If you had told climate activists a year ago that the country was on the cusp of $25 billion for electric transmission lines and a smart grid, $7.5 billion for charging stations and $3.5 billion to help weatherize the homes of low-income homeowners, they would have been ecstatic. These are the kind of big-bucks investments they’d been pleading for years without much success and now, defying the odds, a bipartisan group of senators working with the White House is positioned to deliver.
The federal government should have been making climate investments on this scale for the last decade to reach the agreed-upon goal: a clean, carbon-free economy by 2050. Progressives will demand more than a political system rigged in favor of the status quo can deliver, but we’re closer to getting real action on climate than ever before. Too much time has been lost already but this year, 2021, marks the beginning of the end of climate denial as a winning political issue, and a new urgency about the health of the planet
With extreme back-to-back weather events capturing headlines and the fossil fuel industry in retreat, fewer Republicans have the chutzpah to claim that climate change is a hoax invented by China, as Donald Trump did. Fifty-two Republicans, almost a quarter of the House caucus, joined a GOP-only Climate Caucus formed last month to get up to speed on the rapidly escalating challenge and help educate others on how addressing climate change can mesh with conservative principles.
“Underneath all the partisan fervor, there is bipartisan agreement that clean energy and renewable energy are the future of energy. The question is whether it’s America’s future,” says Sean McElwee, 28, a self-described climate activist and founder of Data for Progress. “We’re being out-competed by China and Europe, and we need investments to make America competitive.” McElwee told the Daily Beast he approves of the policies in the bipartisan bill that’s being advanced on infrastructure “but I don’t approve the numbers.”
He’s counting on the procedure known as reconciliation to allow Democrats to pass a second infrastructure bill without GOP support that will take the numbers up to where President Biden laid them out in his initial American Jobs Plan. The additional spending would include more climate initiatives plus “human” infrastructure for the caring economy Biden envisions.
“I’m more of a pollster than a policy wonk,” McElwee said, explaining his optimism that Congress will act on climate. The millennials who were Obama’s generation of voters are in their mid-to-late thirties now and settling in with homes and mortgages. Republicans need to take climate change seriously if they want to reach this cohort, he says. “Reality has changed. Very few Republicans question the science of climate change. Solar and wind are competitive with fossil fuel. All that changes the political landscape.”
Utah Rep. John Curtis, the founder and chair of the newly created GOP Climate Caucus, is emblematic of this changed thinking. Curtis asked his audience in an April speech at a conservative think tank, “Why does the climate question scare you? Are you really content with the label of not caring about the Earth?” If he even utters the word “climate,” he said that his wife gets panicked calls that he’s “gone off the deep end and I’m now in league with AOC.”
Elected to Congress in 2017 in a special election to fill a Republican vacancy, Curtis had been serving as the Democratic mayor of Provo, Utah, where he was known for championing clean air and recreation initiatives, including a beach and a popular hiking trail.
Congress hasn’t tried to pass meaningful legislation on climate since a measure to put a price on carbon pollution failed. “The world is an entirely different place now than it was in 2010,” said Elizabeth Gore, senior vice president for political affairs at the Environmental Defense Fund. That was the year West Virginia Governor Joe Manchin, running for the U.S. Senate, shot a bullet into “cap and trade” legislation in a campaign ad. The market-based solution that would have capped global pollution and allowed corporations to trade permits within that ceiling was derided by its critics as “cap and tax.”
The legislation was the target of a massive lobbying campaign by the fossil fuel industry and its allies, and in the end, to try to win passage, was so full of loopholes and giveaways for corporations that White House Budget Director Peter Orzag called it the “largest corporate welfare program” in U.S. history. Even Campbell’s Soup was at the trough, angling for a deal for carbon-intensive making of soup. Democrats didn’t have the 60 votes needed for passage, and by the time Majority Leader Harry Reid pulled the bill in July, nobody much cared.
And that’s where climate languished until 2018 when a blue wave of activism galvanized by a visceral opposition to President Trump put the House in Democratic hands and progressive priorities back in the spotlight. “Extreme weather patterns were more visible and became more of a motivating factor for everybody,” says Gore. “It’s not just an issue that voters support, it’s a top tier issue with much more engagement at the grassroots level. The debate is not whether it exists, it’s about ambition—how far to go in combating it.”
Give credit where credit is due. “It was AOC ‘s first big issue,” says Ryan Fitzpatrick, director of the Climate and Energy Program at Third Way. He cites the outsized impact of the freshman lawmaker, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, on garnering public attention along with the rise of the Sunrise Movement, a climate-oriented activist group, launched in 2017, for bringing the issue front and center especially for young people.
There are fights ahead. What are the “pay-fors?” How much more deficit spending is reasonable? Can Democrats find a sweet spot between Bernie Sanders’ $6 trillion wish list and Joe Manchin’s minimalism? “My party’s divided but my party’s also rational,” President Biden said. So far, the bipartisan deal on infrastructure is holding, driven by Manchin, who chairs the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, and Republican ranking member Lisa Murkowski.
Beginning when the GOP controlled the senate and Murkowski was chair, they passed out of committee more than a dozen bills to clean up abandoned mines and oil wells and boost battery manufacturers. Now those bills are in the infrastructure deal. Manchin is Exhibit A in his changed attitude toward climate change and his recognition that a weakened coal industry cannot be resurrected and must be eased into a clean-up role.
Progressives’ top demand on climate in a reconciliation bill passed by Democrats is a Clean Electricity Standard or CES. Twenty-nine states have such a standard, but they’re not binding. The rules governing the reconciliation process require legislation to have a direct budgetary impact. Policymakers are working on a performance program to set a target where utilities get a rebate if they meet it and would pay the government if they don’t.
Collin O’Mara, president and CEO of the National Wildlife federation, calls the emerging legislation “a great down payment.” He would like more focus on resilience and mitigation because it’s going to take time for a clean energy economy to take hold. But he reflects the cautious optimism in the climate community. “No one is actually questioning the need to do this and to mitigate the climate horrors that we’re seeing,” he told the Daily Beast. “There’s something about the politics of actually bringing people together. I’m incredibly optimistic, and the reason is that I think the needs are so great and there are benefits to everybody.”
He didn’t hesitate to venture a prediction that more than 10 Republicans in the Senate will vote for the bipartisan infrastructure deal and there will be some crossovers from the GOP for the Reconciliation package. Given our fractured politics, we’ve come a long way on climate when Republicans give up on denial and Democrats find a path moderates and progressives can support.