It has been bizarre, over the past few weeks, to see the attention lavished on the United Nations climate conference in Glasgow, Scotland. The summit was lauded as the world’s “last, best hope” and the place where the “fate of the planet” would be negotiated. And fine, it was very important.
But Glasgow was not, last week or now, the world’s most important city for staving off climate change. That title belongs to Washington, D.C.
Over the next few weeks, Democrats in Congress will make a far more influential and far-reaching decision than anything that happened at the UN conference. They will decide whether to pass President Joe Biden’s signature spending bill, the Build Back Better Act. Because of the president’s slim majorities in Congress, the bill’s fate will be decided by just seven Democrats: five moderates in the House of Representatives and two moderate senators, Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona.
With only $555 billion in climate spending, the act is no green dream: Progressives once contemplated a $10 trillion climate law. In size and approach, the Biden bill is far closer to a patriotic moderate’s ideal of climate policy, beefing up strategic industries through subsidies, federal support, and tax credits. The bill neither mandates greenhouse-gas reductions nor requires utilities to shut down fossil-fuel generation.
Yet it now seems likely to be a hinge point in the country’s history. Its passage would, yes, end America’s 30-year failure to plan for the energy transition, and it would vindicate the approach of the Paris Agreement, which places no constraints on U.S. sovereignty. But with their vote for Build Back Better, lawmakers will be doing more than shaping environmental politics. They will be deciding the future of U.S.-China relations, and they will be molding the strength of the American economy itself.
If Build Back Better passes, the United States will have a coherent climate strategy for the first time in decades. That strategy will, notably, be shaped only somewhat by environmentalists, activists, and neoclassical economists. The Biden administration’s labor, national-security, and protectionist concerns will have played a larger role. Through subsidies, investment, and some regulations, the country’s policy will seek to reshape the American economy so that it is set to produce new zero-carbon technology for itself and the world.
More important, the bill would position the U.S. as a counterweight to China, a rival clean-energy superpower. Right now, China is the world’s largest producer of wind and solar energy. It is the world’s largest market for electric vehicles, and it looks certain to overshoot its goal of making EVs a quarter of all new car sales by 2025. China’s leadership is adopting clean energy so aggressively not only because it wishes to reduce air pollution and stop the climate-fueled expansion of the Gobi Desert—but because as long as China depends on foreign oil, it has a geopolitical weak spot.
But that geopolitical need has created dilemmas for both American companies and American diplomats. If China subsidizes homegrown clean-energy technologies, it will get better at making those technologies more cheaply than the United States can. Its companies will be able to sell those same technologies abroad, dominating markets, such as steel- and automaking, long at the core of American dominance. The Biden administration’s strategy for dealing with China and other authoritarian states requires creating a global network of democracies to counteract their influence. But residents of those democracies—the United Kingdom, Japan, South Korea, and the European Union’s member states—care deeply about climate change, and China’s geopolitical need to develop clean energy could make it an alluring ally, if it can credibly position itself as doing more about climate change than ailing America.
But if Build Back Better fails, then the United States will plainly be incapable of responding to climate change in any organized or systematic way. The U.S. Congress—really, the Senate—will have killed President Bill Clinton’s carbon-reducing BTU tax in 1994, doomed the Kyoto Protocol in 1998, declined to pass Waxman-Markey in 2010, and abandoned Biden’s climate bid in 2021. This final failure will be massively delegitimizing for the United States and for small-d democracy around the world. And because Democrats are likely to lose control of the House and the Senate next year, it would resound for years.
The failure to pass Build Back Better will worsen climate change, of course—but we will not feel those effects for several decades. In the meantime, political camaraderie will deteriorate. Already, a sense that the government cannot safeguard ordinary people’s interests is feeding the country’s disunion. Congress’s failure to do anything about climate change—even pass a bill that 58 percent of Americans support—will only send Americans into less hopeful directions.
Young people, living in a country that cannot ensure their future safety, could easily grow more radical. The tens of millions of young people who once championed the Green New Deal have lately started to wonder aloud about a form of property destruction that they call “direct action”; Andreas Malm’s book, How to Blow Up a Pipeline, got a not-unflattering write-up in The New York Times. The country’s technology and financial elite will be tempted to admire authoritarian states for their efficiency and can-do spirit. And large companies will still need to hire professional, college-educated Americans with disproportionately liberal views who will demand that executives continue to reduce those companies’ carbon pollution, further disrupting American energy markets and prompting a rupture with rural fossil-fuel communities.
The American economy will probably transition away from fossil fuels anyway. But instead of a controlled shift, it will be closer to an economic disaster. Coal towns and the oil patch will be stunned by a ruthless market, shaped by technocrats and the subsidizing whims of Beijing, before their final economic value is strip-mined by financiers. And though the U.S. will consume green technology, its technological advantage will slowly slip in China’s and Europe’s favor, and just as the U.S. no longer produces solar panels—a technology that it invented—so will it lose its early advantage in the clean-steel, carbon-capture, electric-vehicle, and hydrogen industries.
Manchin should know, personally, that Build Back Better is the best deal that he and West Virginia are likely to get. The pressure to act on climate change has grown in the past few years because fires, floods, and heat waves have grown worse. The California utility PG&E may have been, as The Wall Street Journal put it, the first bankruptcy of climate change, but it will not be the last. Liberal bankers will become more agitated by climate change with every new fire season and every corporate collapse. This bill does not include a carbon tax and does contain economic-development initiatives for Appalachia. But in a bleaker future, a carbon tax, now unpopular with Democrats, could come back, and a West Virginia senator may not be in the position next time to stop it.
It’s not hard to make a plausible case that the Paris Agreement is working. At the initial Paris meeting, in 2015, countries collectively pledged emissions reductions that would limit global warming to 2.7 degrees Celsius by the end of the century. Their actual policies—the laws on the books—would have put the world on track for 3.6 degrees Celsius by 2100. Five years later, the world has closed that gap. National policies now put us on track for 2.7 degrees Celsius of warming by 2100. And the pledges and targets made under the agreement, depending on how you count them, would put the world closer to an end-of-century warming of 2.4 degrees Celsius.
All of these numbers, though, hang on a thin agreement among nations to act as if they’re important. Glasgow’s purported theme was “keeping 1.5 degrees Celsius alive.” But until the drafting of the Paris Agreement in 2015, the world had agreed to limit warming to only 2 degrees Celsius. That year, the small island nations won a last-minute, extremely contingent concession that placed the 1.5-degree goal in the agreement. This number represents the world’s best intentions, and having it on paper matters, in some way. But the Paris Agreement itself starts from a place of failure: Fighting climate change requires changes to domestic policy. The UN has no ability to mandate changes to domestic policy, so how do you proceed? Ultimately, the countries that say they will reduce emissions have to reduce emissions. And in the U.S., that means passing Biden’s plan.