On Friday, the U.S. House of Representatives is scheduled to cap off what has been a very good week for President Joe Biden with passage of the Inflation Reduction Act, legislation that is expected to lower prescription drug costs and raise corporate taxes while helping fight rising consumer prices.
But the landmark measure’s most meaningful provisions aren’t really about such short-term concerns at all. The bill provides a broad framework for reducing harmful greenhouse gas emissions. The provisions run the gamut from tax credits to American families who opt for clean energy to billions for factories that build electric vehicles and batteries, and even the creation of a Civilian Climate Corps aimed at putting Americans on the front lines of the fight against global warming. Mr. Biden has called it the “single biggest climate investment in U.S. history, by far.” Given the hundreds of billions of dollars, involved that is undoubtedly true. The question is: Do Americans of today appreciate what their offspring will probably understand — how this unlikely political success could prove among the most consequential federal actions of the 21st century?
Americans can surely be forgiven for not recognizing the significance of legislation that is, at best, misleadingly titled and has been described in the media primarily in political terms, while Democrats bargained with U.S. Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona to pass the bill in the U.S. Senate on a 51-50 party-line vote. Add to that the fact that too few Americans are informed on the issue of climate change generally and the disastrous consequences of inaction.
In right-wing media, climate change is described mostly as a liberal conspiracy or an excuse to promote big government or an effort to hamstring the energy industry — or some combination of the three. Former Vice President Al Gore may have called climate change an “inconvenient truth” two decades ago, but what many took away from that was only the inconvenient part.
But look around. Rising sea levels, thousand-year floods and coastal erosion, more severe storms, droughts, wildfires, loss of freshwater supplies and ecosystems, increasing carbon dioxide levels and temperatures — the list goes on and on. In Maryland, we have witnessed harm done to farming, to fisheries, to forests, and to human health with low-income communities often at greatest risk. The latest assessment from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change found greenhouse-gas emissions rising at a faster rate than previously forecast and questioned whether there is enough time for much of the world to adapt. There is no uncertainty about climate change within the scientific community. The threat is real, and it is dire. If there is a legitimate criticism to be made about the legislation sitting on Mr. Biden’s desk, it’s that it does not go far enough.
Will climate change be the issue that breaks or makes candidates in the midterm elections? Almost certainly not. It is human nature to worry about the immediate and the tangible. Even Americans who acknowledge it is real (and that, thankfully, is a majority) often have other concerns. A Pew Research Center poll conducted earlier this year found 42% of Americans wanted President Biden and Congress to take action on climate this year. Yet surveys also show that voters care more about inflation, abortion access, gun violence, health care costs and the federal deficit than they do about climate.
Unfortunately, at the point where the harm done by greenhouse gas emissions is undeniable, when millions have been displaced from coastal communities, when pathogens are carried by plagues of mosquitoes and other pests, when whole species are lost and once bountiful cropland becomes barren, it will likely be too late to reverse the harm. That puts a tremendous burden on the leadership of today to recognize the threat and take measures. Some are popular, like EV tax credits, and some far less so, like tougher penalties for methane leaks, which are certain to be a tough sell to Americans who have been misled about the threat. That’s why we need to celebrate the moments, like this week, when sanity breaks through and sensible choices prevail. Let us hope for many more.
Baltimore Sun editorial writers offer opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. They operate separately from the newsroom.