Biden’s big climate policy died. But that’s not the whole story.

Wayne Parry/AP
New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy speaks at a news conference in a parking lot in Seaside Heights, New Jersey, on July 9, 2021, where four electric vehicle charging stations were recently installed. The governor has signed a package of clean energy bills, and at the federal level a bipartisan infrastructure bill would provide new funds for electric vehicle charging stations.

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Heading into a global summit on climate change, the big headline from Washington is that President Joe Biden’s signature initiative for clean energy has failed to pass muster with a congressional majority. 

Is meaningful climate action doomed? Some advocates have questioned whether the American political system is equipped to deal with a global and existential climate crisis. 

Why We Wrote This

When it comes to climate change, the recent media narrative has been about a U.S. failure to act. But federal action isn't dead, and many experts say progress is often energized from the bottom up.

But that “mostly empty” view is not the only climate story these days, and many policy experts say it’s important to recognize and build on the progress that is happening. They are finding inspiration in bottom-up success stories, macro shifts in attitudes, and even the messy grappling of the political process itself.

A new poll this week finds that 59% of Americans say the issue of climate change is very or extremely important to them, up from 49% in 2018. Ten U.S. states have passed legislation that commits to 100% clean electricity by 2050 or sooner. And in Washington, prospects for new federal efforts on climate are far from dead. 

Sasha Mackler of the Bipartisan Policy Institute notes that an infrastructure bill with major climate-related elements passed the Senate in a broadly bipartisan vote. “It gives me encouragement that, when framed in the right way, a lot of climate policies are actually pretty popular,” he says. “And that story gets missed.”

America’s political commentary about climate change has been rather gloomy recently.

Core parts of President Joe Biden’s climate plan have crumbled in the face of Washington political realities. This month, the lack of one key Senate vote in his own party forced the president to scrap a clean electricity proposal that supporters had described as essential for lowering the country’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Now that same lawmaker, Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, is reportedly opposing another climate component of the Build Back Better Act, this one involving fees on emissions of methane, a gas with even more planet-warming potential than the carbon that often leaks from gas and oil wells.  

Why We Wrote This

When it comes to climate change, the recent media narrative has been about a U.S. failure to act. But federal action isn't dead, and many experts say progress is often energized from the bottom up.

Pundits have suggested that all of this threatens U.S. standing at a key international climate conference that opens next week, the COP26 gathering. Some advocates have questioned whether the American political system, and perhaps even democracy writ large, is equipped to deal with a global and existential climate crisis. 

But that “mostly empty” version is not the only climate story these days, and many researchers, advocates, and policymakers say it’s important to recognize and build on the progress that is happening. Despite the consensus among scientists that faster and greater action is needed, these individuals caution against a rhetorical approach of panic and “last chance” alarm. Indeed, they are finding strength and inspiration in bottom-up success stories, macro shifts in attitudes, and even the messy grappling of the political process itself. 

“There is a lot of hard work going on,” says Daniel Bresette, executive director of the Environmental and Energy Study Institute, an education and policy organization in Washington. “But it takes time to build a majority block of votes to pass legislation. There’s a way to look at that pessimistically and say, ‘Well, the process isn’t working.’” 

Andrew Harnik/AP
Sen. Joe Manchin, a Democrat from West Virginia, a holdout vote who sank President Joe Biden's clean electricity program, speaks to reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington on Oct. 27, 2021. Mr. Biden is seeking to ensure that $150 billion in spending canceled by Mr. Manchin will be spent on other climate initiatives.

Yet the only way climate action can happen, he says, is if enough people agree that it’s needed. “And that is happening – it’s OK to acknowledge that it might take a little bit of time.” 

That’s not to say he doesn’t feel time pressure. Mr. Bresette, like many involved in climate policy, believes that the longer governments and individuals take to lower greenhouse gas emissions, the greater the damage to Earth’s climate and the harder it will be to reverse it. A United Nations report released earlier this week found that countries’ current emissions promises fell short of avoiding the sort of climate change that would cause, in officials’ words, “endless suffering.” 

At the same time, he and others see climate movement, particularly outside of the federal legislative process. Municipalities across the United States have embraced significant climate action, from Dallas, which plans to become carbon neutral by 2050, to Los Angeles, which this summer began piloting electric school buses to transport students. 

“Below the level of the state, there are all sorts of amazing things happening,” Katharine Hayhoe, director of the Climate Science Center at Texas Tech University, said on the podcast “Climate Pod” recently. Dr. Hayhoe, author of the new book “Saving Us: A Climate Scientist’s Case for Hope,” listed numerous local climate initiatives in Texas, from Houston’s climate action plan to the fact that Fort Hood is powered 43% by clean energy. “Change is happening – I feel like if it can happen in Texas, it can happen everywhere. But as you can see, it is percolating up from the bottom. And what is going to be the last to change is our politics at the state and the national level.”

