Congress Looks Set to Finally Pass Historic Climate Legislation

The longest-maintained temperature readings of any location on earth are in the Midlands of England. A monthly tally began in 1659, and the daily record dates back to 1772. One can imagine mutton-chopped clerics and ruddy-faced retired colonels, in the centuries since, tromping out to take those readings; some days it was hot and some days it was cold, but, until last month, the highest daily mean ever measured there was 25.2 degrees Celsius, or about 77.4 degrees Fahrenheit, in August of 2020. Then, on July 19th, as an epic heat wave swept across the British Isles, the mark was reset at 28.1 Celsius, or 82.6 Fahrenheit. If that hadn’t happened, topping the previous high by a full 5.2 degrees Fahrenheit would have seemed statistically impossible. The fact that it did happen is frightening—a sign of a world coming unstuck.

But, more happily, a different sort of record fell last week—the thirty-four-year stretch that saw no major legislative action on the climate in the U.S. Congress. It began in 1988, when the NASA scientist James Hansen informed the Senate of what was then called the “greenhouse effect,” and it appears to have come to a close last Wednesday, when Senator Joe Manchin, Democrat of West Virginia, finally agreed to President Joe Biden’s big budget reconciliation package. The bill contains hundreds of billions of dollars in tax credits and grants for the transition to solar and wind power, electric vehicles, efficient home heating, and more. The package—the remains of what started out as the Green New Deal, before slimming down to Build Back Better, and, now, the Inflation Reduction Act—looked dead last month, when Manchin flatly rejected parts of it, including the climate protections.

The pushback was severe, however—among other things, the President suggested that he might declare a “climate emergency” and enact what measures he could by himself. Now, assuming that the Democrats stand together, as early as next week we could see an end to that long legislative drought. The bill penalizes oil and gas companies that fail to cut methane emissions, but it doesn’t actually pressure energy utilities to abandon coal and gas. (Manchin vetoed that provision, the Clean Electricity Performance Program, last year.) Still, analysts say that it would cut emissions to forty per cent below 2005 levels by the end of the decade.

Taken as a whole, the bill is a triumph. It would be the most ambitious climate package ever passed in the U.S., and would allow the country to resume a credible role as an environmental leader. Yet it reflects not just the growing strength of the climate movement but also the lingering power of the fossil-fuel industry, containing provisions such as one stating that, for the next decade, no offshore wind lease can be sold unless an offshore oil and gas lease of a certain size has been sold during the previous year. The political trade-off is worth it, in carbon terms, but there’s no denying that it will set a problematic example around the world.

Last week, the Democratic Republic of the Congo announced that it hopes to become “the new destination for oil investments,” and scheduled an auction of oil and gas leases in its vast rain forest, including parts of the biologically diverse Virunga National Park, a sanctuary for endangered mountain gorillas. The government also aims to allow drilling in the nation’s extensive peatlands, which are an effective storehouse for carbon; in fact, they hold as much carbon as the entire world emits in three years.

Opening the region up to drilling wouldn’t just add fuel to the fire—it would shut off a hose that fights the flames. Still, in addition to doing whatever is possible to dissuade the D.R.C. from allowing that, it’s worth viewing the announcement as a trolling of other nations, such as this one, that continue to think they have a right to expand fossil-fuel production. Tosi Mpanu-Mpanu, Congo’s longtime climate representative, has been at every big global climate meeting since 2007, so he no doubt knew exactly how much controversy he’d unleash when he told a reporter from the Times last week that his country’s priority is to generate revenue to fight poverty—“not to save the planet.”

It seems likely that the D.R.C.’s goal may be to sweeten a multiyear agreement that it entered into last November, at the Glasgow climate conference, to protect the rain forest, in return for five hundred million dollars in international investments. (The oil beneath the forest is doubtless worth far more.) If so, the gambit is a powerful one, because few countries have the moral standing to tell Congo off. In April, for instance, Canada announced plans to allow drilling in a basin off the coast of Newfoundland and Labrador that could access three hundred million barrels of oil. The Biden Administration itself last month signalled support for the Trump-era Willow project, on Alaska’s North Slope, which could produce six hundred million barrels of oil. As scientists pointed out in a letter to the Secretary of the Interior, Deb Haaland, the project would be a “carbon bomb” of enormous proportion.

What’s the difference between the D.R.C. and the United States or Canada? For one thing, the gross domestic product per capita in the D.R.C. is less than six hundred dollars, versus sixty-nine thousand dollars in the U.S., and fifty-two thousand in Canada. For another, the average resident of the U.S. emits some fifteen metric tons of carbon dioxide a year, while the average Congolese emits about 0.03 metric tons. In other words, the average American is responsible for about five hundred times more climate damage than the average Congolese is.

The right response, then, is to provide the climate aid that the Global North has long promised to the Global South but has not delivered in full. In the case of Congo, that means helping develop, as safely and benignly as possible, the mining of cobalt, which is used in batteries that are crucial to clean-energy technology. But we must also prevent new fossil-fuel boondoggles of our own. It’s possible that the reconciliation package has exhausted Washington’s energy to tackle the climate crisis for the time being, but politicians aren’t the only players. When the Trump Administration rushed to auction off parts of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for drilling, no major oil companies submitted bids, in part because environmental campaigners made the project too toxic for them and for their potential financiers. Civil society will need to continue stepping up in the years to come, because, if countries keep digging up their oil and gas, every record broken will likely be a baleful one. ♦

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