosciences at Princeton. “Every fraction of the warming leads to additional damage and risks.”
Delay is not an option, said Oppenheimer. “We’ve been doing this for 40 years, and now we’re seeing firsthand what it means,” he said.