Aug 26, 2021 - Politics & Policy

Schumer's high-stakes climate play

Photo illustration of Chuck Schumer, the US Capitol building and Earth.

Photo Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios. Photo: Samuel Corum/Bloomberg via Getty Images

It's just over two months until a pivotal United Nations climate summit, and if Capitol Hill's importance to the equation wasn't already clear, it sure is now.

Catch up fast: Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer released an analysis showing the Democrats-only reconciliation plan — and to a much lesser degree the bipartisan infrastructure deal — would essentially put the U.S. on track to meet President Biden's pledge under the Paris Agreement.

  • The April pledge, called a "nationally determined contribution (NDC)," vows a 50%-52% cut in U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by 2030.

Why it matters: Schumer's analysis Wednesday of the energy and climate parts of the wider $3.5 trillion plan — which his office says is based on expert input — could help the U.S. show the pledge has teeth.

  • But that's only true if the bill avoids lots of political landmines and passes. If it fails or gets gutted, that would raise doubts about the U.S. ability to make good on the NDC.
  • If other big polluters think the U.S. is serious about slashing planet-warming emissions, it may help spur more tangible action.

Between the lines: White House officials say there are multiple ways to achieve the NDC, and the administration has an expansive executive agenda.

  • But Schumer's analysis says the quiet part out loud: The tough path runs straight through Capitol Hill.

The big picture: The Beltway debate comes as scientists are issuing dire findings about effects of climate change already arriving and danger in store absent immediate, deep and sustained global emissions cuts.

  • The outcome of the reconciliation plan is uncertain on both sides of Capitol Hill.
  • House Speaker Nancy Pelosi needs to corral restive moderates while keeping support from progressives, while Schumer can't lose a single Democrat.

What we're watching: Whether Schumer's move helps convince moderates wary of the bill's size that it's worthwhile spending and progressives — who have angled for more aggressive measures — that it achieves plenty.

How it works: Two key parts of the Senate reconciliation plan are focused on electricity: payments and penalties that push utilities to speed up zero-carbon power deployment, and new and expanded clean energy tax credits.

  • "It will be much harder to claim we are on track for our own NDC commitment without the program to achieve 80% clean electricity by 2030 and the very significant clean energy incentives that are part of the reconciliation package," Jason Bordoff, head of a Columbia University energy think tank, tells Axios.

What they're saying: A White House spokesperson said the reconciliation bill and the bipartisan plan are "critical to unlocking the full economic opportunities that come with taking on the climate crisis."

"Congress can and must position our communities and workers to seize these opportunities and meet the moment.”

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