Some Democrats push to rescue climate plan in Biden spending package

A gas flare from the Shell Chemical LP petroleum refinery illuminates the sky in Norco, Louisiana. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

A group of congressional Democrats on Tuesday called for preserving the climate portions of President Joe Biden’s stalled domestic spending bill as Democrats in the U.S. Senate rewrite the measure.

U.S. Sens. Brian Schatz of Hawaii, Martin Heinrich of New Mexico, Tina Smith of Minnesota and John Hickenlooper of Colorado, along with Reps. Kathy Castor of Florida and Donald McEachin of Virginia, said on a press call that the climate crisis demands action. The call was organized by the environmental advocacy group League of Conservation Voters.

The Democrats suggested that the portions of the bill known as Build Back Better that deal with climate should be prioritized as the Senate reworks the House-passed measure amid internal disagreements.

“We are in a code red moment for climate,” said Castor, the chairwoman of the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis. “This is our moment to deliver. We cannot let it pass us by.”

Asked if a measure would still be worthwhile if it dropped social programs like an expanded child tax credit, but did include the climate spending, Smith said Democrats must pass what they can.

“We have to find a package that’s got votes from 50 senators,” she said. “Everybody on this call strongly supports the child tax credit, but we got to figure out what [can get] support amongst 50 people.”

A lone Democratic opponent, Sen. Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, appeared to doom the $1.85 trillion spending bill last month, in part over his opposition to an expansion of the child tax credit. The expansion, passed in 2021 as part of a stimulus package, expired at the end of the year.

Manchin said in a Fox News appearance he was “a no” on the bill. With no Republicans voting for the legislation, Democrats need all their members to unite around it.

The House-passed version of the bill would provide $550 billion in climate-related spending, including $320 billion in new and extended clean energy tax credits and a consumer tax credit for electric vehicles.

It would also create a new climate conservation corps program to spur entry-level jobs in conservation and climate resiliency work and make changes to federal oil and gas policy.

With negotiations continuing among the White House, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, the tax-writing Senate Finance Committee and the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, Schatz said the senators could not yet say what climate provisions would be part of a reworked bill.

“We’re starting to arrive at a package that can include 50-plus-one votes,” Schatz said on the call.

“Whether or not the package as we currently envision it will pass exactly as is, I think remains to be seen.”

Machin told reporters at the Capitol Tuesday he has not been involved in negotiations since his Fox News appearance.

Schatz declined to outline a timetable for a vote, but said Democrats would hold one when they’d garnered enough support to pass the bill.

Manchin has indicated the climate provisions of the proposal could still win his support. He told reporters on Tuesday that a standalone bill with the climate provisions of Build Back Better could be within reach, even though he has not discussed the larger bill with the White House since his statement.

Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, an Arizona Democrat who, like Manchin, is often at odds with her party’s leadership, “has been nothing but supportive of the climate provisions” in the spending bill, Schatz said.

Smith said she agreed.

In a seeming reference to Manchin and Sinema, Heinrich said there was “more consensus, including with some of our more challenging colleagues,” on the climate provisions than on other parts of the bill.

Extreme weather motivates

The effects of climate are already apparent, underscoring the need for legislative action, Democrats on the call said.

Hickenlooper said Colorado’s recent Marshall Fire and other destructive wildfires in 2021 showed why addressing climate was so urgent.

“We’re facing having to go through this again and again across the country,” Hickenlooper said. “And it is ridiculous that we still are willing to avoid what is a scientific truth… and turn away and subject cities and towns and communities all across this country to the same agony the Marshall Fire has caused over these holidays.”

Heinrich said dying cottonwood trees and a drought-strained Rio Grande in his home state are other examples.

Sea-level rise and hurricanes threaten coastal communities, including homes, livelihoods and military assets in Virginia, McEachin said. Severe weather and environmental damage hurts low-income and minority communities hardest, he said.

“These vulnerable populations are disproportionately impacted by climate change and long standing environmental injustices,” he said.

Schatz said the Democrats were confident they would pass climate legislation because they viewed it as urgent.

“All options are on the table because of our collective determination,” he said. “We are going to get this done, come hell or high water. And right now, we have hell and high water.”

Is cutting down a tree for Christmas bad for the environment?

Real Christmas trees are a tradition for many families – but is that a good thing or a bad thing for the environment? (Dana Wormald | New Hampshire Bulletin)

Christmas is a time for celebrating the season and a time for cutting down trees – and that holiday tradition sometimes leads to discussions about what’s best for the environment: Is it greener to buy a real tree or a fake tree, or abstain altogether?

University of New Hampshire forest resources specialist Steven Roberge explained some of the factors he weighs in determining whether cutting a tree is an environmental boon or bust in New Hampshire.

The first caveat, according to Roberge: It’s not as simple as you might think. A lot of people assume the practice is environmentally harmful, but that’s not necessarily true.

“When trees are cut in an appropriate and thoughtful manner, I have no problem with cutting trees and managing our forest,” he said.

