Democrats are sleepwalking toward climate catastrophe

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MIAMI BEACH, Fla.—Monday night I saw one of the most heartbreaking performances on climate action hope I’ve seen in years.

Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker of the House, took the stage here at the Aspen Ideas: Climate Festival to discuss what congressional Democrats are doing on climate change. His words were more effective than a litany of missed opportunities. Susan Goldberg, recently editor-in-chief of National geographic, now dean of Arizona State University, asked at point-blank range whether Democrats were going to pass climate legislation, and Pelosi practically shrugged. The House has already passed a bill of about 2 trillion dollars containing President Joe Biden’s climate priorities, she said. Now it was in the hands of the Senate. If he happened to send a bill back to him, the House would pass it.

It lacked the sense that this legislation is a watershed moment for the broader Democratic caucus. Gone is any suggestion that if Democrats fail to pass a bill this quarter, then America’s climate commitment under the Paris Agreement will be out of reach, and heat waves worse, Larger wildfires and devastating famines across the country and around the world over the next decade and a half will be all but assured.

Pelosi didn’t quite seem to understand why Congress needed to pass climate legislation this session. (She appeared to blame the fossil fuel industry for the inaction of the current Congress.) She repeatedly justified climate action by saying it was “for the kids.” It became the rhetorical leitmotif of his remarks: Congress had to act “for the children”. Explaining why she wanted more women in Congress, she said they needed to learn to “punches — for the kids.” This line was how she closed.

Except Helen Lovejoy–nature of this call, this is factually false. Climate action was “for the kids” in the 1990s. “We’re not doing this for the kids,” Kate Larsen, energy analyst at Rhodium Group, told me after the event. “We’re doing this for us!” Heatwaves hot enough to cook human flesh are already happening this month; they will become more common over the next few decades, striking several times a year. Unbearable droughts, rising sea levels so high it breaks the dikesand unpredictable famines characterize life. Most of the world’s coral reefs, including the Great Barrier Reef, will experience bleaching every few years, which means the water will be so warm that the coral will eject its symbiotic microorganisms into the water, starving in the process.

The speech seemed to punctuate the collapse of climate policy over the past year. During the campaign, Biden described climate change as one of four major overlapping crises in the country. Yet his administration appears to be sleepwalking toward inaction. Five months ago, Sen. Joe Manchin, a Democrat from West Virginia, killed Biden’s Build Back Better bill after the White House repeatedly ignored his attempts to cut it. Since then, Democrats have been stuck in limbo, with Manchin outlining some of his terms for a replacement bill, and Democrats neglecting to prepare a new bill reflecting those terms. It now looks likely that Democrats will lose control of Congress with only a bipartisan infrastructure bill to show their troubles.

Then they face overwhelming odds. Due to the geographic distribution of their supporters, Democrats can win 51% of the votes cast in the 2022 and 2024 elections and lose another eight Senate seats. I have heard estimates that the party must win eight points more than Republicans to win a Senate seat. Unless inflation comes down, such an outcome will be so unlikely as to be virtually impossible, relegating Democrats to minority status for years to come. Republicans, on the other hand, have a plausible lead to more than 60 seats, allowing them to legislate the filibuster of this institution.

At the same time, the Biden administration may soon lose its ability to regulate climate change. The Supreme Court could restrict the ability of the Environmental Protection Agency regulate greenhouse gases this term. It could also reduce Chevron deference, a legal doctrine that gives executive agencies greater leeway when the underlying law is unclear. In the past, the two concepts have been central to the development of democratic climate rules. Both could disappear 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. During the 2010s, most oil companies failed to make a profit, validating activists’ demands for institutions to divest from fossil fuel stocks. But the markets have turned around since the start of the pandemic. Oil company stocks are among the best performers over the past year. Funds that focus on ESG, or “environmental, social, governance,” a loose category that covers such divergent topics as a company’s carbon footprint, the number of women it has in its board, or how supportive it is of organized labor, also underperformed in the recent market rout. At another conference here last month, libertarian venture capitalist Peter Thiel offensive ESG as “a hate factory” and compared it to the “Chinese Communist Party”. This week, he backed a fund that would take intentionally anti-progressive positions.

Historically, progressives haven’t been too fond of ESG either, seeing it as a form of Wall Street greenwashing (or worse). But on climate, specifically, it worked in their favor, allowing managers to take a less-than-direct approach to shareholder value and push forward money-losing initiatives.

What all of this means is that the next time a climate-skeptical president takes office, advocates will have fewer tools to limit their behavior than last time. And they’ll have no future to look forward to: If Democrats couldn’t pass a climate bill in 2009 or 2022, why should anyone expect them to try to do so again, or that they can do it?

Since 2017, a wave of global concern — largely sparked by President Trump’s outcry and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 1.5 Celsius report — has signaled a new era of climate action. This tide is receding. US climate advocates may have next to nothing to prove.

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