JUnder the headlines about Covid and Ukraine, the most important climate legislation in US history – and therefore, arguably, in world history – is still stuck in congressional purgatory. You would be forgiven if you weren’t fully aware. It’s not trending on Twitter. Joe Biden has mostly stopped talking about it. The huge moral issues have been brutally removed by a broken, wacky, and, above all, extremely boring piece of legislation known as budget reconciliation. The months-long saga turned Biden’s original “Build Back Better” plan into the legal equivalent of a Warhol soup can — a ubiquitous token void of any original meaning.
The fact that the public has largely failed to grasp the implications of this process is an indictment of the way climate information is filtered down to ordinary people: in dollar figures, no one understands, in the line graphs published by obscure morons on Twitter, in front-page headlines. that exhaust the emotional potential of journalistic prose. Connecting all of this to, say, insurance premiums in Miami Beach, or the fate of the world’s remaining sea turtles, or the prospect of your own grandchildren spending most of their crypto-wages on drinking water, requires an almost mimetic leap of the imagination.
And yet, the stakes remain what they are. Passing the half-trillion-dollar clean energy investment bill would likely make the difference between the world’s largest economy meeting and exceeding its climate goals. It is no exaggeration to say that in this balance – between 2C and 3C of warming, between responsive government and avoiding the greatest crisis of the 21st century – millions of human lives hang. The potential impact rivals that of a nuclear war, except that in this case the default is disaster. The fossil fuel industry has already launched its ICBM into the heart of our coastal cities. Now it’s up to the Democrats to turn things around.
And reverse the trend, they still could. Joe Manchin, of his own volition, returned to the negotiating table with a proposal that could retain most of Build Back Better’s initial climate investments and potentially leave room for some investments in housework and health care at low emissions. Biden and Schumer must stop at nothing to hold him to his word and close the deal. If they do, they could reverse the narrative of Biden’s presidency overnight. Not only would Biden finally be able to declare victory on his signature political platform, but he would offer a direct rebuttal to the crisis in Ukraine, steering global energy markets towards wind and solar and undermining autocrats to fossil fuels like Vladimir Putin. For a wartime president, the combination of crisis response and long-term vision would earn him a place next to Churchill in history textbooks.
I want to pause here, however, to express my utter and stunning outrage that it has come to this. That not one of the Republican cowards who say they’re concerned about climate change — Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski, Mitt Romney, Lindsey Graham — is even considering voting for the bill. That his fate will be determined by a man who makes money by pumping carbon into the atmosphere. That Biden had to send the head of the National Economic Council to go Zipline with Manchin in West Virginia last weekend. That the fate of organized human civilization would depend at least in part on two grown men donning elaborate body harnesses and traversing a river gorge (although I’ll admit that, compared to your typical round of golf, there was something strange and almost endearing thing about this particular political mating ritual).
All this to say: I will not let my indignation die. I will not succumb to the Stockholm Syndrome of the Beltway pundit who would tell my generation that this is how Washington works. The fact is that Washington does not work. Washington is broken. This process is proof of that.
But refusing cynicism is not refusing strategy. That’s why, on April 23, thousands of people will show up outside the White House — and in key Senate states — to play redemption one last time. That’s why, to be frank, you really should join them. The Democrats still have a chance to stick to their slogan and respect the climate. If they fail, we will lose much, much more than at mid-term. We cannot allow them to fail.