US Senator Joe Manchin has thrown President Biden’s climate plans into disarray with his announcement that he “cannot” vote for the Build Back Better act, a $1.75 trillion social spending package that includes historic climate proposals. With the Senate evenly divided between the parties, his vote is crucial.
The ambitious legislation, a significant down payment on President Biden’s climate promises, may be Democrats’ best chance to reduce cut carbon pollution this decade and avert catastrophic levels of global warming.
Manchin said he objects to the act’s price tag, citing the “staggering debt of more than $29 trillion” that the nation already faces. But climate experts warn that failure to address the climate crisis will come at an even higher price.
“The faster we get to net zero, the less harmful and costly climate change will be,” Robert Kopp, a climate scientist at Rutgers University and co-author of the book “Economic Risks of Climate Change: An American Prospectus.”, wrote in an email. “Delaying action drives cost up.”
The West Virginia Democrat, who has made millions from the coal industry and who reportedly regularly meets with fossil fuel lobbyists, has raised concerns about the bill’s cost for months. But if planet-warming pollution continues unabated, the resulting extreme weather events, reduction in worker productivity, and other climate impacts could result in the nation losing 10.5 percent of its gross domestic product (or total economic output) by 2100, according to a 2019 National Bureau of Economic Research working paper.
But if, on the other hand, nations successfully lower greenhouse gas emissions to meet the goals of the Paris climate accord, the U.S. could see just a tenth of those losses, the same report found.
“It would make more fiscal sense to invest more money in climate mitigation today in order to prevent more costly climate impacts in the future,” said Kamiar Mohaddes, an economist at the University of Cambridge who co-authored the report.
Delaying major climate legislation will require the eventual fixes to be more dramatic— and expensive. A February 2021 report from policy research firm Energy Innovation modeled two scenarios for reaching Biden’s goal of net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, one where the U.S. begins aggressive efforts to decarbonize immediately, and one where officials wait until 2030.
They found that waiting ten years to impose the clean energy standards, vehicle emission regulations, and building efficiency improvements necessary to phase out greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, would be a whopping 72% more expensive than starting now. The delay would allow more pollution to build up in the atmosphere, which means the problem will get worse, and be more expensive to clean up in the future.
It would eventually require more investment in expensive technologies like carbon capture and storage to draw down emissions. Meanwhile, the country would sink more money in infrastructure that would need to be retired before the end of its useful life.
Megan Mahajan, a study co-author and a senior policy analyst at the Energy Innovation, said passing climate policy right away could also help individual Americans save money on gas and fossil fuel-powered utilities by using solar and other renewables instead.
“Projections of rising prices this winter say cost increases for households using fossil fuels for heating could range anywhere from 22% to 94% more, depending on the fuel used for heating and the severity of the winter temperatures,” she said. Households that use electric heat, she said, are seeing their bills go up by just 6 percent, on average.
Elizabeth Turnbull Henry, president of the Environmental League of Massachusetts, said those benefits could be hugely helpful to Massachusetts residents, who face some of the highest energy costs in the nation. Most of the money spent here on energy goes to out-of-state and foreign entities, and most of those are fossil fuels.
“With the investments from Build Back Better ... we’re looking at the opportunity to shift our energy budget and create these cycles and energy regions of reinvestment locally,” she said.
Failing to act now will carry other local costs, too. Massachusetts has some of the country’s highest asthma rates due in large part to transit-related emissions, and some of the nation’s oldest building stock. Henry said the legislation’s provisions could help Massachusetts tackle both with its proposed investments in electric vehicles and weatherization, and thereby help the state comply with its legally binding climate mandate to reach net-zero by 2050.
“It is almost impossible for Massachusetts to meet those climate goals without bold and enabling federal action,” she said. “There’s so much for the state to gain ... but on the flip side, there’s also so much to lose, with 1500 miles of coastline and so many hubs of economic activity within the reach of rising seas.”
Representative Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts said that failure to pass the bill will come with a human toll as well, especially for the most vulnerable Americans who face both economic and climate stressors.
“With environmental justice communities like East Boston, Chelsea, and Chinatown in my district disproportionately vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, passing this bill—which represents the largest investment in combatting climate change in American history—is quite literally a matter of life and death,” she told the Globe. “We can’t take no for an answer and we must deliver this critical bill for the people.”
Henry said that she hopes that Manchin’s stated opposition isn’t a death blow for Build Back Better’s climate provisions, and expressed hope that Congress will pass them — if not under the bill, then in some other form.
“This is not over by any means,” she said.