Aug 11, 2022 - Energy & Environment

The long road to the climate bill

Climate action and U.S. legislation
Data: Axios research; Chart: Kavya Beheraj/Axios

The Democrats' climate bill that the House is expected to take up Friday follows decades of legislative failure on climate change — which could end because of a change in strategy and changing circumstances.

Why it matters: If the bill passes and heads to President Biden's desk, experts say it will be because Democrats abandoned the strategy of simply making carbon emissions too painful to maintain — and because Americans are now increasingly aware of the costly impacts of climate change.

The big picture: The bill, by Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), will inject about $370 billion into the economy for expanding the use of clean energy, boosting climate resilience for communities and beginning to decarbonize industrial sectors, among other goals.

  • It comes 34 years after then-NASA climate scientist James Hansen first warned the Senate, and the country, about the perils of human-caused global warming due to the burning of fossil fuels.
  • Since then, there have been unsuccessful attempts to pass climate legislation, including one by Republican Sen. John McCain and Democratic Sen. Joe Lieberman in 2003 and another by Democratic Reps. Henry Waxman and Ed Markey in 2009 that fell apart in the Senate the next year.

Between the lines: The new bill stands in stark contrast to the approach favored for decades by environmental economists and key lawmakers.

  • Past attempts to tackle climate change relied on putting a price on carbon through a carbon tax or a so-called cap and trade system. Both would have regulated the global warming gas from the top down, by making such pollution more expensive.
  • That has proved to be politically toxic, over and over again.

What they're saying: Jason Grumet, founder and president of the Bipartisan Policy Center, said the environmental movement and lawmakers made a mistake by following the economists.

  • "The biggest political malpractice over the last 30 years was buying into the Econ 101 notion that government shouldn't pick technology, that Congress and elected officials should support a strategy which will be perceived as painful with no political narrative of success," Grumet told Axios in an interview.
  • "Members of Congress love to pick technology, it's kind of all they love to do. It's exciting and you can talk about jobs in your states," he said.
  • This changed beginning in about 2018, once scientists came out and said that many more technologies, including as-yet-unproven ones that would draw carbon out of the air, would be needed to avert potentially catastrophic impacts from global warming, Grumet said.

The intrigue: There are several other reasons why this bill is likely to meet a different fate than the doomed climate bills of the past three decades.

  • Paul Bledsoe, who served as a White House climate staffer during the Clinton administration, points to the falling costs of clean energy, particularly solar and wind power, as a key reason for its success in the Senate.
  • There is also intense consumer interest in clean technologies, Bledsoe said.
  • And since 2003, when McCain and Lieberman sought votes for their climate bill, a large, diverse and determined social movement has formed around global climate action.

The other side: Republican opposition to the bill was unanimous in the Senate and is likely to be nearly so in the House, with lawmakers arguing that the bill would raise taxes, add to inflation and make fossil fuel development more expensive.

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