After summer of disasters, some lawmakers see chance for climate action
WASHINGTON – As the country reels in the cascade of death and devastation caused by this summer’s record flooding, heatwaves, droughts and wildfires, President Biden and Progressive Democrats are capitalizing on the opportunity to push for aggressive climate provisions in a $ 3.5 trillion budget bill.
Speaking on Thursday in Queens, where nearly a dozen people died a day earlier in flash flooding, Majority Leader Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York City said when the Senate returns to Washington Tuesday to continue work on budget legislation, it would include provisions to reduce fossil fuel emissions linked to extreme weather conditions.
Congress is also considering a $ 1,000 billion bipartisan infrastructure bill that includes money to help communities guard against climate disasters. The Senate passed the bill last month and the House is expected to vote on it by the end of September.
This legislation includes funding of $ 47 billion over five years to improve the country’s flood defenses, limit damage from forest fires, develop new sources of drinking water in drought-stricken areas and relocate some communities away from risk areas. It also contains $ 27 billion in spending to help strengthen power grids against extreme weather events that cause more frequent power outages.
Mr Schumer said infrastructure and budget bills were paramount in preparing communities for more powerful storms, fires, droughts and floods and in stopping pollution that would further warm the planet and lead to more severe storms, fires, droughts and floods. even more extreme weather conditions.
“Global warming is upon us, and it’s going to get worse unless we do something about it, and that’s why it’s so imperative to pass both bills, the infrastructure bill. and the budget reconciliation bill, ”he said.
Of the two legislative texts, the finance bill faces the most perilous path. Republicans uniformly oppose it because it also includes a range of social spending, like funds for universal child care. Some Democrats are also unhappy with the $ 3.5 trillion price tag and want to reduce it, although a few who initially hesitated over the cost are now saying they could make an exception when it comes to climate provisions.
The budget bill will include a powerful tool to reduce greenhouse gas emissions – an incentive program designed to replace most of the country’s coal and gas-fired power plants over the next decade with wind power plants. , solar and nuclear. This would be the strongest policy to fight climate change adopted by the United States.
President Biden and Progressive Democrats say the summer disasters that have shocked the country, from deadly flooding in New York to severe drought in the Midwest to wildfires raging in California, will give them leverage in negotiations around the budget bill. Progressive Democrats also hope to use the budget bill to make polluters pay for these clean energy programs – for example, by imposing tariffs on goods imported from countries that do not regulate greenhouse pollution, and charges on emissions of methane, a gas that warms the planet. leaking from oil and gas wells.
It is far from certain that these provisions will figure in the details of the budget bill. Because no Republican should vote for the final package, Democrats will need every vote of their very slim majorities in the House and Senate to pass it.
But this week, West Virginia Democrat Senator Joe Manchin III called on Congress to “take a strategic break” on the bill. In an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal, he wrote: “I have always said that if I can’t explain it, I can’t vote for, and I can’t explain why my fellow Democrats are turning up. rush to spend $ 3.5 trillion. “
A spokeswoman for Mr. Manchin did not return an email requesting comment.
Mr Manchin, whose coal-rich state could be affected by climate legislation designed to phase out fossil fuels, has been evasive about the program of replacing coal and gas-fired power plants with energy sources. zero emission energy. If he or any Democrat from a coal, oil or gas state objects to the provision, it could be removed from the final version.
Floods in New York
But Senator Tina Smith, Democrat of Minnesota, chief author of the power plant provision, said she believes the extreme weather conditions that have so recently burned, flooded and destroyed so many parts of the country would make it difficult. harder over the next two weeks for any Democrat to justify cutting it.
“Over the past two days, this part of the state has experienced one of the most extreme droughts we’ve seen in a generation,” said Smith, who spoke by phone from Minnesota. “I spent yesterday talking to cattle ranchers, they are liquidating their herds much sooner than they would have. They don’t have the food and fodder to keep their flocks together. And I can’t believe I’m the only senator to hear about this while I’m at home, when you think about the scope of extreme weather conditions across the country. And I think that dynamic shapes the negotiations.
Meanwhile, in a letter to President Nancy Pelosi of California, two representatives, Stephanie Murphy of Florida and Henry Cuellar of Texas, both moderate Democrats, laid out the “general principles” they wanted to see as lawmakers draft. details of the budget bill. Both members were among the group of moderate and conservative Democrats who first backed down from passing the original $ 3.5 trillion budget before Ms Pelosi issued a series of pledges, including assurances that the measure would be fully funded and would not include any provision that could not be clear. the Senate.
But in the letter, first reported by Politico and later obtained by The New York Times, the two Democrats said they were willing to make a possible exception for climate change spending because the cost estimates non-partisan “do not sufficiently take into account the future costs associated with inaction on the climate crisis.
While efforts to reduce emissions remain controversial, there is a broader consensus around the need to prepare communities for the impacts of extreme weather conditions. Few corners of the country have been untouched by the series of disasters this summer: overflowing rivers in Tennessee, a hurricane in Louisiana, a deadly heat wave in the Pacific Northwest and flooding in New York.
The Senate-approved infrastructure bill would mark a significant change in the federal government’s approach to extreme weather events. Rather than simply paying to rebuild communities after disasters, the bill would provide the largest infusion of federal funds ever to prepare states and cities for future climate impacts in advance.
For example, the Department of Transportation would get $ 8.7 billion to help states deal with future climate risks to their roads and transit systems. Much of the country’s infrastructure has been designed to handle the weather conditions of the past, which are becoming increasingly obsolete as the planet warms. This week, the New York City subway, parts of which were designed a century ago, was paralyzed after a storm dumped huge amounts of water in stations and tunnels.
Many of these provisions have received support from Republicans, including those who have dismissed the threat of climate change in the past. In an interview with CNBC this week, Senator Bill Cassidy, a Republican from Louisiana, urged his party to rally to the infrastructure bill after Hurricane Ida left a trail of destruction in his state.
“If we are to make our country more resilient to natural disasters wherever they are, we must start preparing now,” said Mr. Cassidy. “I really hope Republicans look around and see this damage and say, ‘If there is money for resilience, money to strengthen the network, money to help sewers and water, then maybe that’s something we should be for. “
But while climate experts praised many of the resilience measures contained in the bill, they warned that this is unlikely to be enough, as the nation’s needs are sure to increase as climate change fuels. increasingly severe storms, floods, forest fires and droughts. In 2018, the federal government’s National Climate Assessment estimated that adapting to climate change could ultimately cost “tens to hundreds of billions of dollars a year.”
“If we are serious about getting ahead of the curve of increasingly steeper climate impacts, it is not enough to do a single resilience bill every five years,” said Rob Moore, senior policy analyst at the Natural Resources Defense Council. . “We need to start building resilience measures into every dollar governments spend on infrastructure. “
For now, there appears to be little appetite in Congress to expand accommodation provisions in the infrastructure bill, although some lawmakers have called for additional measures in the finance bill. Some progressive Democrats, for example, pushed for the creation of the Civilian Climate Corps, modeled on a New Deal program, which would hire young Americans to work on a variety of climate resilience projects.
But even though the adaptation measures garner broad bipartisan support, some experts warn they could soon reach their limit unless countries like the United States quickly reduce their greenhouse gas emissions and slow the pace. of global warming.
“We are not even prepared for the disasters that befall us now,” said Rachel Cleetus, director of climate policy at the Union of Concerned Scientists. “And there is just no way for us to be able to stay ahead of what’s to come unless we can control our emissions and climate change.”
Emily cochrane contributed reports.