After a Summer of Disasters, Some Lawmakers See a Chance for Climate Action

Source: By Coral Davenport and Brad Plumer, New York Times • Posted: Tuesday, September 7, 2021

Congress is considering bills to help communities prepare for extreme weather and to cut the greenhouse gases that are driving climate change. But passage is not assured.

An underpass in Queens after torrential rain hit New York City on Wednesday. 
Dakota Santiago for The New York Times

WASHINGTON — As the country reels from the cascade of deaths and devastation wrought by this summer’s record floods, heat waves, droughts and wildfires, President Biden and progressive Democrats are using the moment to push for aggressive climate provisions in a sweeping $3.5 trillion budget bill.

Speaking on Thursday in Queens, where nearly a dozen people died a day earlier during flash floods, Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the majority leader, said that when the Senate returned to Washington on Tuesday to continue work on budget legislation, it would include provisions designed to reduce fossil fuel emissions linked to extreme weather.

Congress is also considering a $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill that includes money to help communities gird against climate disasters. The Senate passed the bill last month and the House is expected to vote on it by late September.

That legislation includes $47 billion over five years in funding to improve the nation’s flood defenses, limit damage from wildfires, develop new sources of drinking water in areas plagued by drought and relocate some communities away from risky areas. It also contains $27 billion in spending to help harden electric grids against extreme weather events that are causing more frequent blackouts.

Mr. Schumer said the infrastructure and budget bills were paramount to prepare communities for more powerful storms, fires, droughts and floods and to stop the pollution that would heat the planet further and lead to even more extreme weather.

“Global warming is upon us, and it’s going to get worse and worse and worse unless we do something about it, and that’s why it’s so imperative to pass the two bills, the infrastructure bill, and the budget reconciliation bill,” he said.

Of the two pieces of legislation, the budget bill faces the more perilous path. Republicans are uniformly opposed to it because it also includes a raft of social spending, like funds for universal child care. Some Democrats are also unhappy with the $3.5 trillion price tag and want to scale it back, although a few who initially balked at the cost now say they may make an exception when it comes to climate provisions.

The budget bill will include a potent tool to cut greenhouse gas emissions — an incentive program designed to replace most of the nation’s coal and gas-fired power plants over the next decade with wind, solar and nuclear plants. It would be the strongest policy to fight climate change enacted by the United States.

President Biden and progressive Democrats say the summer disasters that have shocked the country, from lethal flooding in New York to severe drought in the Midwest to raging wildfires in California, will give them leverage during negotiations around the budget bill. Progressive Democrats also hope to use the budget bill to make polluters pay for those clean power programs — for example, by imposing tariffs on imported goods from countries that don’t regulate greenhouse pollution, and fees on emissions of methane, a planet-warming gas that leaks from oil and gas wells.

It remains far from certain whether those provisions will make it into the details of the budget bill. Because no Republicans are expected to vote for the final package, Democrats will need every vote in their razor-thin House and Senate majorities to push it through.

But this week, Senator Joe Manchin III, Democrat of West Virginia, called for Congress to “hit a strategic pause” on the bill. In an opinion article in the Wall Street Journal, he wrote, “I have always said if I can’t explain it, I can’t vote for it, and I can’t explain why my Democratic colleagues are rushing to spend $3.5 trillion.”

A spokeswoman for Mr. Manchin did not return an email requesting comment.

Mr. Manchin, whose coal-rich state could be hurt by climate legislation designed to phase out fossil fuels, has been noncommittal about the program to replace coal and gas-fired plants with zero-emission energy sources. If he or any other Democrat from a coal, oil or gas state opposed the provision, it could be dropped from the final version.

But Senator Tina Smith, Democrat of Minnesota, the chief author of the power plant provision, said she believed that the extreme weather that has so recently scorched, deluged and destroyed so many regions of the country would make it harder in the next two weeks for any Democrat to justify cutting it.

