The Weekly Planet: The Great Climate Bill of 2021 Is Being Shaped Now

The game before the game has started.

A view of high-voltage transmission towers
These transmission lines near Houston aren’t connected to the national grid. (Justin Sullivan / Getty)

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President Joe Biden’s legislative climate agenda has kind of fallen out of the news. Lawmakers are focused on what the Biden administration calls the “economic-rescue bill,” the one with the $1,400 checks. The climate content will come in the second, “economic-recovery” package.

Yet this lull has concealed quite a bit of activity. The game before the game, so to speak, has begun: Experts and activists are putting their pieces on the board, stakeholders are sorting through strategies, and various lawmakers are signaling their preferred policies. It’s also possible to discern potential divisions among Democrats already, particularly in the Senate Democratic Caucus, which—with its bare majority—will likely have to lend its full support to any climate bill.

If you want to see the United States pass a law about climate change in the next 12 months, it is time to start thinking about these issues, even without a draft bill text, a comprehensive plan, or an obvious outlet for citizen engagement. I think it’s important, too, to get your bearings before the gamboling parade of politics reporters rolls in and accidentally overturns some tables. So here’s a short and non-exhaustive guide to a few of the important disagreements (and consensus points) that have emerged.

What’s the timeline? A bit of context. Congress is now working on the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, often called the economic-rescue package. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer says he expects that bill to reach Biden’s desk by March 14. Then congressional Democrats might take up a new Voting Rights Act and the democracy-reform bill known as H.R. 1, which limits partisan gerrymandering and reforms campaign finance. Only afterward will they move forward on writing the economic-recovery package—the meat of Biden’s so-called Build Back Better agenda.

This package will likely contain Biden’s first-term legislative climate policy. But note that the administration may call it an “infrastructure bill.” Congress could begin seriously working on such a proposal in the spring.

What about the filibuster? Both the rescue and the recovery packages could be passed by reconciliation—meaning that they are exempt from the onerous filibuster and need only 51 votes to become law; the voting-rights and democracy-reform bills could not. If those bills force the Senate to amend the filibuster requirement, then Congress’s capacity to legislate climate action will grow. Democrats can pass simpler—but more sweeping—policy if it isn’t constrained by the arcane rules of the reconciliation process, which generally limit a bill to issues that affect the federal budget.

What’s the stick? In Washington parlance, ideal climate policy has a “carrot and stick”—an incentive and a punishment. Lawmakers know what the carrot of Biden’s policy will be: massive federal investment. During the campaign, Biden pledged to spend $2 trillion on remaking the American economy for climate change.

But the stick—the part of the policy that forces compliance with its goals—is far less clear.

There are three options for how to elicit compliance. Some lawmakers might prefer that there be no stick at all. Biden has pledged that the U.S. will reach 100 percent carbon-free energy by 2035. The U.S. could possibly approach that goal with no legal mandates.

The second is a clean-energy standard: a legally mandated set of goals that require the U.S. to generate a growing portion of its electricity from zero-carbon sources. Arguably, this approach is already the country’s most popular climate policy—38 states and the District of Columbia currently have a “renewable portfolio standard” mandating that some of their electricity comes from wind and solar power—and these policies seem to have helped drive down the cost of solar and wind energy (though, as I wrote a couple years ago, by how much nobody is sure). In the past month, the progressive think tank Evergreen Action has proposed a federal clean-energy standard that could be passed through the Senate reconciliation process. Data for Progress, a left-leaning polling firm, claims that 60 percent of voters—and 40 percent of Republicans—support such a mandate.

The third option is a carbon tax, sometimes also called a carbon price. A carbon price increases the cost of economic activity based on the amount of greenhouse-gas pollution that it emits. The centrist think tank the Niskanen Center argues that most aspects of a carbon tax could easily be included in a reconciliation bill.

What about the politics? For years, a carbon tax was seen as the zenith of climate policy—the one policy that was absolutely necessary for constraining climate change. In the 2016 primary, Senator Bernie Sanders got to the left of Secretary Hillary Clinton—and beefed up his climate bona fides—by endorsing a carbon tax.

But its politics have shifted. Progressive activists now decry carbon prices as a market-based solution that takes responsibility for avoiding climate change out of human hands. They’re suspicious that major oil companies, such as Exxon, endorse a carbon tax—it suggests to them that maybe such a policy wouldn’t rein in fossil-fuel use much at all—and are now more likely to endorse a clean-energy standard. Meanwhile, during the Trump years, a carbon tax earned the support of both old-guard Republicans and rigorously nonpartisan groups such as the Citizens’ Climate Lobby.

The irony is that Congress has not kept up with these changes, and which lawmaker supports each policy now seems driven by … well, idiosyncrasy?. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island, a progressive who until earlier this year would lambaste climate deniers every week from the Senate floor, still seems to prefer a carbon price. Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia, one of the Senate’s crucial Democratic swing votes, is flat-out opposed to carbon prices but has been less definitively against (if not less skeptical of) mandates.

Who gets “the benefit” of an investment? During his presidential campaign, Biden promised that 40 percent of the “overall benefits of his $2 trillion investment” would go to “disadvantaged communities.”

