The Unmistakable Partisan Reality of the Climate Bill

The Unmistakable Partisan Reality of the Climate Bill

The Inflation Reduction Act, passed by the House of Representatives today, is about to become the first comprehensive climate legislation in U.S. history. Compared with Congress’s desultory approach to the issue in the past, the numbers are striking: The legislation will spend roughly $374 billion on decarbonization and climate resilience over the next 10 years, getting us two-thirds of the way to America’s Paris Agreement goals.

But perhaps the most important number about the package is zero. Zero Republicans in the House. Zero Republicans in the Senate. All Democrats supported the legislation, and there was not a single Republican from Congress.

The number drives home an unmistakable reality: Even after years of effort from environmentalists, climate change remains a starkly partisan issue in America. The bill only passed because there were 50 Democrats in the Senate, with a Democratic vice president to cast the tie-breaking vote. Had any of those Democrats lost their elections–had Joe Manchin, for instance, decided against running for reelection in 2018 in his heavily Republican home state, or had Democrats not eked out two Senate wins in Georgia last year–then the bill would not have made it across the finish line.

No congressional Republicans who have publicly committed to some measure of climate action supported the measure. Nor did any of the score of House Republicans on the Climate Solutions Caucus. Senator Mitt Romney of Utah, who recently wrote in The Atlantic that America was “in denial” about the scale of the climate threat, opposed the bill, as did Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, a moderate who has spoken about how climate change is transforming her state.

Granted, the Inflation Reduction Act is not only a climate bill, and Republicans oppose it for reasons beyond its climate policy. The bill’s tax- and health-care provisions have been the focus of GOP legislators over the last week. Romney released a statement following his vote, saying that Democrats “returned to their tired playbook to increase taxes, spend more money and expand the government’s size.” “Rather than listening to the American people who are suffering from inflation, Democrats have voted for a liberal wish list.” His statement alluded to the climate provisions only once, in an allegation that the IRA “reduces oil and gas production.”

The GOP’s intransigence comes despite years of efforts aimed at getting Republicans to sign onto climate policy. Since Senators John McCain, a Republican, and Joe Lieberman, a Democrat, first put together a cap-and-trade bill in 2003, environmentalists have held out hope that the parties could come together to address the issue. That never worked out: Even McCain bailed on climate talks during Obama’s presidency.

Republican-led climate efforts have also failed to bear fruit. Since the George H. W. Bush administration, the GOP’s pro-fossil-fuel faction has treated climate policy as an existential threat that must be prevented at any cost. In 2017, a set of GOP graybeards endorsed a revenue-neutral carbon tax as a sufficiently conservative solution to the climate problem. But the party rejected it when rewriting parts of the tax code the following year.

And President Donald Trump went further, arguing that fossil fuels, especially coal, are not natural resources with environmental and economic trade-offs but an unadulterated positive good that should be wholeheartedly embraced.

The GOP hasn’t been totally unwilling to address climate issues. Republicans supported incremental, smaller bills to address a limited portion of climate change. Carlos Curbelo (a former Republican House Member from South Florida, who attempted to negotiate a carbon tax deal during his time in Congress) said that there is a brighter line.

“There’s been an unmistakable trend in Congress favoring bipartisan climate action up until Manchin-Schumer,” Curbelo said. He cited a series of smaller wins–a major 2020 energy law; a ban on hydrofluorocarbons, a category of climate super-pollutant; and the climate provisions in the bipartisan infrastructure deal–that show a gathering momentum on policy. This was a partisan effort from the beginning. All reconciliation bills are. We shouldn’t read too much into Republicans’ opposition to this legislation,” he added. “And what is more likely is that, once this is behind us, the trend resumes.”

Even if Republicans are making a stink about the bill now, it’s possible that they “can then be constructive in some more behind-the-scenes follow-up,” Kristin Eberhard, the climate-policy director at the Niskanen Center, a moderate think tank with libertarian roots, told me. She said that while Republicans in Washington State voted against an ambitious cap and trade bill last year, they helped to create a more productive following-up.

That may not happen in national politics, which remains significantly more ideological and acrimonious than a West Coast statehouse. She noted that national Republicans would have the opportunity to collaborate with Democrats in climate change issues if they choose. In a deal with Senator Joe Manchin regarding the IRA, Senate Majority leader Chuck Schumer said that he would bring a bill to loosen some environmental permit rules to the Senate Floor. Permitting reform was a major plank of the climate policy that House Republicans announced earlier this year.

But if the GOP sticks to its steadfast opposition to any significant climate policy, that could have complications for the IRA going forward. President Joe Biden is expected to sign the bill into law early next week, but at some point, can Republicans reverse it? The question itself is irrelevant. Congress can do anything it wants within its constitutional limits. Given the Senate’s geography, there is good possibility that the GOP will win the November election. If Republicans win 60 votes in the Senate, creating a filibuster-proof majority, then no possibility is off-limits. Biden’s approval ratings are at historic lows. This opens the possibility for a Republican candidate to win the White House within two years.

However, some aspects of the IRA are more difficult to change than others. By January 2025, when Biden’s first term ends, tens of millions of dollars from the bill will already be spent. “In two years, a lot can get started, and a lot can get planned, and some steel is going to be in the ground,” Nathan Iyer, an associate at RMI, a nonpartisan energy think tank, told me. Any infrastructure that is built by 2025–new solar farms, wind turbines, factories–would have to be torn up or excessively taxed to be taken out of commission once Republicans take power.

But there will be many important policies only starting to be felt by the end of 2024. The new clean-energy electricity tax credits, for instance, which are projected to provide a large share of the bill’s emissions reductions, will not come into effect until 2025. After the policy has been fully implemented, it will not be effective. However, Republicans may resist repealing the credits. A Republican White House could still act prior to that time. A less comprehensive version, which applies only to certain zero-carbon technologies will be already in place. )

It’s possible that Republicans will reverse these provisions. However, it seems unlikely that they would unless there is a “strong ideological call” to destroy the whole package. During the Trump administration, Republicans did not gut an earlier version of the tax credits, which applied only to renewable energy, although they did reduce their value. The Affordable Care Act was not repealed by Republicans, even though they had been insisting for years that they would.

By 2025, even if clean-energy facilities have not yet opened, construction on many will be under way, Iyer said. The odds are good that most of those new facilities will be in red states. A recent Bloomberg survey found that the congressional districts with the most planned wind, solar, and battery capacity are overwhelmingly Republican-led; GOP-led states dominate the manufacturing industry too. The IRA could also be repealed to remove the carbon-capture subsidies and other removal subsidies oil companies have been relying on.

When clean-energy firms break ground in Republican districts or invest there, they need to be aware of the policy that makes their facilities possible. By the time that Republicans can undo the IRA, he said, their constituents may be the ones whose jobs are on the line.

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