Last chance for Congress to avert big climate costs

Last chance for Congress to avert big climate costs
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After decades of debate, the Biden administration and Congress are finally ready to address the climate crisis. The bi-partisan infrastructure bill and the Build Back Better Act would make critical investments in technology and infrastructure to get us much closer to the administration’s goal of cutting U.S. emissions in half by 2030. These investments would accelerate progress on technologies essential to U.S. leadership on sustainability, innovation, and a low-carbon future, and make our country far more prosperous, competitive and secure. 

This is almost certainly the last, best chance for congressional action to head off devastating climate impacts across the United States. The UN-led “United in Science 2021” report on climate change and natural systems underscores that we are at a potentially irreversible tipping point toward catastrophic disruptions and economic losses. Even before that report and this years’ raging fires, storm-driven floods and worsening droughts, well over 60 percent of Americans said that climate change was impacting their communities and that the U.S. government was doing too little about it. A growing majority of Americans, including Republicans, now favor more government action on climate change. Young people worldwide feel frightened and betrayed by failures to address climate change

The economic and human costs of climate change are becoming unacceptably high. Members of Congress should have no doubt that investments in clean energy, resilient infrastructure and American skills will pay off for their constituents. In 2018, country-specific estimates found that only India faces higher total climate change costs than the U.S. Insurance company Swiss Re projected in 2021 that leaving emissions and climate change on their current trajectory will reduce economic output worldwide by as much as 18 percent by 2050. Annual output fell “only” 15 percent on average during the calamitous 1930’s Great Depression. Without more aggressive action to cut emissions, by 2050 climate-related losses will reach at least $23 trillion each and every year. Twenty-three federal agencies, including the U.S. Department of Defense, just released detailed analyses of how climate change is impacting their activities and every aspect of American life, and of their plans to try to combat the damage.   


Meanwhile, the states that are home to two senators whose votes are critical to passage of the two bills, Arizona and West Virginia, already are and will be hard hit. Six counties in Arizona risk becoming uninhabitable and with over 90 percent of the state in severe drought its water supplies already are threatened. West Virginia faces ever more extreme episodes of flooding (like its 2016 “thousand-year” floods) and drought (as in 2019) with grave risks to people and infrastructure. West Virginia is also one of the nation’s most carbon-dependent and poorest states and Arizona one of the hottest and driest; their residents and businesses deserve federal support to transition to renewables and seize new economic opportunities.

In fact, Americans in every state, not just these two, are at risk not only of having their homes damaged by climate impacts, but also hospitals, water and sewage systems, electricity, roads, dams, airports, police stations and local businesses

Climate-related proposals in the Build Back Better legislation and the bipartisan infrastructure bill would cost some $500-$550 billion over several years, spur at least $1 trillion in additional private investment, and provide a substantial down payment on cutting U.S. emissions and climate change costs. They would also create, and train Americans for, millions of badly needed new green jobs.

The proposals include around $320 billion in tax credits for commercial investments in solar, wind and other renewables (e.g., nuclear and hydrogen), resources for a smarter, more resilient U.S. power grid, better batteries and more charging stations to expand the U.S. electric vehicles (EV) industry, and incentives for EV purchasers. These policies and worker-training efforts will substantially boost U.S. competitiveness, including with China. Billions more would address wildfire and weather risks, and make water, other critical infrastructure, agriculture and communities (including in rural areas) less vulnerable. The administration is also working to clear obstacles — make it faster and easier to use federal lands for wind and solar installations and to gain approval for such investments.

Finally, the reconciliation package also includes funding for a Civilian Climate Corps to employ thousands of young people to address the threat of climate change. It would be modeled on FDR’s Civilian Conservation Corps.

It appears that the Biden administration’s $150 billion Clean Electricity Performance Program (CEPP ) — which would reward power companies that use more clean energy and penalize those that do not — will not be included in the final bill. This is a significant setback. But the new package, combined with the rapidly falling cost of renewables, will still allow the U.S. to make major strides toward meeting Biden’s climate goals.

Studies show that cutting U.S. emissions by 50 percent by 2030, and avoiding climate change’s worst costs, is both achievable and affordable, if Congress and government agencies at all levels act now and private investors innovate rapidly.  

This is a critical moment. The United States has the capacity to lead the world at the November COP26 negotiations and beyond on a smooth but rapid transition to a resilient, low carbon future. But time to do so is running out. Congress should agree upon smart, affordable investments now to avert massive climate change impacts, rebuild our strategic edge, spur U.S. growth and productivity when it is most needed and prepare Americans for good jobs of the future. The costs of inaction are simply too high.

Anne Pence served as G8 and international policy adviser at the State Department in Republican and Democratic administrations, including work on an interagency team to analyze, formulate, negotiate and implement U.S. climate change and energy policies and programs. She also served as a senior policy adviser to the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) and as a USAID Mission economist.

Mark Nichols is the president of strategic advisory firm Seven Summits, focused on energy, infrastructure and national security. He is also a principal at SeaSpire Advisors, a merchant bank, and a senior adviser to Infinity Photon, a solar developer in Brazil.