9 reminders that despite the IRA, climate change is still a crisis
How many thousand-year weather disasters does it take to make a crisis?
Just one if you live in Houston, southern Illinois, St. Louis, eastern Kentucky, or if you visited Death Valley this month. Thousand-year floods hit them all over three recent weeks.
They are not alone. “Rare” weather disasters are becoming much more common. There were five 1,000-year events, one each in South Carolina, Texas, West Virginia, Maryland and Louisiana, during a one-year period in 2015-2016. Five-hundred and 100-year disasters are more frequent, too.
During the summer of 2021, nearly one in three Americans lived in counties that suffered weather disasters. At least 388 people died in extreme hurricanes, floods, heatwaves and wildfires.
Interviewed by the Washington Post, Craig Fugate, a former director of the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), asked a question that should be on every voter’s mind this November. He wondered whether the cluster of historic disasters would finally motivate Congress to do something about climate change. “If not, what will it take?” he asked.
An answer came from Congress at the beginning of this month. It took a Faustian bargain — a deal to make more renewable energy production contingent on more oil and gas production. I don’t mean to rain on the celebration over the new law, the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), and its unprecedented investment in clean energy. It is a welcome shower after a decades-long legislative drought on the climate crisis.
Now we will find out whether the IRA was an anomaly or a breakthrough because the new law is the beginning, not the end, of what Congress must do, and quickly. The climate clock is ticking.
We already know some things:
1) The climate’s stopwatch does not work on congressional time. Its ticks are the growing parts per million of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. They are increasing at the rate of about two ppm annually. Around 350 ppm is considered safe, but we are closing in rapidly on 420 ppm.
2) We can’t spend our way out of climate change. The IRA’s investments in clean energy are historic, exciting and essential. But they must be accompanied by sterner stuff, like a carbon price to mobilize markets and an amendment to the Clean Air Act to give the Environmental Protection Agency the explicit authority to regulate greenhouse gas pollution, whatever the source. In case carrots don’t work, we will need sticks.
3) The IRA demonstrates that Republicans, and some Democrats, still don’t get the seriousness of the situation and apparently don’t want to. We can’t horse-trade our way out of the climate crisis because Nature’s terms are non-negotiable. A bill with more oil production for more renewable energy does not come close to the medicine prescribed by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, calling for “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented change in all aspects of society.”
4) Most Americans clearly don’t understand the seriousness of their situation, either. Natural disasters displaced nearly 10 million of us from 2008 through 2020, yet the National League of Cities reports more people are moving into areas at higher risk of climate-related disasters. For example, in several eastern coastal states, new housing is being built in danger zones two to three times faster than in safer places. So, the number of people who made need federal disaster assistance is rising.
5) Taxpayers should not be expected to continue underwriting the decisions of people who build their homes in harm’s way. Federal spending on disaster response and recovery, along with subsidized flood insurance, make disaster victims of us all. FEMA wisely overhauled federal flood insurance last year so that premiums more accurately reflect each home’s risk. Now, hundreds of thousands of floodplain residents have dropped their coverage, “raising concerns an unprecedented number of households are financially exposed to flood damage.” A sensible policy would be to prohibit new construction in flood-prone places. Period.
6) We know that more oil and gas production is a setback. The most direct and effective response to global warming is to replace fossil fuels with carbon-free energy. Yet, to get enough votes to pass the IRA, Democrats agreed to allow oil and gas production on 62 million more acres of federal lands and waters, even though energy companies already own 9,000 approved but unused leases on 24 million acres. Meanwhile, investors are still betting on a fossil future. At mid-year, more than 4,000 miles of new pipelines were under construction, with another 17,800 miles planned.
Perhaps economies of scale for clean energy technologies funded by the IRA will make the fossil-energy economy as uneconomical as it is unstable.
7) We clearly have been on the wrong path. The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) projected earlier this year that without significant changes in national policy, oil and gas will still be America’s dominant energy sources at mid-century when the world is supposed to achieve a net-zero carbon global economy. We will have to wait for EIA’s next analysis to learn how much the IRA has changed our direction.
8) We know climate change is not, and never has been, an innately partisan issue, but the GOP decided long ago to make it one. With the support of the oil and gas industry, Republicans in Congress have repeatedly blocked legislation to deal with the crisis. Not one Republican voted for the IRA. All the 1,000-year floods in the world apparently will not change this. The American people are beginning to pay the price, and it will grow much higher.
9) Extreme weather can happen anywhere. We can run, but we can’t hide from floods, fires, heat, drought and rising seas.
Americans should think about that when they vote this November. To paraphrase an old truism, in a democracy, we get the future we deserve.
William S. Becker is a former U.S. Department of Energy central regional director who administered energy efficiency and renewable energy technologies programs, and he also served as special assistant to the department’s assistant secretary of energy efficiency and renewable energy. Becker is also executive director of the Presidential Climate Action Project, a nonpartisan initiative founded in 2007 that works with national thought leaders to develop recommendations for the White House as well as House and Senate committees on climate and energy policies. The project is not affiliated with the White House.