In the past few years, a historic shift has occurred in American public opinion: For the first time ever, and across a variety of polling outlets, a majority of Americans say that they want to see the government take serious action on climate change. This shift has accompanied an eruption of climate-related disasters. Wildfires now paralyze the West Coast. Heat waves have killed elderly people in their homes. And record-breaking floods have destroyed farms, shut down cities, and drowned children in basements.
Since he entered the race for his current job, President Joe Biden has stressed the danger of climate change, naming it one of the “four historic crises” that the country faces now. He has promised to zero out carbon pollution from the electricity system by 2035, with 80 percent of U.S. electricity coming from zero-carbon sources by 2030.
These goals are the backbone of Biden’s climate agenda. He cannot meet his climate commitment without a realistic, trustworthy plan to hit these electricity goals. There are two different ways to achieve them: the Clean Electricity Program, which incentivizes utilities to increase the amount of zero-carbon power that they generate each year, or a carbon tax, which levies a fee on each ton of greenhouse-gas pollution released into the atmosphere.
If Congress can pass either of these policies, then Biden’s climate agenda will succeed, and the world will have a much better shot of avoiding the worst ravages of climate change by the middle of the century. If not, then Biden’s climate agenda will fall short.
The fate of these policies is being decided now. Last night, The New York Times reported that Senator Joe Manchin, a Democrat from West Virginia, opposes the Clean Electricity Program proposed in the reconciliation bill. But Manchin himself has not said so publicly, and House progressives, too, have some leverage left: If that bill does not address climate change to their satisfaction, then they can veto the bipartisan infrastructure bill.
Today, remarkably, 60 percent of U.S. electricity is generated by fossil fuels. In order to meaningfully address climate change, that number must decline and rapidly reach zero. Building a zero-carbon electricity system isn’t some environmentalist fantasy; it is the first and most important step to actually managing climate change in the next two decades.
This is because of the basic restrictions of chemistry and technology. Right now, a huge portion of economic activity is powered by the controlled combustion of fossil fuels, which produce carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. Humanity knows how to generate energy without causing carbon pollution—using wind turbines, solar panels, nuclear plants, and more—but only in the flexible yet specific form of electricity. Nearly every plan to limit climate change in the United States follows a two-step process: First, the country must scale up the power grid, generating nearly all of its electricity from zero-carbon sources. Second, it must bring almost every fossil-powered industrial process onto the electricity grid.
Between the Clean Electricity Program and a carbon tax, the Clean Electricity Program is Biden’s best option. It would directly incentivize utilities to clean up their grid by offering federal grants for those that boost zero-carbon electricity production by 4 percent each year. Utilities that do not meet that standard can buy credits or pay a small penalty. The policy is designed to keep electricity rates low for consumers, has support from large utilities, and resembles clean-electricity programs that have been successfully implemented in 29 states. With this program in place, the U.S. electricity grid would generate 73 percent of its energy from zero-carbon sources within a decade, preventing at least 400 million tons of carbon pollution, according to the Rhodium Group, an energy-analysis firm. (Climate tax credits would bump zero-carbon energy’s share of the energy mix the rest of the way to Biden’s 80-percent goal.) Resources for the Future, a nonpartisan think tank, has found similar results.
Biden’s other option is to support a carbon tax. Such a policy has traditionally been a favorite of economists, and it would reduce carbon pollution. A carbon fee of $15 per ton, rising 5 percent each year and exempting gasoline (as any Biden plan reportedly would), promises to eliminate 45 percent of U.S. carbon pollution by 2030 compared with its all-time high, according to Resources for the Future. That makes it roughly comparable to the Clean Electricity Program, and it would make Biden’s goal of halving carbon pollution by 2030 feasible.
But there are good reasons to be skeptical of a carbon tax. A carbon tax is, by design, intended to raise fossil-fuel prices, which strikes me as politically unwise amid a global spike in energy prices and an ongoing producers’ strike in the Texas oil patch. Taxing carbon also turns fossil fuels into an enduring source of government revenue, when the goal should instead be to eliminate them.
Yet for all these quibbles, a carbon tax would undoubtedly work. And the passage of either a carbon tax or the Clean Electricity Program would amount to a colossal political achievement, finally allowing the United States to sit among its peer countries that have passed significant climate policy.
Manchin is the greatest opponent of both these policies. He has reportedly told Biden that he cannot accept the Clean Electricity Program, even though he seemed to accept it in a secret agreement that he signed with Majority Leader Chuck Schumer this summer. Senate Democrats respect Manchin and understand his unusual political acumen—he has, after all, found a way to win elections as a Democrat in a state that Donald Trump won by 39 points last year. Although Manchin’s family owns a coal-brokerage company from which he might still draw an income, he may have broader goals as a politician. He seems determined to ensure that the roughly 31,000 fossil-fuel workers in his state can envision a future for themselves in a decarbonizing economy—much as climate activists are desperate to see a safe and prosperous future for themselves in the hot years ahead.
If the Times is wrong that Manchin has categorically rejected the Clean Electricity Program, there is plenty about these policies that Manchin and Biden can and should negotiate about. They could slow the Clean Electricity Program’s pace of change (should utilities go zero-carbon at 3 percent a year, rather than 4?) or adjust the amount of carbon capture permitted (should natural-gas plants that capture 80 percent of their pollution count?). They could exempt certain states from the program during its early years. The Clean Electricity Program would supercharge one of Manchin’s own provisions in the bill—a tax credit that would help companies build clean-energy technologies in America—by creating 15 to 30 percent more jobs than the policy would alone.
These details matter—they will decide how fast America’s significant share of global carbon pollution falls—but ultimately either the Clean Electricity Program or a carbon tax would allow the U.S. to further drive down the cost of producing zero-carbon energy. That benefit would redound worldwide, shaping a far larger share of global climate pollution.
Is there a third option here? According to the Times, White House staff is now “trying to cobble together a mix of other policies that could also cut emissions,” and they could plausibly find some provisions that are acceptable to Manchin that would also encourage utilities to replace some of their fossil-fuel generation with renewables. But barring a miracle, the administration would be forced to fall back on using Environmental Protection Agency rules to reduce carbon pollution, a potentially costly and arduous process that would be vulnerable to challenges at the conservative Supreme Court or rollbacks from future presidents. And there is no guarantee that it would become settled law by the 2024 election.
These political concerns may seem quotidian, and they are—but how and whether any of these policies pass is a question of world-historical importance. Lawmakers, the press, and Americans of good character must understand that the U.S. has more at stake than the particular makeup of its electricity system. Over the past few years, some of the most famous institutions in the country—the biggest companies, universities, states, and cities—have pledged to act on climate change. Leading diplomats have flown around the world to proclaim the seriousness of America’s commitment.
But what have they concretely accomplished? For all its climate-destroying coal plants, China still installs more solar capacity than any other country, sells more electric vehicles than any other country, and operates a weak but expanding carbon market. Trans-Atlantic strategists worry that the European Union, which also maintains a carbon price, could eventually fuse its system to that of its largest trading partner, China. For the U.S. to fail to follow through after so much blabber would suggest, as China’s leaders reportedly believe, that our democracy is too sclerotic to meet the current crisis. That is a mortifying conclusion for the country, and a potentially dangerous one for the world order. If the U.S. cannot pass one of these policies, cannot bring itself to actually reduce carbon pollution, then it will strengthen the perception that American democracy is fundamentally sick, dying, unable to act on an issue on which its leaders’ credibility and its international stature rides. We will look like a decadent, soul-sick nation, too feeble to govern our basest instincts. And, well, aren’t we?