“For the last couple of days this part of the state has been in one of the most extreme droughts that we’ve seen in a generation,” said Ms. Smith, who spoke by telephone from Minnesota. “I spent yesterday talking with cattle producers, they are liquidating their herds way earlier than they would have. They don’t have the feed and forage to keep their herds together. And I can’t believe I’m the only senator hearing about this while I’m home, when you think about the reach of extreme weather across the country. And I think that dynamic is shaping the negotiations.”

Meanwhile, in a letter to Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California, two representatives, Stephanie Murphy of Florida and Henry Cuellar of Texas, both moderate Democrats, laid out “overarching principles” they wanted to see as lawmakers write the details of the budget bill. Both members were among the group of moderate and conservative Democrats who initially recoiled at passing the initial $3.5 trillion budget before Ms. Pelosi issued a series of commitments, including assurances that the measure would be fully financed and would not include any provisions that could not clear the Senate.

But in the letter, first reported by Politico and later obtained by The New York Times, the two Democrats said they were willing to make a possible exception for spending to address climate change because nonpartisan cost estimates “do not adequately account for the future costs associated with inaction on the climate crisis.”

While efforts to reduce emissions remain contentious, there is a broader consensus around the need to prepare communities for the impacts of extreme weather. Few corners of the country have been left unscathed by the string of disasters this summer: Overflowing rivers in Tennessee, a hurricane in Louisiana, a deadly heat wave in the Pacific Northwest and floods in New York City.

The infrastructure bill approved by the Senate would mark a large shift in the federal government’s approach to extreme weather events. Rather than simply paying to rebuild communities after disasters, the bill would provide the largest single infusion of federal money ever to prepare states and cities for future climate impacts ahead of time.

For instance, the Department of Transportation would get $8.7 billion to help states address future climate risks to their roads and transit systems. Much of the nation’s infrastructure was designed to handle weather conditions of the past, which are becoming increasingly obsolete as the planet warms. This week, New York City’s subway, parts of which were designed a century ago, was paralyzed after a storm poured huge amounts of water into stations and tunnels.

Many of those provisions have drawn support from Republicans, including those who have dismissed the threat of climate change in the past. In an interview with CNBC this week, Senator Bill Cassidy, a Louisiana Republican, urged his party to rally around the infrastructure bill after Hurricane Ida left a trail of destruction in his state.

“If we are going to make our country more resilient to natural disasters wherever they are, we have to start preparing now,” Mr. Cassidy said. “I’m sure hoping that Republicans look around my state, see this damage and say, ‘If there’s money for resiliency, money to harden the grid, money to help sewer and water, then maybe this is something we should be for.’”

But while climate experts praised many of the resilience measures in the bill, they cautioned that it quite likely wouldn’t be enough, as the nation’s needs are certain to grow as climate change fuels increasingly severe storms, floods, wildfires and droughts. In 2018, the federal government’s National Climate Assessment estimated that adapting to climate change could ultimately cost “tens to hundreds of billions of dollars per year.”

“If we really want to get ahead of the curve of ever-steepening climate impacts, it’s not enough to do a one-off resilience bill every five years,” said Rob Moore, a senior policy analyst with the Natural Resources Defense Council. “We need to start weaving resilience measures into every single dollar that governments spend on infrastructure.”

For now, there seems to be little appetite in Congress for enlarging the adaptation provisions in the infrastructure bill, although some lawmakers have pushed for additional measures in the budget bill. Some progressive Democrats have, for instance, pushed for the creation of the Civilian Climate Corps, modeled after a New Deal program, that would hire young Americans to work on a variety of climate resilience projects.

But even if adaptation measures garner wide bipartisan support, some experts warn that they could soon reach their limit unless nations like the United States rapidly reduce their greenhouse gas emissions and slow the pace of global warming.

“We’re not even ready for the disasters that are coming at us now,” said Rachel Cleetus, climate policy director at the Union of Concerned Scientists. “And there’s just no way we’re going to be able to get ahead of what’s coming in the future unless we can get our emissions and climate change in check.”

Emily Cochrane contributed reporting.