Major climate action at stake in fight for twin bills pending in Congress


WASHINGTON – President Biden has touted this moment as the country’s best chance to save the planet.

“The nation and the world are in peril,” he said a few weeks ago in Queens, where 11 people drowned in their basement apartments after floodwaters from Hurricane Ida devastated communities from Louisiana to New York. “And that’s not hyperbole. It’s a fact. They warned us that extreme weather will become more extreme over the decade, and we are now living in real time. “

Mr Biden’s plan to attempt to fortify the United States against extreme weather – and reduce the carbon dioxide emissions that heat the Earth and fuel disasters – is embodied in two laws pending on Capitol Hill. The future of both bills remains in question, with tensions between moderate and progressive Democrats over the size and scope of many details.

Together, they contain what would be the most significant climate action ever undertaken by the United States. If Congress fails to pass major climate legislation now, it could be years before U.S. political cycles present another opportunity – a delay that scientists say the planet cannot afford .

The climate provisions are designed to rapidly transform energy and transport, the country’s two largest sources of greenhouse gases, from systems that now burn mostly gas, oil and coal to sectors that are increasingly functioning. more to clean energy from the sun, wind and nuclear power.

The impact will affect a wide range 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 constructed. A measure could shut down virtually all of the country’s remaining coal-fired power plants, forcing radical change in communities dependent on mining, but also, study finds, preventing up to 50,000 premature pollution deaths here. 2030. And other measures would provide billions to replant in the country. forests, repairing trails for hikers and clearing brush to reduce the risk of forest fires.

“Every time you let these opportunities slip through your fingers, you are passing a much more difficult problem to the next generation,” said Kim Cobb, a climate scientist at the Georgia Institute of Technology and a mother of four. “It is a very difficult thing to swallow that we are relegating children born today and not yet born to a future of dangerous climate impacts.”

The United States has contributed more to global warming than any other country, and its action will be felt far beyond its borders. Failure would cripple Mr Biden next month, when he is expected to attend a major United Nations climate summit in Scotland to try 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 adviser to the United Nations secretary general. “If these bills are not passed,” she said, “then the United States will come to Glasgow with fine words” but “not much else. It will not be enough.

As part of the 2015 Paris climate agreement, nearly 200 countries agreed to try to limit global warming to less than 2 degrees Celsius, compared to temperatures before industrialization. This is the threshold beyond which scientists say the dangers of global warming – such as deadly heat waves, water shortages, poor harvests and collapsing ecosystems – increase dramatically.

But the world is far from achieving this goal. As countries continue to pump carbon emissions into the atmosphere, the Earth has already warmed by around 1.1 degrees Celsius. Nations must halve their emissions by the end of this decade to avoid the most catastrophic effects of warming, and begin that shift immediately, scientists say.

Mr Biden has pledged to cut U.S. emissions to at least 50% below 2005 levels by 2030, but his ambitions are constrained by very slim Democratic majorities in the House and Senate and the plight of two bills.

The first bill, a $ 3.5 trillion budget proposed by House Democrats, has been at the center of debate as it is chock-full of social programs, including a free community college, paid family and medical leave, and a expanded health insurance plan.

But it also contains hundreds of billions in tax credits for companies that build wind and solar power plants or renovate polluting facilities to capture and bury their carbon dioxide emissions before they enter the atmosphere. And it extends tax incentives for Americans to buy electric vehicles, giving consumers up to $ 12,500. It would also penalize oil and gas companies in the event of a methane leak, a potent greenhouse gas.

The most effective climate measure in this legislation is a $ 150 billion clean electricity performance program, which would reward utilities that produce an increasing amount of electricity from wind, solar, nuclear or power sources. other sources of clean energy and would penalize those who do not. The policy aims for the United States to get 80% of its electricity from sources that do not generate carbon dioxide by 2030, up from 40% today.

“If that happened, it would easily be the biggest thing Congress has ever done on climate,” said John Larsen, director of the Rhodium Group, an energy research and consultancy firm. In a recent study, Mr. Larsen found that the most important climate provisions would only allow the United States to meet Mr. Biden’s emissions pledge halfway. But, he said, “going halfway in one bill would be huge.”

It could transform states like Florida, Mississippi and Alabama, still dominated by fossil-fueled power plants.

“A policy like this would really have a disproportionate impact in the Southeast,” said Maggie Shober of the nonprofit Southern Alliance for Clean Energy. “We are generally lagging behind when it comes to clean energy.

The second major bill in Congress, a $ 1 trillion infrastructure plan has bipartisan support. It would provide the largest injection of money to prepare communities for the extreme weather conditions fueled by climate change that are already underway. It includes $ 47 billion over five years in resilience funding to improve the country’s flood defenses, limit damage from forest fires, develop new sources of drinking water in drought-stricken areas. and relocating some communities away from high risk areas.

The bill comes after a record summer in the United States in which cascading disasters hit almost every corner of the country: from overflowing rivers in Tennessee, a hurricane that dumped record amounts of precipitation and left a streak destruction from Louisiana to New York, a heat wave that killed hundreds in the Pacific Northwest, wildfires that set the Sierra Nevada range ablaze, pumping so much smoke into the air that it was foggy in Boston.

The infrastructure bill would change the US approach to dealing with climate threats that can no longer be avoided. Instead of reacting frantically after a disaster, the country would be better prepared to reduce the damage.

“We have long been telling lawmakers that climate change could put a greater strain on the freshwater supply in the West and that we need to plan ahead before it becomes a crisis,” said Dan Keppen , executive director of the Family Farm Alliance, which represents farmers, ranchers and irrigation districts in 17 western states.

This summer, with the worst drought of memory in the American West, Mr. Keppen watched these terrible warnings unfold. An irrigation district in Oregon had to turn off the water in the summer before crops were ready for harvest in local vineyards and orchards. California ranchers had to ship their cattle because there was no forage.

Mr Keppen said the infrastructure bill, which contains $ 8.3 billion in funding for water projects, could make a big difference, improving water storage and funding measures conservation. “If we had done this 20 years ago, I think we would be much better prepared for the drought this year,” he said. “The only good thing about this year’s drought is that it has really drawn attention to the problem.”

The infrastructure bill also includes billions to make buildings more energy efficient. About 30 percent of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions come from energy to heat, cool and power buildings.

“Too often, for many of us, climate change makes it seem like there is nothing we can do to stop it,” said Donnel Baird, who heads BlocPower, which aims to convert green electricity gas and oil heating systems, especially in low income communities. “But no, we can actually green all American buildings.”

Yet there is no guarantee that even the infrastructure bill will pass. Many House Democrats have said they will not vote for the legislation unless it is passed alongside the reconciliation bill that aims to tackle the root causes of global warming.

Environmentalists fear that if Democrats in Congress fail to come to an agreement on the legislation this year, it could be the last chance for major climate action in a long time, as the party could lose control of Congress midway through the process. next fall. While many Republicans approve of climate resilience funding, they have shown much less support for federal action to reduce emissions.

The world’s temperature will depend on many factors, including how other major polluting countries like China and India manage their emissions. Even so, scientists say, the possibility of limiting global warming to around 1.5 degrees or at least below 2 degrees is getting weaker and weaker.

“Even if the 1.5-degree window closes, it will still be worth doing everything we can to limit further warming as much as possible,” said Michael Oppenheimer, professor of geosciences at Princeton. “Every fraction of a degree of warming results in additional damage and risk. “

Delay is not an option, Oppenheimer said. “We have been doing this for 40 years and now we are seeing firsthand what it means,” he said.

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