Some real talk on the latest crisis manufactured by Republicans.
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Manchin’s dirty deal is back on the table, again, according to coverage of the play-by-play of Biden and congressional leaders’ not-not-negotiations over raising the debt ceiling. Whether or not Manchin’s proposal gets packaged with a debt ceiling deal, it seems the question is when, not if, it gets taken up. That’s due in large part to Biden and Schumer’s unjustifiable fealty to Manchin, the administration’s chief saboteur, whose latest pledge is to block all of Biden’s EPA nominees.
Biden and top climate advisor Podesta seem ready to force Americans (and the world, because all energy policy is local and global in impact) to swallow Manchin’s poison pills. According to Podesta, “that’s what compromise means.” The planet, of course, will not be saved by a compromise between what scientists say we need to do and the federal policies that will keep Manchin’s coal company online.
When the media says, “there is wide bipartisan consensus that Congress should make legislation to overhaul federal energy project permitting a priority,” and doesn’t follow that up by saying something like, “there can be no new investments in oil, gas and coal, from now – from this year,” (which is a direct quote from the head of the International Energy Agency to The Guardian two years ago,) something gets lost.
That something is reality.
Not our political reality, but our material reality. The reality of the air we breathe, the water we drink, the soil we grow food in, and the oceans which decide our coastlines, feed three billion people, and produce much of the oxygen we breathe.
Here, on planet earth—not in the warped hall of mirrors that is Joe Manchin’s mind—greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise, with methane emissions accelerating. Two-thirds of the world’s population is expected to experience water scarcity by 2050. We’re on track to have degraded 90 percent of the world’s topsoil (which grows 95 percent of our food) by 2050. And the ocean is facing whole food-chain collapses as the water acidifies and warms, and climate change reconfigures ocean currents.
If we drag these terrifying facts into the political arena, and see how they square up against what politicians are talking about, the dissonance is piercing.
“America is the strongest economy in the world, but we should be cutting spending and lowering the deficit without a needless crisis,” Biden said last week. Ahem. “Cutting spending?” There are actually quite a few things the government should spend more money on. (And, admittedly, places the budget could use a big cut, like the Department of Defense.) With climate change, not spending money would be the death knell of a strong American economy.
A report from Deloitte (of all places) found that the economic cost of climate change in the United States alone could reach $14.5 trillion by 2070, if left unchecked. Republicans want massive government spending cuts for up to a decade, cuts which would (among other things) devastate the Environmental Protection Agency in this most important window for environmental protection.
Americans didn’t elect Biden on a platform of limited government. Cutting government spending is a delusional, decades-outdated pipe-dream. It is the conspicuous absence of an equitable vision of governance.
My colleague Max’s piece in The American Prospect last fall, arguing that “we need to start thinking of investment in the civil service as investment in America’s future,” because “the kind of civil service we build is indicative of what our climate strategy will be,” remains all too relevant. If the GOP secures funding cuts for everything but the military and border security, we can only imagine the cruel excesses of the state’s response to escalating climate-fueled humanitarian crises.
We Have The Tools
If Biden wants to save money in the pursuit of a liveable earth, then he ought to point out that Republicans’ preferred “solutions”—not just the death drive of “drill, baby, drill,” but also the hyped up, hole-riddled technologies like blue hydrogen and carbon capture and storage—are really quite expensive. (Not to mention dangerous: when a carbon pipeline breaks, it literally suffocates everyone around it, whereas when a solar panel stops working, it just… stops working.)
Wind and solar are by far the cheapest and most impactful ways to cut emissions by half by 2030. This is according to a very useful and important chart from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change synthesizing 175 data sources. Less cheap, but still incredibly effective, are land-oriented efforts like stopping deforestation and the conversion of other intact ecosystems for human uses, as well as ecosystem restoration and carbon sequestration in agriculture. Cutting consumption by the wealthiest isn’t on the chart, but it should be on the table.
