Opinion | Where Is Biden’s Climate Change ‘Revolution’?

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One of the first things President Biden did upon taking office in January was make a promise: The United States, he vowed, would finally “meet the urgent demands of the climate crisis” through “a clean energy revolution.”

Six months later, only the crisis is in evidence: The summer of 2021 is already shaping up to be one of the hottest on record, bringing severe drought and wildfires across the globe, extreme flooding in Europe and China, and a record-shattering heat wave in the Pacific Northwest that climate scientists say would have been “virtually impossible without climate change.”

What’s the status of Biden’s climate agenda, and how has it evolved? Here’s what people are saying.

Where things stand

The central goal of Biden’s climate proposal, part of “The American Jobs Plan,” was to put the country on a path to 100 percent carbon-free electricity by 2035 and net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, in line with the Paris agreement’s goal of keeping global warming well below 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit above preindustrial levels. (It currently stands at 2.2 degrees.) In all, the plan was to cost $2 trillion over four years.

Last month, however, in an effort to appease Senate Republicans, the Biden administration settled on a $579 billion infrastructure deal that omitted most of the ambitious ideas Biden had proposed. Some climate provisions remained, as the journalist Matt Yglesias has noted.

But by and large, climate experts and activists deemed the bipartisan deal highly insufficient. “Initial analysis of the bipartisan plan suggests that it may cut as much as a trillion dollars in environmental, climate and clean energy spending and tax incentives from the American Jobs Plan,” the World Resources Institute noted, which would make it “impossible” for the United States to meet its commitment to cut greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2030.

The chances of even the bipartisan bill passing seem increasingly small. On Wednesday, Senate Republicans blocked a procedural vote that would have allowed it to proceed. On a parallel track, Democrats moved last week to incorporate the major provisions of Biden’s climate plan in a broader, $3.5 trillion deal through reconciliation, a budgetary process that requires only 50 votes.

The carbon tax is dead. Long live the carbon tax?

Biden’s climate plan is notable for what it leaves out: a domestic tax on carbon, which for decades economists have championed as the gold standard of climate change mitigation. The concept is simple: Fossil fuels bear a cost — climate change, as well as air pollution — that is not reflected in their price. Increase the price to reflect that cost — by, say, $50 per ton of carbon dioxide emitted — and the market would work its magic to move the entire economy away from fossil fuels.

Yet for all their elegance, carbon taxes have proved politically unpopular:

“Because a carbon price affects all of society, it increases costs for every energy consumer, without providing an immediate alternative,” Robinson Meyer explains in The Atlantic. “That takes a cohort that wouldn’t care about climate policy in the abstract and turns it into a foe.”

Even Washington State could not manage to pass a carbon tax by ballot referendum both times it tried.

Some economists and political scientists also argue that conceptualizing climate change as a kind of market failure that can be fixed through taxation misunderstands the nature and scope of the problem.

The second method for reducing emissions — and the one Democrats are embracing — is a clean energy standard, which would legally require utilities to draw 80 percent of their electricity from zero-carbon sources by 2030 and 100 percent by 2035. Utilities that meet their targets would receive subsidies; those that don’t would get slapped with a fee, which in turn would be reinvested in zero-carbon energy technology.

Many economists agree that a clean energy standard is a less cost-efficient method of curbing emissions. At the same time, the targeted subsidy approach has advantages for technological innovation that carbon taxes lack, as the technologist Ramez Naam — a supporter of carbon taxes — has written.

Most important, Leah Stokes and Sam Ricketts write for Vox, clean energy standards have a proven track record: Since 2015, 10 states have passed their own 100 percent clean electricity standards. “What’s missing,” they say, “is federal policy, to ensure that every state and utility is switching from dirty energy to clean sources at the accelerated pace that’s necessary.”

Yet the idea of a carbon tax is not quite dead. It lives on in the Democrats’ plan in the form of a carbon tariff, which would tax imports from countries that are not significantly reducing their own emissions.

The Washington Post columnist Megan McArdle dismisses the idea of a carbon tariff as merely “greenwashed protectionism.” “Given that our domestic producers aren’t being unfairly burdened with a domestic carbon-pricing scheme we don’t have, there’s no real excuse for this policy,” she writes.

