Congress must help keep the climate crisis from boiling over

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With key congressional committees working overtime this week to shape bills to complete President Biden’s Build Back Better agenda, the White House is spotlighting the need for robust action to confront the climate crisis.

The Build Back Better agenda will help us to do just that, and Congress has no more urgent mission than to make certain it does.

As a nation, we’ve reached a make-or-break moment. The next few weeks could well mark our last best chance to keep the climate crisis from boiling over into full-on catastrophe. For leaders of conscience on Capitol Hill, preventing that must be job number one.

We’ve watched in horror this summer as the climate crisis has engulfed our country, and our world, into a widening hellscape of raging firesmonster storms, deadly floods, famine and forever drought

We’re not talking here about computer models. This summer alone, nearly one in every three Americans experienced an extreme weather event amped up by climate change.

It all gets worse, the science makes clear unless we cut the carbon pollution from burning fossil fuels in half by 2030 and stop adding it to the atmosphere altogether by 2050.

Biden’s Build Back Better agenda sets us on course for climate action that drives equitable recovery, but only if Congress fully enacts this initiative.

The Senate took the first step last month, passing bipartisan infrastructure legislation centered on revitalizing aging roads, bridges and ports. That bill was never meant to confront the climate crisis, and it doesn’t.

To do that, congressional leaders have kicked into high gear this week on committee-level efforts to pull together a second package of strategic investments that can be passed through a budgetary process called reconciliation. That would allow supporters to bypass a likely filibuster by those in the Senate intent on obstructing the climate action we so urgently need.

With the country teetering on a climate knife-edge, and a livable future hanging in the balance, the broad majority of Americans that support strong climate action are counting on lawmakers to pass a reconciliation package that meets the moment.

That starts with investments, tax incentives and other measures to help clean up the dirty power plants that account for a third of our carbon footprint and the cars, trucks and buses that make up nearly another third

Biden has pledged to cut U.S. carbon emissions by 50-52 percent, relative to 2005 levels, by 2030. That means getting 80 percent of our electricity without fossil fuels, and electric cars and light trucks making up half of all new passenger vehicle sales, by then.

We know we can do this.

Last year, despite the pandemic, wind and solar power accounted for 77 percent of all new electricity generating capacity nationwide. In the first six months of this year, that share rose to 91 percent

Small wonder why. Over just the past decade, wind and solar power costs have plummeted by 70 and 90 percent, respectively, making clean power the better bet, dollar for dollar, than dirty. 

To clean up our dirty power sector quickly enough to confront the climate crisis, we need to align our national investments with these market trends to both support and accelerate the transition to clean power, as broad majorities across the country understand. The Clean Electricity Payment Program the White House rolled out Monday will help, and it will create 7.7 million jobs and generate nearly $1 trillion in economic growth over the coming decade, a study commissioned by my organization has found.

Biden’s Build Back Better agenda will also speed the shift to electric vehicles.

By 2035, General Motors plans to build only electric vehicles. The auto giant is investing $35 billion over just the next five years to help get there, part of the more than $257 billion the industry is investing, globally, on electric vehicles by 2030.

The reconciliation package must sync up the country with this global transformation, by providing consumer incentives that help put electric cars within reach for families of every income level.

Because reducing carbon emissions also cuts other dangerous air pollution, it will dramatically reduce asthma attacks, heart disease, missed days at work or school and even premature death

That’s why cleaning up our dirty power plants, cars and light trucks will save the country a staggering $3 trillion in health and environmental costs between now and 2050, avoiding 240 thousand premature deaths, an April study concludes. 

There’s more the reconciliation package needs, like investments to cut carbon pollution on the factory floor by supporting modern, efficient manufacturing processes; highway improvements and public transit expansions that reduce the hassle — and pollution — of commuting; and support to cap abandoned oil and gas wells, replace aging lead service lines and reconnect urban communities divided by misguided highway schemes.

Biden’s Build Back Better agenda will get this done. It can create, by one estimate, 15 million jobs, including for workers who want to join a union. It will save our families money on utility bills, at the gas pump and the doctor’s office. And it will make our society more equitable, by ensuring that 40 percent of the clean energy benefits go to disadvantaged communities. 

All this promise, though, hinges on Congress doing its job and enacting this agenda in full. 

Naturally, big polluters and others are mustering to try to scuttle the climate action we need. Better to prop up polluter profits at all costs, they say, than to defend our common future.

That’s not how our democracy is supposed to work. 

There are cleaner, smarter ways to power our future. Let’s invest in that future, as a nation. Let’s get this right in the weeks ahead so our children don’t pay the price for all time. Let’s enact the Build Back Better agenda, in full, to confront the climate crisis — before it confronts us with catastrophe.

Manish Bapna is president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental advocacy organization with more than 3 million supporters nationwide.

Tags Air pollution Biden climate policy Build Back Better carbon emissions climate agenda Climate change Joe Biden renewables Solar power Wind power

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