Climate and Congress

Historic political action, but is it enough?

 

On June 30, just days after torrential rains exacerbated by climate change deluged the Greater Yellowstone Region, demolishing homes, displacing families and upending lives and livelihoods, a Supreme Court ruling hobbled the Biden administration’s power to limit greenhouse gas emissions. The court’s opinion, penned by Chief Justice John Roberts, essentially said that only Congress could make “a decision of such magnitude and consequence.”

The Pisa Room in Titan Cave, east of Cody, Wyoming. Scientists are analyzing stalactites and stalagmites to gain insight into the climate of the past and the future.
Lindsay D’Addato/High Country News

Climate advocates plunged into despair. Congress make a decision? Congress do anything meaningful at all — especially on climate change? To say it seemed unlikely is to put it mildly. 

After all, Democratic lawmakers (and a few Republicans) have been trying, and failing, to pass climate legislation for decades. Back in the 1990s, the Clinton administration pushed for a fossil fuel tax. But not only did it bite the (rapidly growing) dust, its backers were punished by voters in the notorious 1994 mid-term rout. A decade later, Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain teamed up with Connecticut’s Sen. Joe Lieberman, who was still a Democrat at the time, to sponsor a bill capping greenhouse gas emissions. That, too, was a no-go — though McCain’s career survived, something unlikely to happen in the GOP today. Abandoned congressional climate bills have piled up like tumbleweeds over the years, the latest casualty being Build Back Better, which withered away and died in the narrowly Democratic-majority Senate.  

So when Roberts declared that only Congress could act to avoid a climate catastrophe, it was a devastating blow — to the entire planet. But a handful of Democratic lawmakers rose to the challenge and doubled down on their determined negotiations. And just weeks after the Supreme Court ruling, Senate Democrats — with a good deal of help from their pragmatic Western colleagues — finally secured a deal on a bill that tackles not only climate, but also inflation, health care and taxation. 

The Inflation Reduction Act of 2022, which President Joe Biden signed into law Aug. 16, is not perfect by any means. It makes numerous concessions to the fossil fuel industry and, because it’s a filibuster-proof budget reconciliation bill, is unable to actually mandate emissions cuts. But it is nonetheless historic, allocating some $369 billion toward renewable energy, environmental justice, heat pumps, efficiency and electric vehicles. Independent analysts predict that it will cut emissions more than 40% by 2030, positioning the U.S. as a global leader in the battle against climate change. 

Jonathan Thompson, acting co-editor

Perhaps the most remarkable fact is that our notoriously polarized and dysfunctional Congress managed to pull this off at all, overcoming conservative Democratic resistance and unyielding Republican obstruction. Maybe this bill is a freak of nature — the first and last of its kind. Or perhaps the public and its representatives, increasingly battered by climate change, are finally waking up to the need to act and make more decisions of genuine “magnitude and consequence.” 

Jonathan Thompson is an acting co-editor at High Country News. He is the author of Sagebrush Empire: How a Remote Utah County Became the Battlefront of American Public Lands. 

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