The Times columnist Paul Krugman disagrees. Even without a carbon tax, domestic businesses will still bear some cost for regulations like mileage and clean-energy standards. “A fair bit of estimation and imputation will be involved, and there will no doubt be arguments about the numbers,” he writes. “But while getting border adjustments right will be tricky, this trickiness isn’t a reason to do nothing.”

As world leaders gather for climate change negotiations, join The New York Times Climate Hub in Glasgow for nine days of live journalism, thought leadership and ideas to inspire action — in person and online. Be the first to find out about speakers, tickets and programming. Visit nytclimatehub.com.

The sticking points

Senator Charles Schumer of New York, the majority leader, is hoping to pass both the pared-down bipartisan infrastructure bill and the $3.5 trillion package before the Senate takes its August recess. He will need every vote from his caucus, which is far from unified at the moment.

Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia has said that he is “very, very disturbed” by the provisions in the $3.5 trillion package that he believes would eliminate fossil fuels. But other senators, like Tina Smith of Minnesota, say they won’t vote for a bill that doesn’t include a clean electricity standard as well as major investments in clean energy technology. “Those two things must go hand in hand for it to have my support,” she said.

Whichever path the Democrats choose, the energy journalist David Roberts writes that no moderate one is available: “Either we act rapidly and at massive scale to avoid the worst consequences … or we suffer the worst consequences. Either outcome involves radical change. There’s no avoiding radicalism.”

Why the clock is ticking

As The Times’s Coral Davenport explained in April, the Biden administration wants to pass a clean energy standard by the next global climate talks, which are scheduled to take place in Scotland in November. “Absent the sort of full-throated, aggressive, credible leadership of the world’s largest economy and the power of the U.S. to use its economic force, its trade force, its diplomatic force,” she said, “I don’t see how it is possible for the rest of the world to aggressively and rapidly make the cuts in emissions that are necessary to avert the climate crisis scenario.”

Ambitious climate legislation is unlikely to get another shot anytime soon. “Should Democrats fail to enact the clean electricity standard using this year’s one-shot chance at the budget reconciliation procedure, it is almost impossible to see how it could pass later,” Davenport and Lisa Friedman wrote last month. “Democrats could lose their thin Senate majority in next year’s midterm elections, effectively ending the road for Mr. Biden’s legislative agenda.

No matter what happens in Congress now, the world will continue to get hotter, as Susan Joy Hassol, Kristie Ebi and Yaryna Serkez write in The Times. By 2100, even with aggressive emissions reductions, the annual number of heat-related deaths in the United States will increase to 26,000, up from 12,000 today, according to a study they cite. If emissions continue to rise, that number could increase to over 100,000.

Such predictions are based on models that may themselves require revision. The study they cite was published before the Pacific Northwest heat wave last month, which was so extreme that pre-existing statistical models suggested it should not have been possible even with climate change factored in.

“Everybody is really worried about the implications of these events,” Geert Jan van Oldenborgh of the Royal Netherlands Meteorological Institute told Scientific American. “We feel we do not understand heat waves as well as we thought we did.”

Do you have a point of view we missed? Email us at [email protected]. Please note your name, age and location in your response, which may be included in the next newsletter.

READ MORE

“We Can’t Afford to Shrink the Infrastructure Bill” [The New York Times]

“It Seems Odd That We Would Just Let the World Burn” [The New York Times]

“Why Record-Breaking Overnight Temperatures Are So Concerning” [The New York Times]

“‘No One Is Safe’: Extreme Weather Batters the Wealthy World” [The New York Times]

“Why has climate economics failed us?” [Noahpinion]

WHAT YOU’RE SAYING

Here’s what readers had to say about the last debate: Is the United States Done Being the World’s Cop?

Yaakov from California: “Providing humanitarian aid and moral support to other countries is also interventionist. Obviously, it is vitally important who is the recipient of such aid and support. Hence, the umbrage over restoring aid to Gaza.”

John from Canada: “The United States could lead the global effort to enable the United Nations to become what they denied to their own Constitution — a rational force for the future. The Security Council must lose its veto powers and the task of policing the world should be given to the U.N. International standards of any kind must be international in their essence and their inception. If standards need to be imposed on any particular nation as a result of abuse of governance, then the U.N. must have a military force at its service.”

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