Americans are weary from the suffering of covid-19 and the economic fallout. Climate change will be far worse, and it has already begun. According to the WHO, climate change is already causing greater than 150,000 premature deaths annually, and that’s without calculating deaths from wars brought on by climate-induced droughts. It is indispensable to the survival of human civilization that the Biden Administration moves aggressively to defeat the climate crisis by transitioning to clean and renewable energy as quickly as possible.
In the wake of sustained organizing and pressure from the Sunrise Movement and progressive allied groups demanding a Green New Deal, the Biden campaign announced a revised climate plan that is arguably Green New Deal-adjacent. His proposal matches the activist demand for a Standards, Investment, and Justice (SIJ) approach by calling for a carbon free power sector by 2035 as well as a net-zero emissions transportation sector. His plan goes on to state that 40% of federal investments in clean energy will go to historically disadvantaged communities, and that he will supercharge these investments with a federal appropriation of $2 trillion by the end of his first term. Biden’s plan has timelines for decarbonization that are in line with the science; however, it’s critical that the administration and its Democratic allies in Congress pursue a range of strategies to accomplish these goals. At the same time, progressives and climate activists should continue to push the Democratic Party to go further and embrace the entirety of the Green New Deal from the elevated timeline that demands a ten-year mobilization to 100% clean energy to the creation of a Federal Jobs Guarantee that provides remunerative jobs with livable wages to anyone in need.
Democrats are entering 2021 with the White House and both chambers in the legislature for the first time since 2010; however, we face a slim majority in the House and a 50–50 split in the Senate with the Vice President breaking the tie. Moreover, a few conservative Democrats in the Senate are reluctant to retire the filibuster, which requires 60 votes rather than a simple majority. Our prospects of passing meaningful legislation to defeat the climate crisis are markedly weaker with the filibuster remaining intact. There is zero chance 10 Republican Senators will vote for a Green New Deal or anything remotely close to it. While we work to implore reluctant Democrats like Joe Manchin to allow our majority to govern, we should explore alternative strategies.
One of the strategies Democrats can employ to pass consequential climate policy is budget reconciliation. Budget reconciliation is a process in which members of Congress appropriate federal spending excluding mandatory programs like Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. Congress can use budget reconciliation once a year and include various legislative priorities provided they’re related to taxes or spending. For example, under the rules of reconciliation, Congress can appropriate funds for social programs and basic services like infrastructure or Pell Grants, but they’re prohibited from implementing regulations like background checks for firearms or regulation of carbon emission. Working within the traditional confines of budget reconciliation, Congress would be able to invest in clean energy, but they wouldn’t be able to regulate emissions or direct resources to communities of color harmed by environmental racism.
However, there is hope!
Dr. Leah Stokes and Sam Ricketts have come up with several work-arounds to implement a Clean Energy Standard (CES) and justice commitments through reconciliation. In the new podcast Voltcast hosted by Dr. David Roberts, Ricketts and Stokes outline various strategies including:
- A tax penalty for utilities that fail to meet a clean energy standard, almost like a tax bracket for emissions
- Clean energy utility credits
- Conditioning federal transportation funds to states on adopting and enforcing a statewide CES (8 states have already adopted them) with justice commitments
- Appropriating funds for the EPA to use its existing authority to enforce the Clean Air Act with amendments indicating a timeline for 100% clean energy and environmental justice targets
Congressional Democrats should pursue one or more of these strategies to phase out emissions. There may be challenges. The Senate Parliamentarian, who determines whether legislation is eligible for budget reconciliation, might reject their proposal. Democrats can use their majority to overrule her or replace her. Fossil fuel companies will sue the government on the grounds that the EPA doesn’t have the authority to regulate emissions, and they may find sympathetic ears. In response, President Biden and Senate Democrats can add new justices to the Supreme Court.
When it comes to fronting the bill for green infrastructure, green manufacturing, and green research, budget reconciliation rules dictate we need to create revenue streams to offset the spending. In the long-term, any and all spending we devote towards electrification and decarbonization will largely pay for itself and then some. By transitioning away from fossil fuels, we can end pollution-related deaths and associated costs, we can save consumers money through cheaper and more efficient modes of energy consumption, and we can reduce the severity and frequency of natural disasters such as wildfires and hurricanes brought on by the climate crisis. In short, the Green New Deal pays for itself. However, in order to pass climate policy through budget reconciliation, we will have to produce new taxes.
Biden and his team have already embraced a progressive tax reform known as mark-to-market taxation which would tax investment income as labor income in the year it accrues. By taxing investment income at a lower rate than labor income, as we have historically done, we are giving preferential treatment to people who earn their money by doing nothing. It’s time we end this practice. We should supplement mark-to-market with other new taxes on financial transactions and exorbitant net worths as well as a higher top marginal income tax rate and a higher inheritance tax.
In the wake of such a daunting challenge, we are obliged to be strategic and persistent in the name of bold climate policy. While there may be obstacles incessantly popping up, it’s up to us to tear them down and pursue our goals with resilience.