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Our Take: How Goes the Crusade to Tame the Feral Climate? Part 1: In Washington

Part I: In Washington

Alexander Burns, writing in the July 4, 2021 New York Times, penned a clear-eyed view of where we are politically at the moment.  In his view, we’re stuck. However, Burns doesn’t raise his gaze from a Washington-based politics that isn’t quite as usual, but as redefined by Trump. Burns ignores, as do most politicians, commentators, and much of the general public, that the country and indeed the world, is in the early rounds of a fight for our lives, a fight that transcends politics, ideologies, and party affiliations.

The climate crisis is not some vague far-off possibility that won’t happen if we ignore it. We remain fixated on the quotidian, the return to normal, our everyday concerns, our daily lives. We focus on the short term, guard our prerogatives, resist any proposed changes that threaten our vested interests. Utilities impose restrictions on homeowners’ installation of rooftop solar panels, builders block stricter building codes, ExxonMobil says it’s for a tax on carbon but lobbies against one. Everyone is short-sighted, anxious to guard privileges and profits. We refuse to draw the obvious but intolerable conclusion that the drought parching much of the West, the collapse of a corroded concrete condo in Florida, a record-breaking heatwave in the Northwest and western Canada, are all linked by a common denominator — our climate has turned hostile; it has ceased to be benign. 

Climate change is no longer some far-off threat. It’s here now. If we don’t fight it now, for sure it’s going to get worse. Where’s the outrage, the demand that Congress, the President, somebody, do whatever it takes to restore some measure of comfort, of normality, of safety and security? That alarm is nowhere to be seen, not even by as astute an observer as Alexander Burns. 

Is there no event, no sign, no calamity, no danger great enough to shock America to awareness of its peril? Apparently not. 

It seems overly optimistic now to hope that many, if any, of Biden’s ambitious, transformative climate proposals will be enacted. The droughts, the heatwaves, the building collapses, the hurricanes, the wildfires will continue, worsen, and follow hard upon each other without letup. The petty politics that preoccupy Washington will gradually cease to matter. They will become irrelevant as we plunge into the maelstrom  our complacency has condemned us to.

Eventually Washington will act, but its timid compromises will be too little, too late. Half measures won’t keep the climate from deteriorating still further, impinging on all our lives and livelihoods. Humans have lived for millennia in a cocoon, a Goldilocks climate, not too hot, not too cold, just right for us to flourish and multiply. Yet over the last two centuries, we have heedlessly altered the terms of the equation, disrupted the fine balance, destroyed the equilibrium that endowed us with that long-stable ambiance.

Recovery is still possible, but it requires us to act decisively now. Unfortunately, we have great difficulty surmounting both the stumbling blocks we’ve strewn in the path of progress and the ancient-ingrained, inherent limitations of our brains that prioritize immediate and short-term gains over long-term sustainability. Both impede us from making changes of the magnitude needed to avoid an inhospitable, hostile climate. So a polarized America seems inevitably headed for some very hard times. And because the climate is global, we will not be alone.

The stasis of American politics that Burns decries seems almost certain to continue. While Biden was able to get a $1.9 trillion bipartisan Covid Recovery Act passed through both houses of Congress. That bill contained only a small down-payment on what Biden dubs The Clean Energy Revolution. A bipartisan compromise infrastructure bill with most but not all climate planks stripped from it may garner enough votes to pass the filibuster hurdle. Biden faces a much harder lift to pass other segments of his ambitious agenda. He is unlikely to get any Republican votes on any of its other planks. Since it takes 60 votes to pass most legislation in the Senate, because of the filibuster, Biden has only two possible ways forward. One is to do away with the filibuster rule by either modifying or abolishing it. Doing that takes only 51 votes, all 50 Democratic Senators plus Kamala Harris, who as Presiding Officer of the Senate can cast the deciding vote if a vote is tied. The other way forward is by a Budget Reconciliation bill. Because budget bills are must-pass bills, they cannot be filibustered. Several moderate Democrats are reluctant to go along for a variety of reasons. Any Reconciliation bill the Democrats table must meet their approval. The success or failure of Biden’s presidency is in their hands.


Lyndon Johnson was a master at corralling the votes he needed to pass legislation, by cajoling, flattering, bartering, or threatening, whatever it took. Biden will have to be as masterful as LBJ, but whether he’s up to it remains to be seen. If he can’t somehow get all his caucus to fall in line, his transformative agenda will be stillborn. While Biden’s vision encompasses addressing many of the major problems plaguing America, the centerpiece of his presidency is a full-frontal assault on the climate crisis.

Biden “gets” climate. He understands that it is an existential crisis, one that can make the Earth uninhabitable by humans and many other species. Regimes would fall, nations dissolve into anarchy, millions of climate migrants would overwhelm wherever they seek haven. Coastal cities would flood every full moon. Wildfires would rage out of control. Fierce tropical storms would frequently wreak havoc. Crops would fail, hunger and starvation would be rampant. Economies would tank. Banks would fail. Insurance companies would cease to provide coverage. Wet bulb heat would kill thousands throughout the tropics, up to a million species of wildlife would go extinct. Civilization itself might well crumble. That’s what Biden is trying to save us from. He wants to produce 80% of our energy emission-free by 2035, and reach net zero by 2050. The programs he has proposed are credible ones that can get us a long way toward those goals.

Yet it’s not enough for the US alone to go green. The climate is global; it knows no boundaries, recognizes no borders. To ensure a livable Earth for all, every country must go green. In that way the climate is like the Covid-19 pandemic: Noone is safe until all are safe. It’s an existential crisis for every country, and for humanity. In recognition of this fact, all countries signed the Paris Agreement in 2015 that committed their nations to transition to clean energy sources and to restore natural habitats. Each country set their own 5-year commitments, and agreed to meet again in 2020 to make new, more ambitious ones. That meeting, designated as COP26, had to be postponed because of the pandemic, but it will meet in Glasgow, Scotland, this November. It will be a key step in getting to forever green.

Reference: NYTimes: Why America’s Politics Are Stubbornly Fixed, Despite Momentous Changes: Why America’s Politics Are Stubbornly Fixed, Despite Momentous Changes https://nyti.ms/2V66tjf

image: https://www.emkinstitute.org/resources/what-youll-experience

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