Climate advocates are used to hearing one question over and over again: What can I do? Faced with an existential threat, people want purpose. They want to know how they can hold back the rising tide. With more than 4 in 10 Americans living in a place struck by climate disasters last year, people can see the crisis in their backyards. Americans want to act.
Yet there are limits to what any individual can do. The climate crisis is a structural problem, fueled by a dirty energy system. It requires structural solutions, collective actions created by government investments and incentives.
The answer to what people can do can be frustrating, since the federal government has largely failed to act. Although Congress passed President Biden’s bipartisan infrastructure bill last fall, the legislation does not significantly address the climate crisis.
As someone who has worked on climate policy for almost two decades, I know what it’s like to run into a political brick wall year after year. But suddenly, that wall is getting weaker. The nation is closer than it’s ever been to transformative climate policy.
Congress has spent the past year painstakingly negotiating $555 billion in climate investments in the Build Back Better bill, from $3.5 billion to clean up pollution from ports to hundreds of billions of dollars aimed at deploying clean energy.
While it’s popular to think that what happens in Washington D.C., is irrelevant to Americans’ daily lives, that’s a cynical view. If the government is the backbone of a strong response to the climate crisis, then individuals are like vertebrae. The proposal would create new federal incentives to help everyday Americans reduce their dependence on fossil fuels.
Buying an electric vehicle will cut your carbon pollution by about half. But even though you’ll save a lot of money while operating the car, the upfront costs can be high. The federal government used to have tax credits to help Americans buy EVs, but that program partially lapsed. Build Back Better would reinstate support for clean cars.
Without this policy, Americans won’t go electric fast enough: Only 4 percent of American car sales were EVs last year, compared to 7 percent globally. With Build Back Better, a majority of new car sales would be EVs within the next 10 years.
The federal government can also help Americans clean up their homes. Many rely on burning fossil fuels for everything from cooking dinner to heating their houses. This isn’t just bad for the climate — it also harms our health. Children living in homes with a gas stove have a 42 percent increased risk of asthma. Even when gas appliances are turned off, they can still leak. And that gas contains carcinogens, like benzene.
Millions of Americans need to electrify their homes. If the bill passes, it will be easier to make the switch. The bill includes grants and tax credits for electric heat pumps, no fossil fuel required. These investments would help clean up almost 4 million homes, according to Rewiring America.
There’s also support for solar power. In the past, wealthy and white Americans were much more likely to install solar. That’s because homeowners needed significant tax liability to get federal support. The bill would make federal grants available and in the process make solar access more equitable across income and racial lines.
In fact, the bill would make clean electricity the default option. Through expanded tax credits, grants, and other programs, Build Back Better would deploy unprecedented amounts of clean energy. These investments would make meaningful progress toward Biden’s goal of 100 percent clean power by 2035.
Build Back Better would help every American. Even the United Mine Workers of America, long opponents of climate policy, have come out in support of the bill. While surprising, it makes sense: There are investments in manufacturing jobs in coal regions and health benefits for fossil fuel workers. The bill is about opportunity, not sacrifice.
Democratic Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia — who initially opposed the bill, denying the necessary majority needed to pass it in the Senate — recently told reporters: “I think that the climate thing is one that we probably can come to agreement much easier than anything else.” The White House and congressional leadership have a responsibility to hammer out that agreement and pass it as soon as possible, ideally before the president’s State of the Union address on March 1. And all of us who can see climate change in our backyards should push Congress to pass this bill. This isn’t only about our consumption choices. It’s also about our political actions.
And if Congress passes Build Back Better, there will be more work for all of us to do. I’ve already got my heat pump and next electric vehicle on order.
Leah C. Stokes is an associate professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, author of “Short Circuiting Policy,” co-host of the A Matter of Degrees podcast, and a policy adviser at Evergreen Action and Rewiring America.