Historians of the future will look back on 2022 as the year America gave up addressing human-caused climate change.
And given the United States’ critical role in international leadership, this will be remembered as the year the world gave up, too.
President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better agenda contained much of the Green New Deal, aiming for a 100% clean energy economy by 2050; making big investments in clean-energy technology, climate research and innovation; becoming the world’s leading exporter of clean-energy technology, and standing up to big polluters and greenhouse-gas emitters.
But even watered down, it couldn’t make it through Congress. Specifically, it was torpedoed by Sen. Joe Manchin, D-Coal, a lawmaker with astounding conflicts of interests.
Not that voters seem to care. Only 1% of respondents in a recent New York Times/Siena College poll identified climate change as the nation’s most important issue. Even among voters younger than 30, the cohort assumed to be most concerned by the issue, just 3% said it was the top issue.
Contrast that with a Pew Research Center poll early this year, in which 42% of adults surveyed said dealing with climate change should be a top priority for Biden and Congress. The number went up to 54% for respondents between ages 18 and 29, and 65% for Democrats.
In the same Pew poll, only 18% of respondents said reducing the causes of global warming would hurt the economy.
But a confusing economy with strong job creation yet high inflation may have changed minds, especially given the inability of Democrats to show results, united Republican opposition and the real-world pain of higher gasoline prices.
A Pew poll this month found respondents almost evenly divided over whether Biden’s policies on climate are taking the country in the right direction. No wonder Congress isn’t feeling heat from voters to pass Biden’s signature climate package.
When the going gets tough, today’s Americans sound the retreat — as if addressing inflation, a worldwide phenomenon, is at odds with also focusing on climate change. We won’t walk and chew gum at the same time. It’s hard to believe this is the same nation that first landed men on the moon 53 years ago this week.
Anything, anything, to keep the Happy Motoring era alive. Any excuse — electric cars! Flying taxis! China and India are to blame! Climate change isn’t real! — to distract from the existential threat that is here, now.
To be sure, when Franklin D. Roosevelt pushed through the original New Deal, he had commanding Democratic majorities in Congress (for example, 313 House seats vs. 117 Republicans). Biden’s situation in 2020 was much more tenuous.
In the U.S. House, Democrats lost seats compared with two years earlier, but maintained a narrow majority, 222 vs. 213 for Republicans. In the Senate, Democrats held 48 seats plus two independents who caucus with them. Republicans held 50 seats. Add the threat of filibuster and it was almost impossible to vote much of Biden’s agenda into law, with Vice President Kamala Harris breaking a tie.
Republicans appear likely to win one or both chambers in the fall, and the GOP is stalwartly opposed even to believing climate change is real and human-caused, much less to addressing it. The most modest progress, such as investing in Amtrak, which moves more people with less emissions than most other modes, may be at risk.
And don’t forget that former President Donald Trump and Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell packed a right-wing supermajority on the Supreme Court. This past month the court voted 6-3 to limit the Environmental Protection Agency’s ability to curb power-plant emissions.
But reality doesn’t care what Republicans “believe.”
Britain, a nation better known for cool, rain and fog, reached an all-time record temperature of 104 degrees this week. Heat records are being set across the world, including in formerly unlikely places such as northern Europe.
Reality is historic droughts, falling crop yields, destruction of fisheries, wildfires, floods, and other extreme weather events.
The economic costs are here, now. An analysis by the Office of Management and Budget estimated the federal government could spend an additional $25 billion to $128 billion each year on flood insurance, crop insurance, coastal disaster relief, health-care insurance, wildland fire suppression and flooding at federal facilities.
The White House estimates these could cost the federal budget $2 trillion by the end of the century. Every organization from major corporations to the Defense Department are gaming the consequences of a warming planet.
A report by the insurer Swiss RE estimated that the effects of climate change will cost the world $23 trillion by 2050.
On the other hand, the Deloitte Economics Institute estimates the U.S. economy alone could gain $3 trillion over the next 50 years if America rapidly lowers climate emissions during the next half-century.
The social costs will be enormous, too, as island nations disappear, regions flood, and historic migrations result. Puget Sound’s relative safety so far — except for smoke from wildfires — is at great risk from climate migrants.
It’s a reminder to tell people that Seattle rains all the time and is cold as the north pole. That might send climate migrants from an unsustainable Southwest back to a warming Midwest.
Inflation will come and go. Today’s hot economy will cool down and go through recessions and expansions. But climate change is here to stay. And it will get worse.
All because we decided to give up.