In other words, we know what works, and we have the tools. What doesn’t work is expediting new fossil fuel development while gutting bedrock environmental laws and cutting communities out of the permitting process. The loud cohort of permitting bros who have pushed for Manchin’s deal as an acceptable compromise have refused to engage with the fact that Manchin’s deal comes with sacrifices they are implicitly deeming acceptable. Harms that fall disproportionately on communities already turned into sacrifice zones by the fossil fuel industry.
Trade-offs are inevitable, but what those trade-offs are is important. We cannot keep sacrificing marginalized communities, intact ecosystems, and democratic input. We have to move fast and smart, or we’ll undercut the very progress we’re trying to make. That means siting renewable energy projects deliberately, to minimize habitat loss and siting objections that delay projects. That means strategically reducing energy demand and consumption, especially by institutions and the rich, to buy us more time.
That means refusing to cede to deficit-mongers on investing in environmental agencies’ capacity during the budget negotiations in the fall, because everything from energy permitting to disaster clean-ups to ensuring that corporations adhere to environmental laws depends on agencies like EPA and Interior having the staffing and resources to fulfill their functions.
Progressive Alternatives To Manchin’s Dirty Deal
A lot of bright minds are working on countering the prevailing fantasy that Manchin’s proposed permitting changes are serious, responsible legislation. These folks’ ideas could use more media attention. Last week the Center for Biological Diversity, in tandem with several climate justice groups, released a policy memo outlining:
1) How Congress can build out a just, renewable energy system that prioritizes energy conservation, distributed and responsibly-sited energy, and robust community engagement;
2) How Congress can tackle major barriers to this just energy future, including transmission bottlenecks and utility obstruction; and
3) How Congress can compel the Biden administration to actualize this just energy system without new legislation.
That third piece is particularly important to us at RDP. Many of these suggested policies can be undertaken by the Biden administration alone, without new legislation. That includes declaring a climate emergency, ensuring that IRA funds are best utilized, holding utilities accountable for obstructing renewable energy deployment through antitrust and consumer protection enforcement actions, and mandating that FEMA and HUD disperse mitigation and disaster relief funding for renewable energy systems. The memo is really worth a read.
Canary Media also has a piece out today talking about the steps the Biden administration is already taking to ease transmission through FERC and the DOE. At FERC, those reforms are stalled by the two Republican commissioners, with Manchin the principle obstacle to Biden appointing a tie-breaking fifth commissioner.
Another resource is the Roosevelt Institute’s takeaways from their in-person forum on progressive permitting reform, from which three points of consensus emerged:
1) NEPA review is not the primary cause for delay in renewable projects;
2) Transmission capacity and gatekeepers to connecting to the energy grid are the biggest threat to timely renewable deployment; and
3) Progressive reforms to NEPA that strengthen, rather than cut, community engagement would build trust that could help ensure the long-term success of the renewable transition.
Some of the specific proposals offered by panelists at the Roosevelt Institute event included Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse’s The SITE Act, which aims to alleviate the coordination issue by designating FERC as the siting authority in transmission projects; submitting comments to FERC rulemakings aimed at interconnection backlog, cost allocation, and regional planning; Sen. Ed Markey’s The CHARGE Act, which targets issues with utilities and grid operators; and pushing for rapid disbursement of the Inflation Reduction Act’s money to implement the National Environmental Policy Act, which will improve administrative capacity for timely environmental reviews. John Podesta is responsible for overseeing IRA implementation, and he should be held accountable for swiftly disbursing the money for agencies to implement NEPA. Studies have shown that NEPA-mandated environmental reviews are not the barrier to swift permitting; limited agency capacity is.
All of these are real ideas for permitting changes that deserve far more consideration by the Biden administration. Yes, Congress is divided, which makes legislating difficult; but Biden can at least be clear what kinds of permitting proposals the science supports, instead of calling climate change the greatest threat we face while backing the Mountain Valley Pipeline, the Willow Project, increased LNG exports, and more. This incoherence is demoralizing and dangerous.
Joe Biden wants to be president for six of the seven years we have left to half our global greenhouse gas emissions, in order to avoid overshooting several planetary tipping points, causing untold suffering around the globe. Presumably, Biden doesn’t want his legacy to be “the man who literally sacrificed the earth because he couldn’t resist the lure of looking centrist.” So something has got to give.