Clean Energy Insights

Democrats are fumbling their chance at climate action — and we’ll all pay the price

7 minute read

As featured in the Hill

For those of us who care about the fate of our planet (I hope that’s everyone), watching what’s been happening with the bipartisan infrastructure bill and the budget reconciliation bill in Congress the last few weeks is terrifying.

Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) are threatening to sabotage the Democrats’ chance at passing meaningful climate legislation, probably for many years to come. And given that we have zero years left with which to address the climate crises, we find ourselves in a serious situation.

Now, as the politicians are continuing to do what they do best (not get things done), let’s not forget other pressing climate news. 

The good

President Biden recently announced plans to double the amount of funding to help poorer countries tackle climate change with $11.4 billion per year through 2024. 

Even better, Chinese leader Xi Jinping announced last week that China will no longer finance any new coal projects in foreign countries. Given that 70 percent of the world’s coal projects rely on Chinese financing — that’s a big deal.

Not to be left out of all the fun, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced on Monday the UK will aim to hit 100 percent green energy production by 2035. Not too shabby. Not too shabby at all.

The bad

Biden specifically ran on a campaign promise to stop leasing federal lands for oil and gas drilling. However, his administration just opened up 80 million acres in the Gulf of Mexico for oil and gas drilling. The administration is pointing the finger at a federal judge in Louisiana saying “the government was required by law to offer acreage to the oil and gas industry.”

Let me get this straight: Despite the world simultaneously burning and flooding, along with back-to-back extreme weather events — all made worse by fossil fuel-driven climate change — the leader of the free world just passed the buck on oil drilling? Biden is basically saying that even though he promised we’d stop destroying the planet, somewhere in our law books it says we have to keep on destroying the planet — so we will.

The ugly

Climate change poses a very clear and present danger in the United States. Over Labor Day last month, rather than enjoying a barbeque, people in four states were under a state of emergency due to extreme weather events fueled by climate change: California, Louisiana, New York and New Jersey.

Since 1980, the average number of billion-dollar disasters per year in the U.S. has been seven. In 2020, we had 22 billion-dollar disasters. That’s a $96.4 billion price tag in weather and climate disasters in 2020 alone, not to mention the cost in human lives and suffering. It’s estimated that if climate change is left unabated, it will cost “$551 trillion, which is more money than there is on earth,” climate activist and author Bill McKibben points out

Yet, despite the existential risk posed by climate change to all of us, Manchin and Sinema — and all 50 republican senators — believe that spending the $350 billion a year for 10 years to avoid the worst of the climate crisis is far too much to ask, as proposed in the budget reconciliation bill (and provide a ton of other awesome benefits like lowering prescription drug costs and universal pre-k).

While $350 billion might sound like a lot, keep in mind, the president is proposing we spend $750 billion on our military budget this year. This is more or less what Congress approves without batting an eyelash for the military every year. We literally spend more money on the military than the next seven countries combined.

In that context, how can these planet-saving funds be so difficult for Congress to approve? What threat could be so scary that the senators would risk not taking action on climate change in order to avoid it?

According to Manchin, it’s good old inflation. Boy, do I hate inflation. You know what I hate more though? When my house burns down, or is lost in a flood, or my family member dies in a heatwave because the U.S. government knew about climate change for over 50 years and did nothing to stop it.

Perhaps inflation isn’t really Manchin’s top concern though. Perhaps it’s that he owns a $5 million stake in a coal brokerage that he earns half a million dollars a year from. Or maybe it’s something we don’t know about that’s being discussed during his frequent meetings with ExxonMobil lobbyists.

What might be the ugliest part of this whole mess is that while Democrats argue with themselves about whether these minimal amounts are worth paying to save the climate, they conveniently ignore that this could all be a heck of a lot cheaper by cutting fossil fuel subsidies.

Silly me, what was I thinking? Of course, they have to keep subsidizing fossil fuels!

Even in the most significant climate legislation we’ve ever seen, where Democrats have all the power to craft a bill and pass it as they see fit, they’re still giving billions in corporate handouts to the fossil fuel industry.

If that doesn’t tell you everything you need to know about the climate crisis, I don’t know what will.

And if the impacts of fossil fuels on our climate weren’t devastating enough, the industry also poses an immediate toxic pollution risk to our environment. Huntington Beach, California is currently facing 3,000 barrels worth of oil that spewed into the ocean Friday — the largest California oil spill in recent history.

It’s not looking good, ladies and gentlemen. 

It’s not as though we are without alternatives to fossil fuels that pollute our environment and dangerously warm our planet: A study from Oxford last month found that the cost of solar panels are dropping to ridiculous new lows, faster than expected, and faster than most are realizing.

Next month the countries of the world will meet in Glasgow for the next UN Climate talk, COP 26. This will be the first COP with the U.S., the world’s largest historic emitter, back at the table, since the U.S. withdrew from the Paris Agreement in 2017. 

The United States is the biggest player in the climate conversation and this is the biggest stage. Can Biden and the Democrats wake up to the historic moment we’re in, quit squabbling and use the authority the voters gave them to grow a spine and take some action? And in doing so, hopefully rally other countries to follow our lead? I sure hope so.

Andreas Karelas is author of the book “Climate Courage: How Tackling Climate Change Can Build Community, Transform the Economy, and Bridge the Political Divide in America” published by Beacon Press. He is also the founder and executive director of RE-volv, a nonprofit climate justice organization that helps fellow nonprofits across the country go solar. Follow him on Twitter: @AndreasKarelas

Previously Featured on The Hill

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