A wilting climate response
By David Leonhardt
Britain this week experienced its highest temperature on record — more than 40 degrees Celsius, or over 104 degrees Fahrenheit. As a precaution, officials in London had asked people to stay home, saying that vehicles could overheat and rail tracks could buckle.
In France, Greece, Spain and other parts of Europe, the same heat wave has sparked dozens of wildfires.
In the U.S., parts of the Southwest and the Central Plains are bracing for temperatures that could reach 110 degrees this week. Already, the city of Tulsa, Oklahoma, has experienced more days above 100 degrees this summer than it historically has in an entire summer on average.
Yet in the face of these mounting signs and costs of climate change, the U.S. federal government is choosing not to address the problem. Last week, President Joe Biden’s package of policies to reduce climate-warning pollution collapsed, after Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia withdrew his support. Last month, the Supreme Court restricted the Environmental Protection Agency’s authority to reduce pollution at power plants.
As my colleagues Jonathan Weisman and Jazmine Ulloa write:
Climate change remains an issue with little political power, either for those pressing for dramatic action or for those standing in the way.
“People are exhausted by the pandemic, they’re terribly disillusioned by the government,” said Anusha Narayanan, climate campaign director for Greenpeace USA, the environmental group known for its guerrilla tactics but now struggling to mobilize supporters. She added: “People see climate as a tomorrow problem. We have to make them see it’s not a tomorrow problem.”
The lack of U.S. action on climate change has alarmed many experts. Without American leadership, the world will probably struggle to limit warming to levels that scientists have urged, for the sake of preventing much worse damage than the planet is already on course to experience. The U.S. remains a major emitter of greenhouse gases, and it also has the geopolitical sway to persuade China and India to do more than they are now doing — if the U.S. is also acting.
Today’s newsletter looks at what this country can still do to address climate change, even with Washington seeming to withdraw from the fight.
Sum of the parts
California is on the verge of requiring that all new cars sold there be electric or zero-emission by 2035. Colorado and New York have sharply cut their electricity emissions in recent years. About 20 other states have also taken aggressive steps to slow global warming, as have some local governments and companies.
“States are really critical to helping the country as a whole achieve our climate goals,” said Kyle Clark-Sutton of RMI, a clean-energy think tank. “They have been leading.”
None of these changes has nearly the impact that federal action would. But smaller changes can still add up — and even foster broader changes. Consider the vehicle market: By mandating electric vehicles, California and other states will lead automakers to build many more of them, likely spurring innovations and economies of scale that will reduce costs for everybody and thereby increase their use around the country.
It’s a reminder that climate change is one of those issues on which activists may be able to make more progress by focusing on grassroots organizing than top-down change from Washington, especially in the current era of polarization. Locally, the politics of climate change can sometimes be less partisan than they are nationally, as Maggie Astor, a climate reporter at The Times, has written.
After Manchin seemed to doom the climate legislation last week, Biden vowed to “take strong executive action to meet this moment.” His authority is much narrower than it would be if Congress passed new legislation, especially given the current Supreme Court’s hostility to many kinds of environmental regulation. But Biden does have several tools he can use.
— He has directed the EPA to write new rules to reduce pollution from vehicles — the nation’s largest source of planet-warming pollution — and accelerate the transition to electric vehicles.
— Even with the recent Supreme Court ruling, the EPA still has the authority to issue narrow rules that would affect coal-and-gas-fired power plants, the second-largest source of greenhouse gas emissions.
— The EPA also plans to issue regulations this year to curb leaks of methane from oil and gas wells, another significant source of greenhouse gases.
Getting to 51
There are two basic reasons that a single senator — Manchin — has had the power to block climate legislation.
First, the chamber is split evenly between Democrats and Republicans (with Vice President Kamala Harris breaking ties), giving Democrats no margin for losing a vote. Second, no Republican senators are willing to vote for major climate legislation. Over the longer term, changing either of these situations could lead to more aggressive U.S. policies to slow climate change.
On the Republican side, some conservatives have been pushing their party to follow the lead of many other center-right parties around the world, which help pass and shape climate policies. Carlos Curbelo, a former congressman from South Florida, has pointed out that climate change is already creating daily problems for many Americans. Jay Faison is a North Carolina business executive who created a foundation to promote conservative climate solutions. The Niskanen Center, a Washington policy group, is doing similar work.
If even a small number of congressional Republicans supported policies to slow climate change, it could transform the politics of the issue, creating bipartisan, pro-climate majorities in Congress.
On the Democratic side, the main question is how to prevent Manchin from being the deciding vote in future years — that is, by winning more seats in purple and red states. As I’ve described in previous newsletters, Democrats struggle to win in these states partly because the party has alienated working-class voters who are moderate or conservative on many social issues and see Democrats as the party of liberal college graduates.
A recent poll analysis by Echelon Insights offered some fascinating details, contrasting the views of strongly progressive voters with working-class Americans on immigration, patriotism, policing and other subjects. The poll also found that views of Hispanic voters tended to be similar to working-class views — and very different from the progressive views. One example: Asked if America were the greatest country in the world, 70% of Hispanic voters and 69% of working-class voters said yes, but only 28% of “strong progressives” did.
For a party to win over new voters, it usually can’t simply change a couple of policy positions. Politics is more complex than that. But it is clear that many blue-collar voters don’t feel at home in the Democratic Party — and that their alienation is a major impediment to the U.S. doing more to slow climate change.