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Reviews |  Inaction on climate change in Congress has high costs

In this context, the failure of a Democratic president to get meaningful climate legislation from a unified Democratic-controlled Congress, even after taking office on language borrowed from the Green New Deal and declaring global warming a threat first-rate existential – it’s not going to play well overseas.

But if you’re looking for a reason to be confident about future decarbonization, squint and consider this

When Joe Biden talks about halving emissions or Jesse Jenkins calculates how far from that promise his policies will take us, they’re not using an emissions benchmark in 2022, when a version of Build Back Better could (in theory) be promulgated; or in 2020, when Biden was elected on a platform promising climate action the size of FDR; or in 2016, when the Paris agreement is ratified. The benchmark is 2005, and in fact, judging by that benchmark, the country has already reduced its emissions by about 20%, believe it or not.

In fact, US emissions have fallen faster since Barack Obama was elected than he thought if the country passed cap-and-trade legislation in 2010. This bill, and its whole approach to the problem of carbon, have notoriously failed. And nothing replaced him, legislatively, leaving Obama – who entered the race thinking climate change might be his top priority and who said his nomination would be remembered as “the moment when the Rising oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal” – with only the limited tools of executive action to use. And, most importantly, the tailwinds of private sector change to harness.

There are likely still gains to be made from this private sector momentum, given the recent remarkable drop in the cost of renewables – up to 90% lower costs for solar and almost as much for wind in one decade only. But Jenkins and his team have already factored those gains into their analysis. And, in their view, the gains are small – they estimate an additional 500 million tonnes of reductions, or around 5% of the current total.

Perhaps the actual number will be higher and more gains can be made while the legislature sits idle. But that would more or less be the experiment we would be running: that the country could manage rapid decarbonization without the help of a new federal law (and with a very skeptical Supreme Court behind the scenes). These market tailwinds are still relatively strong, so the country is likely to continue to move in the right direction, at least, but much slower than would be ideal – and much slower than anyone dreaming of a stock. major climate change before the midterms would count as a success.

So if all of these consolations sound like light porridge to you, well, that’s fine. They look like me too.

David Wallace-Wells (@dwallacewells), writer for Opinion and columnist for The New York Times Magazine, is the author of “The Uninhabitable Earth”.


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