MIAMI BEACH, Fla.—On Monday night, I saw one of the most despair-inducing performances about the hope of climate action that I’ve witnessed in years.
Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the House, took the stage here at the Aspen Ideas: Climate festival to discuss what congressional Democrats are doing on climate change. Her remarks were more effective as a litany of missed opportunities. Susan Goldberg, recently the editor in chief of National Geographic, now a dean at Arizona State University, asked the speaker point-blank whether Democrats were going to pass climate legislation, and Pelosi all but shrugged. The House has already passed a roughly $2 trillion bill containing President Joe Biden’s climate priorities, she said. Now it was in the Senate’s hands. If it happened to get a bill back to her, the House would pass it.
Missing was any sense that this legislation is a make-or-break moment for the broader Democratic caucus. Gone was any suggestion that if Democrats fail to pass a bill this term, then America’s climate commitment under the Paris Agreement will be out of reach, and worse heat waves, larger wildfires, and damaging famines across the country and around the world within the next decade and a half will be all but assured.
Pelosi did not seem to understand, really, why Congress needed to pass a climate law this session. (She seemed to blame the fossil-fuel industry for the current Congress’s inaction.) She repeatedly justified climate action by saying it was “for the children.” This became the rhetorical leitmotif of her remarks—Congress had to act “for the children.” Explaining why she wanted more women in Congress, she said that they had to learn to “throw a punch—for the children.” That line was how she closed.
Aside from the Helen Lovejoy–esque nature of this appeal, it is factually wrong. Climate action was “for the children” in the 1990s. “We’re not doing this for the children,” Kate Larsen, an energy analyst at the Rhodium Group, told me after the event. “We’re doing this for us!” Heat waves hot enough to cook human flesh are already happening this month; they will become more common over the coming decades, striking multiple times a year. Unbearable droughts, sea-level rise so high as to break levees, and unpredictable famines will characterize life. Most of the world’s coral reefs, including the Great Barrier Reef, will undergo bleaching every few years, meaning the water will be so hot that the coral will eject their symbiotic microorganisms into the water, starving themselves in the process.
The speech seemed to punctuate the collapse of climate politics over the past year. During the campaign, Biden described climate change as one of the country’s four major overlapping crises. Yet his administration seems to be sleepwalking toward inaction. Five months ago, Senator Joe Manchin, a Democrat of West Virginia, killed Biden’s Build Back Better bill after the White House repeatedly ignored his attempts to pare it down. Since then, Democrats have been stuck in limbo, with Manchin laying out some of his terms for a replacement bill, and Democrats neglecting to put together a new bill reflecting those terms. It now seems likely that Democrats will lose control of Congress with only a bipartisan infrastructure bill to show for their trouble.
Then they face overwhelming odds. Because of the geographic apportionment of their supporters, Democrats can win 51 percent of votes cast in the 2022 and 2024 elections and still lose eight Senate seats. I have heard estimates that the party must win eight points more than Republicans to pick up a Senate seat. Unless inflation abates, such an outcome will be so unlikely that it’s essentially impossible, consigning Democrats to minority status for years to come. Republicans, by contrast, have a plausible path to more than 60 seats, allowing them to pass legislation over that institution’s filibuster.
At the same time, the Biden administration could soon lose its ability to regulate climate change at all. The Supreme Court could restrict the Environmental Protection Agency’s ability to regulate greenhouse gases this term. It could also curtail Chevron deference, a legal doctrine that gives executive agencies more freedom to operate when the underlying law is unclear. In the past, both concepts have been central to Democratic climate-rule making. Both could be gone by 2023.
When reminded of this bleak outlook, climate progressives point to corporate action and the stock market, which both seemed to be moving in their direction. During the 2010s, most oil companies failed to turn a profit, validating activists’ demands that institutions should divest of fossil-fuel stock. But the markets have turned since the pandemic began. Oil-company stocks are some of the best performing of the past year. Funds that emphasize ESG, or “environmental, social, governance,” a vague category that covers such divergent topics as a company’s carbon footprint, how many women it has on its board, or how favorable it is to organized labor, have also underperformed in the recent market rout. At another conference here last month, the libertarian venture capitalist Peter Thiel attacked ESG as “a hate factory” and compared it to the “Chinese Communist Party.” This week, he backed a fund that would take intentionally anti-progressive stances.
Historically, progressives haven’t been too fond of ESG either, seeing it as a form of Wall Street greenwashing (or worse). But on climate, specifically, it has worked in their favor, allowing managers to take a less-than-direct approach to shareholder value and push forward loss-leading initiatives to reduce carbon pollution.
What all of this means is that, the next time a climate-skeptical president takes office, advocates will have fewer tools to constrain their behavior than last time. And they will have no future to point to: If Democrats couldn’t pass a climate bill in 2009 or 2022, why should anyone have any hope that they’ll try to do it again, or be able to?
Since 2017, a surge of global concern—much of it triggered by revulsion at President Donald Trump and by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 1.5 Celsius report—signaled a new era of climate action. That tide is ebbing. American climate advocates may have almost nothing to show for it.