What's at stake in the Build Back Better bill

Congress often requires others to do things it does not require of itself. For example, federal agencies must prepare Environmental Impact Statements (EIS) that describe the effects their actions will have on the physical, cultural and human environment. Federal agencies prepare about 500 EISs each year

But Congress does not require similar routine analyses of major legislation. A case in point is the Build Back Better (BBB) bill, the $1.75 trillion proposal awaiting action in the Senate. The bill includes the biggest federal investment ever — $555 billion —  to fight global climate change. It is long overdue. Even as the science has grown more alarming over the decades, Congress has done virtually nothing to confront global warming directly since the 1970s. 

Before the House passed the BBB bill last month, it directed the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) to assess its impact on federal expenditures and receipts. It appears the bill will pay for itself. But CBO’s analysis was paper-thin. It did not touch what the bill would do for society, the environment, the economy and long-term federal spending.

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For example, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reports that major weather and climate disasters killed 538 people in the United States during the first nine months of this year and cost more than $100 billion. This is the seventh consecutive year the U.S. has suffered 10 or more billion-dollar weather disasters. That trend will get much worse unless we transition to clean energy and do a better job adapting to climate impacts that already are inevitable.

“With continued growth in emissions at historic rates, annual losses in some economic sectors are projected to reach hundreds of billions of dollars by the end of the century — more than the current gross domestic product of many U.S. states,” federal scientists warned in their Fourth National Climate Assessment.

More than 14 million properties are at substantial risk of flooding in the lower 48 states and District of Columbia, according to the First Street Foundation. More than 40 million people live where rivers have a 1 percent chance of flooding in any given year. They can expect their insurance rates to rise and property values to fall as climate change progresses. With global warming’s impacts on freshwater resources, food production, heatwaves and floods, few parts of the economy and life in general will remain untouched.

Fighting climate change also has fringe benefits. For example, the American Lung Association reports more than four of every 10 Americans still live where vehicle and power plant emissions make it dangerous to breathe. Climate adaptation and renewable energy technologies will create millions of jobs. State and local governments are the first line of defense against climate-related weather disasters. The Build Back Better bill would reduce pressures on their budgets, too.

Because all nations contribute to climate change, it is difficult to isolate the value of domestic emission reductions. But Congress could begin by using the Biden administration’s social cost of carbon formula to identify the costs America can avoid by reducing its greenhouse gas emissions. An updated version is due out next month.

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High-risk exposure

Congress’s passage of the BBB bill would be responsible and long-awaited fiscal risk management. In 2013, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) put climate change on its “High-Risk List” and recommended the federal government limit its fiscal exposure by better managing climate-change risks. In 2019, the GAO warned that climate change still posed “a financial threat to the federal government.” Last March, the GAO reported there has been no progress on reducing the threat. Members of Congress who worry about the amount of federal spending in the bill should worry instead about future budget deficits if they continue doing nothing. 

All of these factors would come to light if Congress routinely commissioned and made public full analyses of each bill’s direct and indirect, short-term and long-term consequences for the economy, society and the environment.

We know from scattered estimates by the White House and the House Budget Committee that the bill will deliver enormous benefits to society, the economy and the Treasury, while every day of delay means more carbon in the atmosphere, more trauma for the American people, and more federal spending. That is sufficient for now. The immediate priority is to pass the bill as soon as possible so the United States can begin its long-overdue national investment in climate-change mitigation and adaptation.

Once that’s done, Congress should create the capacity for routine holistic analyses of significant legislation, much like the EISs it requires from government agencies. Without that information, neither it nor the American people can make informed decisions. Especially with climate change, the costs of mismanaging the crisis would be far too high.

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.