On a recent sweltering morning, a parade of congressional Democrats took to a microphone outside the U.S. Capitol building to urge President Joe Biden to do whatever it takes to finally pass hundreds of billions of dollars in spending to combat climate change.
It was a show of unity, with leaders of sometimes disparate factions within the House of Representatives – including the leftist Congressional Progressive Caucus and centrist New Democrat Coalition – alongside each other.
But there was also an underlying message, evident in recent interviews with Washington climate-policy advocates, including Congress members and leading environmental activists.
The signal they’re sending is that, at this point, they’re ready to declare victory if Mr. Biden is able to get legislative approval for a climate package – even if it’s significantly slimmed down from the original $550-billion version that has repeatedly failed to get through the Senate – before looming midterm elections in which his party could lose control of Congress.
At the same time, they’re trying to adjust their expectations for what comes next if a Republican party opposed to most climate action takes more congressional control. To some, it’s an opportunity to consider whether arguments for economic self-interest could help achieve bipartisan consensus; to others, it’s an imperative to find new ways to put the presidency’s executive powers to use.
“It’s hard not to throw up one’s hands given the state of play in Washington,” said Claire Healy, the Washington director for the climate think tank E3G. “But that’s not an option. My view is we have to get what we can when we can get it, and keep pushing and building for the long term.”
Expectations have fallen drastically since Mr. Biden took office, when he was supposed to fast-track a clean-energy revolution domestically while internationally repositioning the United States at the forefront of the global struggle to avert environmental catastrophe.
He has managed modest steps in that direction, including a relatively small portion of last year’s $1.2-trillion infrastructure bill going toward power-grid modernization and electric-vehicle charging capacity. He used executive action to restore environmental regulations gutted by Donald Trump, including those targeting vehicle-tailpipe emissions. He returned the U.S. to the Paris climate accord.
But mostly, it’s been an exercise in frustration. More immediate crises – COVID-19, Ukraine, inflation and now the rollback of abortion rights – have kept climate from the top of the priority list. Consumer angst during a global energy crunch has Mr. Biden pushing for increased domestic oil production and a gasoline tax break, at odds with reducing fossil-fuel dependence. This week, the Supreme Court may continue its run of historically conservative decisions by curbing the regulatory authority of the Environmental Protection Agency, limiting the department’s ability to set climate policies without congressional approval.
That leaves anyone here who’s dedicated to climate policy having to lean on seemingly long-shot sources of hope.
Among some legislators, there is a renewed push for carbon pricing, which has thus far been consistently rejected at the national level in the U.S. The idea is that pairing it with carbon border adjustments – i.e., tariffs on imports from countries without comparable pricing systems – could get some support from Republicans drawn to trade protectionism.
Speaking in his office, Democratic Senator Sheldon Whitehouse – who recently introduced proposed carbon pricing and border-adjustment legislation – framed that sort of case.
“It would be an act of stupid economic self-harm to fail to take advantage of the lower relative carbon intensity of U.S. manufacturing compared to Chinese and other foreign manufacturing,” Mr. Whitehouse said. “So for people who don’t care about climate change, there is the competition argument that this puts a big lift behind American industry.”
That fits into a view held by some centrist Democrats, such as Florida Congressman Ted Deutch – who co-chairs the bipartisan Climate Solutions Caucus and is working with Mr. Whitehouse on carbon pricing – that the past couple of years show the need to depoliticize climate policy and bring Republicans aboard.
In an interview, Mr. Deutch suggested that growing incidences of climate-related disasters – “what’s happening literally in every part of this country, from droughts to wildfires to floods to hurricanes” – will make it harder for Republicans to ignore the issue.
At the same time, he said, Democrats must stop framing it in the “Green New Deal” terms that were in vogue when Mr. Biden entered office, and accept that their climate agenda will have to be incremental, which he acknowledged is “not the preferred method for many of my colleagues.”
At this point, climate-oriented policymakers and activists may not have any choice but to live with incrementalism. But there will also be a push for Mr. Biden to think more expansively in trying to move the needle.
Ms. Healy, for instance, suggested that environmentalists should push Mr. Biden to use the power of the White House for internationally resonant moves, such as structural reforms to make the (largely U.S.-controlled) World Bank more focused on sustainability, and strengthening climate-risk disclosure rules through the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.
“It’s not incrementalism or transformation,” she said. “It’s both, now.”
But for the moment, eyes are still mostly on whether some of the long-debated $550-billion – largely consisting of tax credits to expedite renewable electricity, electric vehicle uptake and commercialization of other clean technologies – can get over the finish line.
Realistically, most proponents are limited in what they can do on that front. As has been the case throughout Mr. Biden’s presidency, the plan’s fate rests with West Virginia’s Joe Manchin, an unusually coal-friendly Democrat who holds the decisive vote in the evenly-split Senate.
Other Democratic caucus members concede they don’t really know where talks between Mr. Biden and Mr. Manchin are at. There has been an eerie quiet surrounding them recently, which environmentalists are optimistically taking as a sign of lessons learned, after more open negotiations around the Build Back Better bill (meant to include the climate measures alongside new social spending) ending in acrimony.
“It’s very clear to me that the Biden administration has continued to prioritize climate action even as the conversations with Senator Manchin have disappeared from public view,” said Kevin Curtis, the executive director of the Natural Resources Defense Council Action Fund. “Given the very public process in 2021 that ended in failure, I understand the desire to negotiate in private.”
All that groups like his can really do now is keep pressure on the White House, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Senator Manchin to prioritize a deal amid everything else going on. That involves lining up stakeholders, including private-sector interests, to push for clean-energy transition – not just an environmental imperative, but also an economic and national-security one.
“Senator Manchin has the voting card; I don’t,” said Environmental Defense Fund president Fred Krupp. “But we’ll continue to do everything we can to make legislation more likely. And that [includes putting] together a variety of people that don’t have voting cards, who are all telling senators this is a win-win-win.”
Meanwhile, environmental advocates are readying to try to mobilize environmentally conscious voters in the midterms.
That will involve putting the best possible spin on Mr. Biden’s climate moves to date, which Mr. Curtis said his organization’s research shows are mostly unknown by the American public.
But to avoid the environmental movement’s frustrations curdling into outright despondence, it would sure help to have the centrepiece negotiations of the Biden administration’s first two years end in something other than total failure.
Standing around after the press conference on Capitol Hill that recent morning, Craig Auster – the vice-president for political affairs at the League of Conservation Voters and one of the organizations that coordinated the event – summed up the hunger for a win from spending legislation that once seemed to have historically transformational potential.
“Depending what the deal is, we’re ready to be positive about the positive things in it,” he said. “And remind people that we were never going to solve climate change with just one bill.”
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