Even still, 10 U.S. states have passed legislation that commits to 100% clean electricity by 2050 or sooner. This summer, Illinois became the first Midwest state in that camp, pledging to shift to carbon-free energy by 2045. Oregon aims for 2040.

Such actions, building in recent years, are one reason the U.S. has reduced greenhouse gas emissions some 20% compared with 2005 levels.   

Kirsty Wigglesworth/AP
A lone climate demonstrator holds a banner outside Parliament in London on Oct. 25, 2021, ahead of the United Nations climate conference, COP26, which will be held in Glasgow, Scotland, starting Oct. 31.

“There is a lot of progress in the states,” says Chris Chyung, senior campaign manager at the Center for American Progress. “I just keep pointing to them as a beacon, quite honestly. If we can’t get things done in a divided Congress, then we can definitely look toward the states to mitigate some of that. But at the same time, the states can’t do it all on their own.”  

The Biden administration agrees with this latter point. It has promised to use the full power of the presidency to fight climate change and has been integrating climate policy into various arms of government. Last week, for instance, it released new analyses on how climate change intersects with national security, foreign policy, and migration. It has taken steps to integrate climate analysis into financial decisions, from federal procurement to rules on private-sector retirement plans. The Securities and Exchange Commission is weighing a mandate for corporations to disclose their climate risks. 

Significantly, climate legislation remains very much in play. Although much of the media focus over recent weeks has been on the disintegration of the Clean Electricity Performance Program, the president has said that he is committed to using the $150 billion that would have gone to that initiative for other climate action items that, according to reports, could go to efforts like climate-focused block grants to states and clean-energy tax incentives for consumers and industry.  

“The loss of CEPP created a hole in our carbon reductions, and although there’s no one silver bullet that will fill that, it’s powerful that they are reallocating those funds to other climate programs,” says Jamaal Raad, executive director of Evergreen Action, a climate action advocacy group. 

Already, the Democratic spending bill has more than $200 billion worth of incentives for clean energy technologies, from aviation fuels to electric cars – with extra going to those made in the U.S. 

This funding would come in addition to important climate efforts that have already received bipartisan support through the infrastructure bill passed by the Senate earlier this year, points out Sasha Mackler, director of the Energy Project at the Bipartisan Policy Center.  

“It has some very monumental new programs representing the down payment on the development of the advanced technologies that we know we’re going to need to hit our net-zero targets,” he says. “It would really be a step change in the level of effort and investment by the federal government.”

Examples from the infrastructure bill include $9.5 billion for clean hydrogen, $7.5 billion for electric vehicle charging, and $11.5 billion for low-carbon mass transit – plus other investments connected to offshore wind energy.

And these numbers, Mr. Mackler points out, are by no means hidden.

“They are really climate-focused technology initiatives,” he says. “And that bill was passed in the Senate with a broadly bipartisan vote. It gives me encouragement that, when framed in the right way, a lot of climate policies are actually pretty popular. And that story gets missed.”

This isn’t to say that all of these efforts are enough, he and others reiterate. More comprehensive actions will be needed, as scientists see global warming currently on track to result in devastating extreme weather events, sea level rise, food shortages, and other impacts. 

Charlie Riedel/AP/File
Wind turbines are silhouetted against the sky at dawn near Spearville, Kansas, on Jan. 13, 2021. In its current pared-down form, the Build Back Better Act omits President Joe Biden's clean electricity program – an effort to push electric utilities to replace fossil fuels with renewable sources such as solar and wind.

But a number of recent studies have shown a growing American consensus on the importance of climate action. This week, an Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll found that 59% of Americans say the issue of climate change is very or extremely important to them, up from 49% who said the same thing in 2018.   

New research from the Climate Leadership Council, a bipartisan group that has long advocated for a price or tax on carbon, shows that many Americans support climate action as well – especially when those efforts are connected to labor force and economic progress.

In a poll released today, for instance, the group found that most Americans, across political lines, were in favor of what’s called a border carbon adjustment, a fee on imports connected to carbon pollution resulting from producing those goods. And more than 75% of respondents said they were willing to pay more for a product if they “knew it was made in America with less carbon pollution, and that paying more would help create jobs here by bringing more manufacturing and production back to America.”

“There’s a narrative out there that voters want to do something on climate but they’re not willing to be part of the solution,” says Greg Bertelsen, CEO of the Climate Leadership Council. “That view is an oversimplification. The fact is, Americans want climate policies that are effective at what they’re intended to do, which is lower emissions.”

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