The problem is that no one is sure what this means—and different activists insist on competing interpretations. How do you define who gets a portion of the benefit of a public investment, anyway? (Who gets 40 percent of the benefit of the New York subway?) Who falls under that “disadvantaged” schema is also unclear: A mostly Black neighborhood next to an airport would likely qualify, but what about an oil-dependent city in the Rio Grande Valley, or a majority-white town living in the shadow of a coal plant? And even if this key term had an explicit definition, the federal government doesn’t have a map of where those communities are. It will likely have to develop a definition and a map together before it can begin disbursing the money.

What’s a lock for the bill? All this said, many narrower policies have the support of Democrats in the House and the Senate, and seem likely to make the cut. Schumer has proposed a large-scale “Cash for Clunkers”–style program that would let owners of gas-powered cars exchange them for electric vehicles. I’ve heard that the wind and solar tax credits will likely be turned into “direct pay” programs, a move that would simplify the financing of renewable energy in the U.S., bringing us more in line with Germany’s system. And Manchin supports reviving a tax credit called “48C” that boosts the advanced manufacturing of climate technology and would route some of the money to West Virginia.


One Final Thought About Texas’s Catastrophe

This weekend, I wrote about Texas’s catastrophic blackouts for The Atlantic:

Many of the same issues that hampered [Texas also limited] the United States in its response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Too many crucial systems in this country are run on an ad hoc basis. A lack of planning, a reliance on just-in-time logistics, and a self-defeating trust in the profit motive are withering the American economy and way of life.

There’s one point I want to make about Texas’s grid, called ERCOT, that I didn’t get to in that piece. ERCOT has two defining traits: More than any other state’s power sector, it is structured to work like a free market, and it is cut off from the rest of America’s electricity infrastructure in order to escape federal regulation. Many commentators, including me, blame the state’s total trust in those two traits for its deadly failure last week.

So what should replace it? The crowning institution of early-20th-century electricity is the Tennessee Valley Authority. In many ways, the TVA is the anti-ERCOT: Franklin D. Roosevelt imagined it as “a corporation clothed with the power of government but possessed of the flexibility and initiative of a private enterprise.” You can see, in that quote, FDR’s good liberal trust in government and bureaucracy—as well as a more general 1930s optimism about the power of institutions to bring order to chaos.

ERCOT represents a different sort of excitement—a post-1980s trust in the self-regulating power of markets and their ability to find order in chaos. As a market, ERCOT is supposed to reach a societally optimal outcome even if some of its participating firms, the ones that actually make energy, are incompetent or wasteful. Theoretically, ERCOT automatically punishes those firms. The TVA could never permit this kind of humility! A “corporation clothed with the power of government” only works if the organization is, itself, highly competent.

ERCOT was revealed last week to be highly ineffective as a market. (The TVA, which still exists, didn’t lose power.) Many people now rightly doubt that ERCOT’s core principle can work at all. As my colleague Adam Serwer wrote, there is no replacement for good state-level governance.

Yet if lawmakers were to remake ERCOT, what organizational design would they choose? Many investor-owned utilities have not covered themselves in glory. More broadly, what types of institutions excite people today the way that federal bureaucracy inspired the 1930s, or markets seemed to shine in the 1990s? Could there be an Amazon.com of electricity? A BlackRock of power? A mutual-aid group of transmission?

I’m not talking only about electricity here. If climate change is to be addressed, I suspect that Americans will need new modes of organization, new types of governance, to corral state capacity and build enthusiasm.


Someone Else’s Weather

Niagara River surrounded by bare trees under cloudy sky
Paula Sciuk

Our reader Paula Sciuk shared this photo of a cloudy winter day in Niagara Falls, New York.

Every week, I feature a weather photo from a reader or professional in this part of the newsletter, because the climate is someone else’s weather. If you would like to submit one, please email weeklyplanet@theatlantic.com.


3 Trifling Things

I have come across a few vaguely planet-related games lately. Here are a few of them:

1. The part of an iceberg above the water is, well, “only the tip of the iceberg.” But most illustrations of icebergs do not depict bergs that would actually float, writes the glaciologist Megan Thompson-Munson. Basically, most stock icebergs are too tall; they would flop on their sides.

Now, thanks to the developer Josh Tauberer, you can draw an iceberg in your browser and see how it would float.

2. The game GeoGuessr has been around for a few years; it shows you the Google Maps Street View of somewhere in the world, then makes you guess your location on the map. I rediscovered it this week after watching a video of the Youtube user GeoWizard getting a near-perfect score.

But then my friend Charlie Loyd pointed me to a much better version: City Guesser, which shows you a video of someone ambling through a city street, then makes you guess the city. It’s a lovely escape. Many of the videos were taken before the pandemic and make me miss the roar of crowds and the hustle of our pre-pandemic life.

3. It also makes me excited for this summer, when some of that community should return. Also returning this summer: the largest brood of 17-year cicadas—Brood X. This generational horde of insects last emerged in the eastern U.S. in 2004. They make the trees sound like chainsaws; I love them.


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