After the Supreme Court’s EPA decision, where is Congress on a climate bill?
The latest Supreme Court case made it harder for the EPA to regulate climate pollution from power plants, which could drastically limit the country’s ability to hit its climate goals. But there’s more that the government can do now to push for reduced emission, including passing new climate legislation—and there’s a chance, albeit an uncertain one, that Congress might be close to finally doing that.
“I think that [the Supreme Court] decision was yet another shot in the arm to Congress that they must legislate on climate action,” says Melinda Pierce, legislative director for the Sierra Club, who is optimistic that a climate deal could happen this month. Last year, West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin helped killed the Build Back Better Act, Biden’s plan that included more than $550 billion to fight climate change with clean energy tax credits, grants and loans for clean energy and zero-emissions vehicles, rebates for home-energy efficiency and electrification, and other measures. But Manchin has reportedly been meeting regularly with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer to negotiate climate policy that he could support.
Last week, Democrats finalized a proposal to lower the price of prescription drugs for seniors, a key pillar that Manchin wants as part of the negotiations for a broad bill of various reforms Democrats could pass during reconciliation, which allows them to avoid needing 60 votes for a filibuster. And though nothing is certain—the discussions between Manchin and Schumer are happening behind closed doors, and Congress has failed to pass climate policy multiple times in the past—an announcement might come soon on climate legislation, which could be passed as part of the reconciliation package before the end of September. (In reality, a deal would need to happen this month, before the Senate takes its August vacation.) “It’s their last best chance to see if the Democrats can come to some deal to demonstrate they can legislate,” Pierce says. Depending on what happens in the midterm elections, there may not be another chance to pass strong climate policy soon enough to avoid the worst outcomes of climate change.
A study earlier this year found that it’s still possible to cut U.S. greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2030; that’s the goal of the Biden administration, and in line with what climate science says is necessary globally. Since most of the country’s emissions come from the power and transportation sectors, moving to clean energy that can also support electric cars is critical. The primary barrier isn’t cost, the study said, but enacting policy. The shift is already happening, but it’s happening too slowly and will need additional pushes from the government, in terms of both regulations and incentives, to get up to speed. Part of that can come from the executive branch, since the EPA can still regulate pollution from vehicles and has other options to cut pollution at individual power plants. Several states and many cities also have plans to reach 100% clean energy. But support from Congress is still also necessary.
Clean energy tax credits, which are likely to be the biggest part of the proposal under discussion, are “absolutely critical to meeting those 2030 goals that we’ve set for ourselves,” says Ben Pendergrass, senior director of government affairs for Citizens’ Climate Lobby, a nonpartisan climate advocacy group. “They don’t get us all the way there. But we know we have a definite timeline that we have to meet. And so, even if it didn’t get all the way there, we need to lock in wins while we can.”
If Manchin and Schumer reach an agreement, Pendergrass says, climate advocates will need to push hard for support for the legislation (especially from Arizona Senator Kyrsten Sinema, the other Senator who expressed concern about the original Build Back Better price tag). “There’s also going to need to be 49 other Democratic senators who vote to pass that package, and then they’re going to have to get it over the finish line in a very narrowly divided House,” he says. Other countries have moved much faster on national climate policy, including the U.K., which passed a climate act in 2008 with support from nearly every member of Parliament.
Around two-thirds of Americans, according to a recent survey from the Yale Program on Climate Change and Communication and Data for Good at Meta, now say they are either “very worried” or “somewhat worried” about climate change. They should be calling and emailing their representatives and explaining why climate action is urgent for them personally, Pierce says. “In red and blue states, we are seeing the impacts of climate on everybody’s doorstep, whether it’s fire, drought, flooding, or extreme weather,” she says. “So I think that that’s one of the most powerful ways folks in states can communicate with their senators, by making clear the climate impacts that they’re feeling in their states. And I do think public pressure, and creating the demand that a senator must be part of the solution, is important.”