This summer, the climate crisis has roared into basement apartments in Brooklyn, leaped across the dry tops of the Sierra Nevadas and kicked over the towers that held up the power and communication networks of Louisiana. It has shredded homes in New Jersey and poured into the underpasses of Philadelphia, turning a cross-town expressway into a murky, swirling river.
But as fall approaches, bringing the best opportunity in years for Congress to act on global warming, prospects are dimming for the package of investments that make up President Joe Biden’s plan to jump-start a clean energy transition.
In the Senate, where Biden will need every Democratic vote to pass a $3.5 trillion budget reconciliation bill that contains the bulk of his climate plan, party unity is fraying. Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) placed an editorial in the Wall Street Journal calling for Democrats to “pause” the package, because of concerns over inflation and the national debt. Less noticed, but just as lethal to the package’s chances was a statement by a spokesman for Sen. Krysten Sinema (D-Ariz.) in Politico on Aug. 23: She will not support a $3.5 trillion budget bill, he said.
There are many reasons that Washington, D.C. remains at a standstill on climate change, even as its impacts become more apparent and the costs rise for cities and smaller communities. Certainly, the structural advantages of conservatives in the U.S. political system, with the Senate diluting the power of the nation’s most populous regions, is a factor. (The youth-led climate group Sunrise Movement issued a three-word riposte to Manchin’s editorial: “Abolish the Senate,” said Communications Director Ellen Sciales).
But another important factor is psychological and sociological, according to the research of a number of experts on U.S. climate inaction. Even though polls show that a majority of U.S. citizens want to see action on climate change, clean energy proponents have not come together as a force strong enough to overcome the political obstacles and the entrenched interests defending the fossil fueled-status quo. Instead of spurring citizens to band together to demand action, the extreme weather impacts could create a hopelessness that works against political progress.
“Climate change is going to be extremely scary and disturbing no matter what,” said Kari Marie Norgaard, a professor of sociology at the University of Oregon. “It is significantly more scary and disturbing if we think there is nothing that can be done, if we think that apocalypse is inevitable. Then, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
‘It’s About Resilience’
Hurricanes, floods, and wildfires are nothing new, of course, but the velocity and force of natural disasters in the United States in the warmest weeks of 2021 were in many ways record-setting and tracked perfectly with the warnings scientists have been giving for years. “More frequent and intense extreme weather and climate-related events, as well as changes in average climate conditions, are expected to continue to damage infrastructure, ecosystems, and social systems that provide essential benefits to communities,” said the most recent National Climate Assessment, released by the federal government in 2018.
The remnants of Hurricane Ida brought enough moisture and atmospheric instability to the northeast to trigger the first-ever flash flood emergency in New York City and first-ever tornado emergency in New Jersey. Dozens of people in four states perished, some trapped in cars, some in the basement apartments that have been a feature of life in New York for decades. More than three inches of rain fell in an hour in Central Park, breaking a record set just eight days earlier when Hurricane Henri grazed the city.
In Louisiana, the state’s power grid took a hit from the full force of Hurricane Ida’s Category 4 winds—at 150 miles per hour, tying for the fifth strongest hurricane ever to hit the U.S. mainland. More than 800,000 customers remained without power on Friday, and the utility Entergy said it might take weeks to restore all electric service.
Meanwhile in California, only twice in history have wildfires burned from one side of the Sierra Nevada mountain range to the other: Both occurred this August. Usually the snow-topped peaks provide enough moisture to slow fires eventually. But not this summer, when snow cover was close to zero in June. Of the top 20 wildfires in California record books that date back to 1932, three occurred this year and five were last year.
Biden pointed to the extreme events Friday as he made a pitch for his two-part legislative plan—a bipartisan infrastructure bill and a much larger spending package that contains his main initiatives to drive carbon emissions out of electricity and transportation.
“It’s historic investment in roads, in rail, in transit and bridges, in clean energy, in clean water,” said Biden. “It’s going to modernize our energy grid. You need not go any further than look what’s happening across the country now in terms of the energy grids. It’s about resilience. Make our roads and highways safer. Make us more resilient to the kinds of devastating impacts from extreme weather we’re seeing in so many parts of the country.”
But Manchin, who as chairman of the Senate Energy Committee will have a key role in shaping some of the most important climate aspects of the legislation, including its Clean Electricity Payment Program, could single-handedly block the budget bill. He could relent after extracting concessions that reduce the overall cost of the package, as he did with the Covid relief bill earlier this year. But critics blasted Manchin’s approach as designed to draw attention rather than achieve a compromise. “Manchin once again opts for the performative centrism of an op-ed over picking up the phone and telling Chuck Schumer and Bernie Sanders his specific concerns and changes,” tweeted Jon Favreau, a former speechwriter for President Barack Obama and co-host of the podcast Pod Save America.
Manchin, who is fiercely protective of his home state coal industry, has always been seen as the point man on energy in this Congress. He is one of Congress’ top recipients of campaign funds from the oil, gas, and coal industries, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, and his remarks come just as corporate coalitions, led by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, have begun a lobbying blitz to stop at least some provisions of the bills, according to The Washington Post.
Is Change Just Too Hard?
Robert Brulle, a sociologist who has written extensively on the fossil fuel industry’s influence in U.S. politics, said that industry lobbying certainly has been an obstacle to climate action. But he does not think it is the only factor at play in the “social inertia” on climate, a term that he and Norgaard used in research they were co-authors of two years ago.
Referring to fossil fuel industry lobbying and public relations, Brulle said, “These organizations and efforts are a great big roadblock in the middle of the road.” But he added, “I’m not sure we can go down the road very far with the truck we’ve got.”
Brulle notes that although polls show two-thirds of Americans think the United States should do more on climate change, he feels it is telling that other polling shows far fewer are willing to pay as much as $40 per month to address it.
“It’s really hard to get people to change their way of life and existence,” Brulle said. “It causes a great deal of anxiety. People don’t want to deal with it, and they come up with rationalizations or magical thinking. In other words, they deny the science or believe a technological solution will come to the rescue.
Norgaard, author of the 2011 book “Living in Denial: Climate Change, Emotions, and Everyday Life,” argues that the problem is especially acute in the United States, where the culture extols individual freedom and we don’t have a history of discussing societal solutions on climate.
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“When people start bringing up climate change, there isn’t a cultural repertoire of how to talk about it,” she said. “The fact that we don’t have a way to collectively talk about it is a major hindrance. And it is also not a coincidence. It’s a function of our political economic structure.”
In Norgaard’s views, wildfires, floods and other manifestations of climate change will only translate into political action if they lead to more conversations—starting at the family and community level—about the large-scale changes that are needed to address warming.
“When we have community, that is when we can feel more powerful, especially when we are up against a collective problem,” she said. “We are talking about a much larger structural change, but we’re not actually having conversations about how that can happen. That is a big part of why people are so afraid and so helpless, and feel like nothing we do is going to work. I don’t think that’s necessarily true, but it becomes true if we can’t start talking about it.”