Christmas trees are a little different because they are a crop that grows in a plantation setting. Roberge compared it with a tomato – but one that’s grown for eight to 12 years.

Habitat

Christmas tree farms provide habitat that can provide ecosystem services – or benefits to the natural world. “It’s still open space, the soils still suck in carbon and keep carbon. They filter our water. They provide places for critters to bounce around,” Roberge said. And that’s a cycle that continues, since the trees that are cut are replaced by new seedlings growing in their place.

Supporting a local farm is a way of keeping that land open and free from development. New Hampshire is losing forest and farm land at a rate of round 5,000 acres per year, Roberge said, and those acres are mostly being lost to development.

Sequestering and storing carbon

Trees are also part of both sequestering and storing carbon, which are separate but related functions. Carbon storage is how much carbon the forest retains – stored in both trees that are living and dead, as well as in leaves and soil. The older a forest, the more carbon it retains.

Carbon sequestration is the carbon that trees are actively pulling out of the atmosphere to use for photosynthesis – and this usually peaks in young to intermediate forests, or trees that are between 30 and 70 years old. Trees do continue to sequester carbon throughout their whole lives, just at a lower rate.

Roberge said the relatively small trees that are cut for Christmas are not likely to be storing a lot of carbon since they are young. They are, however, sequestering a fair amount of carbon since they are growing quickly. Because they are a crop, though, once they get cut down they are replaced by other trees that pick up where they left off.

Both carbon sequestration and carbon storage are greatly diminished when forests are turned into developments. Read more

Street protesters understand climate change crisis more than politicians do

Photo by Scott Eisen/Getty Images)

COP26 has come and gone, but what emerges from the climate change summit will be with us today and tomorrow.

Finally, at least, there seems to be consensus that climate change is taking place, but my experiences at the summit last month in Glasgow, Scotland, suggest two starkly distinct perspectives on the severity of the social and economic impacts.

One camp, the naive optimists, believes that climate change impacts are overblown and will not prevent economic growth or improvements in human well-being. This view has been backed by the vested interests and financial support of the fossil fuel industry, which after first slowing the achievement of climate change consensus, has now engaged in a strategic pivot from climate change denial to minimizing the consequences.

The second group, the realist pessimists, comprised of many of the scientists and most of the street protesters, sees the impacts of climate change as far beyond a mere nuisance, a veritable “existential crisis” that will topple life as we know it and possibly cause the extinction of human life.

The optimists were most of the government people, venture capitalists and business people who saw growing concern about climate change as a business opportunity in a future that will be moderately affected. For example, President Joe Biden stated, “When I think of climate change, I think of — and the answers to it — I think of jobs.” In this scenario, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change expects that average life expectancy will continue to rise, poverty and hunger rates will continue to decline, and average incomes will go up simply because they always have. While climate change may drag down rates of improvement in human well-being, on average, the thinking goes, our futures will not be any worse than today.

My take is that while climate change is not likely to cause Homo sapiens to go extinct, it will make most of our lives and most of our descendants’ lives more nasty, brutish and short.

President Joe Biden arrives for the COP26 UN Climate Summit on November 1, 2021. (Photo by Adrian Dennis – Pool/Getty Images)

The sense I got at COP26 was that the protesters on the street had a more realistic understanding of the urgency of the climate crisis than the politicians and negotiators within the COP. They, and most scientists, are concerned not only about climate change but, moreover, many other human impacts on our environment that interact with the climate and one another in complex ways, many of which do not bode well. To wit, we are experiencing the sixth mass extinction in Earth’s history. Since 1950 we have caused the loss of half of the world’s coral reefs, and changes to Earth’s land surface (including the loss of roughly half of the world’s coastal wetlands) have resulted in annual losses of ecosystem services valued at over $22 trillion.

The many interactions I had with people inside the negotiations and at the protests lead to the conclusion that how we handle climate change is mostly, at this point, a political challenge. Governments, providing incentives for corporations and venture capitalists through strictly enforced policies and regulations, are the only institutions capable of bringing about the changes necessary to significantly mitigate the negative consequences of climate change. Going forward, voluntary individual efforts, such as not using plastic straws, driving an electric car, conserving water, putting solar panels on your house, or composting your food, will have minimal impact.

Unfortunately, the reality I witnessed at COP26 is that governments are not readily stepping up to the plate. They are not taking climate change seriously enough and they do not want to cough up money to help developing countries. India and China want to continue using coal, which does not bode well for staying below 1.5 degrees Celsius.

Our best hope, then, may lie with pressure from the people on the street, who are driven by a love for humans rather than position. That was my biggest takeaway from COP26: an increasing sense that it will be the highly engaged, very informed, and inspiring people I met on the Glasgow streets, and others like them in Colorado cities and campuses and elsewhere, that will bring about the serious commitment necessary to enact more aggressive government policies addressing climate change.

May it be so.

Paul Sutton is a professor in the Department of Geography and the Environment at the University of Denver. Sutton was a delegate for the American Association of Geographers at the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference, also known as COP26, in Glasgow, Scotland. This essay was first published by Colorado Newsline.

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