Democrats are sleepwalking towards climate catastrophe

MIAMI BEACH, Fla. — On Monday night, I saw one of the most desperate performances about climate hope I’ve seen in years.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi appeared here at the Aspen Ideas: Climate Festival in Miami Beach to discuss what Congressional Democrats are doing about climate change. Her remarks were more effective than a litany of missed opportunities. Susan Goldberg, recently Editor-in-Chief of National Geographic, now the dean at Arizona State University, bluntly asked the speaker if Democrats would pass climate legislation, and Pelosi almost shrugged. The House of Representatives has already passed a roughly $2 trillion bill that includes President Joe Biden’s climate priorities, she said. Now it was in the hands of the Senate. If they happened to get her a bill back, the house would approve it.

There was absolutely no sense that this legislation is a defining moment for the broader Democratic group. Gone was any suggestion that if Democrats don’t pass legislation this term, America’s climate commitment under the Paris Agreement will be out of reach, and worse heatwaves, bigger wildfires and devastating famines across the country and around the world in the next year and a half Decades will be almost certain.

Pelosi really didn’t seem to understand why Congress had to pass a climate bill in this session. (She seemed to blame the fossil fuel industry for the inaction of the current Congress.) She has repeatedly justified climate action by saying it’s “for the kids.” This became the rhetorical leitmotif of their statements – Congress must act “for the children”. She explained why she wanted more women in Congress, saying they needed to learn to “hit — for the kids.” With this line she closed.

Despite the Helen Lovejoy-like nature of this appeal, it is factually false. Climate protection was “for the children” in the 1990s. “We’re not doing this for the kids,” Kate Larsen, an energy analyst at Rhodium Group, told me after the event. “We’re doing this for us!” Heat waves hot enough to cook human flesh are occurring as early as this month; They will appear more frequently in the coming decades and will strike several times a year. Unbearable droughts, sea-level rise so severe that levees are breaking, and unpredictable famines will rule life. Most of the world’s coral reefs, including the Great Barrier Reef, undergo bleaching every few years, which means the water will be so hot that the corals will release their symbiotic microorganisms into the water, starving themselves in the process.

The speech seemed to underscore the collapse of climate policy over the past year. During the campaign, Biden described climate change as one of the country’s four major overlapping crises. Still, his government appears to be sleepwalking toward inaction. Five months ago, Senator Joe Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat, rejected Biden’s Build Back Better bill after the White House repeatedly ignored his attempts to reduce it. Since then, Democrats have been in limbo, with Manchin setting out some of his terms for a replacement law and Democrats failing to create a new law that reflects those terms. It now seems likely that the Democrats will lose control of Congress with only a bipartisan infrastructure bill to blame for their troubles.

Then they face overwhelming opportunities. Because of the geographic spread of their supporters, Democrats can win 51 percent of the votes cast in the 2022 and 2024 elections and still lose eight Senate seats. I’ve heard estimates that the party must win eight points more than Republicans to win a Senate seat. Unless inflation abates, such an outcome will be so unlikely as to be virtually impossible, leaving Democrats in minority status for years to come. In contrast, Republicans have a plausible path to more than 60 seats, allowing them to pass legislation on that institution’s filibuster.

At the same time, the Biden administration could soon lose its ability to regulate climate change at all. The Supreme Court could limit the Environmental Protection Agency’s ability to regulate greenhouse gases during this term. It could also limit the chevron deference, a jurisprudence that gives executive agencies more freedom of action when the underlying law is unclear. In the past, both concepts were of central importance for democratic climate legislation. Both could be gone by 2023.

When reminded of this bleak outlook, climate progressives point to corporate action and the stock market, both of which seemed to be moving in their direction. In the 2010s, most oil companies were not turning a profit, confirming activists’ calls for institutions to divest their fossil fuel stockpiles. But markets have turned since the pandemic began. Oil company stocks are among the best of the past year. Funds that emphasize ESG, or “environmental, social, governance,” a vague category that covers topics as diverse as a company’s carbon footprint, the number of women on the board, or the benefits to organized labor, also underperformed the recent market route. At another conference here last month, libertarian venture capitalist Peter Thiel attacked ESG as a “hate factory” and compared it to the “Chinese Communist Party”. This week he backed a fund that would deliberately take anti-progressive positions.

Historically, progressives have not been particularly fond of ESG either, seeing it as a form of Wall Street greenwashing (or worse). But on climate in particular, it has worked in their favor, allowing managers to take a less-than-direct approach to shareholder value and drive loss-making initiatives.

All of this means that the next time a climate-skeptical president takes office, proponents will have fewer tools to constrain their behavior than they did last time. And they will have no future to point to: If the Democrats couldn’t pass a climate bill in 2009 or 2022, why would anyone hope that they would or could try again?

Since 2017, a wave of global concern – much of it fueled by dislike of President Trump and the 1.5 Celsius report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – has heralded a new era in climate action. This tide is ebbing. American climate protectors may have almost nothing to show for it. Democrats are sleepwalking towards climate catastrophe

Jessica MacLeish

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