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The political window is closing on climate change

If Democrats can’t compromise now, they may come away with nothing.

Emissions rise from the Kentucky Utilities Co. Ghent generating station in Ghent, Ky., April 6, 2021. The Supreme Court has heard arguments in a lawsuit intended to block the federal government’s ability to take strong regulatory action to curb greenhouse gas emissions.Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg

The long-predicted effects of climate change are now hard upon us, and they will only get worse unless we take sweeping action. But it’s not just the atmospheric window that’s closing. The political portal is as well — and not just for this year but for the next several. That means Democrats must move with dispatch to pass the climate provisions of the Build Back Better legislation.

Several coalescing probabilities make congressional action in the next few months the best, and perhaps last, chance for timely action. On Feb. 28, the US Supreme Court heard arguments in a lawsuit intended to block the federal government’s ability to take strong regulatory action to curb greenhouse gas emissions. That was the approach President Obama settled on in the face of Congress’s disinclination to act in a meaningful way on global warming. But Obama’s Clean Power Plan soon ran into legal problems, with the Supreme Court freezing it while a challenge to its legal grounding played out in court. Donald Trump then gutted Obama’s regulatory effort, only to see his own do-little-or-nothing rule thrown out by the US Appeals Court for the District of Columbia Circuit.


The Biden administration has signaled it intends to return to an Obama-like approach by using the Environmental Protection Agency’s regulatory power to crack down on energy-sector emissions, but has yet to detail its plan. Despite the lack of a currently relevant justiciable policy, however, the Supreme Court has agreed to hear an appeal of the D.C. Appeals Court’s ruling. The fact that the high court opted to hear this case before President Biden has a set of rules in the game suggests that its conservative majority is intent on preemptively closing that regulatory avenue. That would be in keeping with those justices’ clear skepticism about administrative authority based on a broad interpretation of statute. If so, the EPA would see its power to require sector-wide greenhouse-gas reductions severely curtailed.

On the electoral front, meanwhile, the prognosis does not look good for the Democrats in the mid-term elections. Republicans could well end up in control of the House and perhaps the Senate as well. Shortsighted though it is, congressional Republicans, who are both deeply beholden to the fossil-fuel industry and deep into climate denial, feel little compunction to address the climate issue. Should they win control of either branch of Congress in November, it becomes highly unlikely that any meaningful climate measure will pass.


That’s why timely congressional action is so important — and timely means soon. Although it may seem as though Democrats have all year to get something done here, once May rolls around, the mid-term election campaigns will be in full swing, and focus, energy, and opportunity will quickly dissipate.

The administration’s long-stalled Build Back Better bill includes a $555 billion (over 10 years) incentive-based climate package; experts say that would go a significant way toward meeting Biden’s pledge to cut US emissions by 50 percent by 2030. Notably, centrist Senator Joe Manchin, Democrat of West Virginia, who has balked at other parts of Biden’s $1.7 trillion, 10-year domestic agenda, has specifically said he sees room for agreement on the climate provisions. Without Manchin’s vote and that of fellow skeptic centrist Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, Democrats alone don’t have the numbers they need to pass legislation through the majority-vote budget reconciliation process.


The growing climate emergency is too urgent to let this opportunity slip. There is now widespread recognition that the effects of climate change have arrived. A new United Nations report on climate change makes clear that, without dramatic action, things will become much worse in the years ahead.

The need to regroup and refocus is now sinking in among some progressives, who have previously been reluctant to sacrifice cherished domestic priorities to political reality. Notably, US Representative Pramila Jayapal, chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, said at the end of January that progressives were willing to narrow down the bill in order to win the support of Manchin.

That doesn’t mean that every non-climate piece of Build Back Better must be nixed. But as Jayapal acknowledged to Politico, it does means that things like the child tax credit and paid family leave are very unlikely to make the cut. That could still leave room for action on other aspects, though Manchin has clearly grown more skeptical of the administration’s social agenda as inflation has persisted.

US Senator Ed Markey has suggested that the best path forward for Democrats would be to first secure firm intraparty agreement on the climate provisions and then add as much beyond that as Manchin and Sinema will sign off on. It will gall progressive Democrats to cede that much power to the party’s two naysayers, but there really isn’t another route. At this point, the writing on the wall is clear: Prioritize the climate legislation now or risk coming away with nothing later.


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