A Livable Future Rests on Congress Passing a Climate-Focused Reconciliation Bill

The bipartisan infrastructure bill was an OK start. To really tackle climate, we need something much bolder.

By James Steinbauer

August 16, 2021


Neil Black works on the installation of South Florida's largest solar panel array, atop an IKEA store in Miami, on April 16, 2014. | Photo by AP Photo/Pat Carter

Last week, just one day after a major United Nations scientific report concluded that human activity has locked the planet in an intensifying climate crisis for at least the next 30 years, the US Senate passed a bipartisan infrastructure bill aimed, in part, at combating climate change.

The bill is more than just a day late and many, many dollars short.

On its own, the sprawling, 2,702-page bill represents the largest investment in climate resilience in US history. It includes $11.6 billion for flood-control projects, another $500 million to predict flooding and wildfires, and money to move highways and drinking water infrastructure at risk from extreme weather. It would also allocate $216 million in climate-adaptation funding to tribal nations.

President Joe Biden celebrated the $1 trillion package as a win for bipartisanship: “After years and years of infrastructure week, we’re on the cusp of an infrastructure decade that I truly believe will transform America” Biden told reporters after the vote. “America, this is how we truly build back better.”

Yet many of the ambitious ideas that Biden proposed to cut the greenhouse gas emissions driving climate change were whittled down to ensure the bill got enough votes from Republicans. Biden wanted $100 billion to modernize the nation’s electricity grid. He got $73 billion. He wanted $15 billion to construct a network of 500,000 electric vehicle charging stations. He got $7.5 billion. He wanted $378 billion to upgrade buildings to be more sustainable. He got a little over $5 billion. Two of the most meaningful policies for reducing greenhouse gas emissions—a clean energy standard that would require power companies to replace fossil fuels with renewable sources such as solar, wind, and hydropower, and clean energy tax credits—were left out entirely. 

 Tell Congress to pass a bold infrastructure bill to help avoid global climate catastrophe.

“Limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees is within reach, but it requires really transformational change. The bipartisan bill is not transformational,” Jillian Neuberger, the legislative engagement associate for the World Resources Institute, told Sierra. “It will make some of the improvements to the grid that are necessary for the green energy transition, but the most important thing is that we actually get green energy on that grid. We need a climate bill that incentivizes renewables.” 

Democrats hope to pass both provisions—and more—in a second $3.5 trillion infrastructure bill. Last Wednesday morning, Senate Democrats took the first step down that path, voting to approve a budget blueprint that allows them to shield the larger bill from a Republican filibuster under the Senate’s complicated budget reconciliation process. 

“We have a really small window here, both legislatively and in the context of global warming, to do something.”

In its current formulation, the second, more robust legislative package would create a new Clean Electricity Payment Program that would incentivize power companies to increase their renewable sources of energy. (This is essentially a clean energy standard designed to meet the strict rules that govern budget reconciliation.) It would impose fees on methane and carbon polluters, provide new consumer rebates to help electrify and weatherize homes, and electrify the federal vehicle fleet and buildings. It would also create a New Deal–style Civilian Climate Corps that would put Americans to work building climate-resilient infrastructure, reducing carbon emissions through renewable energy and conservation projects, and helping communities recover from climate disasters. 

If the reconciliation bill is passed, Democrats say it would put the United States on track to meet Biden’s commitment to halve greenhouse gas emissions and create an 80 percent clean energy grid by 2030.

“We will take on the existential threat of climate change by transforming our energy systems toward renewable energy and energy efficiency,” Senate Budget Chair Bernie Sanders, independent of Vermont, said in a statement. “Through a Civilian Climate Corps, we will give hundreds of thousands of young people good-paying jobs and educational benefits as they help us combat climate change.”

The reconciliation bill is likely the last chance for big federal climate legislation in this decade. In a 50-50 Senate and a narrowly divided House, Democrats have the slimmest possible margin for error. They are staring down mid-term elections that could cost them their fragile majorities in both chambers of Congress. Meanwhile, as the UN report made clear, our past and present greenhouse gas emissions mean increasing heat waves, droughts, wildfires, hurricanes, and floods are now inevitable.

“We have a really small window here, both legislatively and in the context of global warming, to do something,” Marcela Mulholland, the political director for Data for Progress, told Sierra. “We’re one #MeToo scandal or car accident from losing our majority. It’s critical that we make the most of this time while we have it.” 

recent survey of nearly 1,200 likely voters conducted by Data for Progress found that voters are growing more concerned about the impacts of extreme weather and climate change on their communities. Three-quarters of voters said they think Congress should make investments that address climate change and transition to clean energy in addition to the bipartisan infrastructure bill. 

In the House, Speaker Nancy Pelosi has promised that she will not send the bipartisan infrastructure bill to Biden for signature unless and until the Senate passes the reconciliation bill. Moments after the Senate passed the bipartisan infrastructure bill, leaders of the House progressive caucus sent a letter to Pelosi warning that a majority of their 96 members would not vote for the bipartisan bill until the Senate passes the climate bill. On Friday, however, nine centrist House Democrats took the opposite position, telling Pelosi they won’t vote for the reconciliation bill until the bipartisan infrastructure bill is signed into law. All of which illustrates the high stakes of this moment. 

“We are on the cusp of, for the first time ever, passing major climate-centered legislation that is essential for tackling this historic crisis at the speed and scale necessary,” Sierra Club president Ramón Cruz said in response to the nine moderate Democrats’ ultimatum. “Any effort to block or undermine this progress threatens the health and safety of workers and communities nationwide, and is completely at odds with the demands of millions of Americans for immediate and bold climate action.”

Meanwhile, some progressive lawmakers are unsatisfied with the Senate’s budget resolution. Representative Raúl Grijalva, Democrat of Arizona and chair of the House Natural Resources Committee, called the Senate’s budget blueprint “disappointing” because it doesn’t do enough to confront the climate-related destruction the country is already facing. “Investments in electric vehicles and renewable energy technologies are critical to a cleaner future,” Grijalva said, “but millions of Americans are facing drought, wildfire, erosion, and habitat destruction today.”

The budget resolution is only the outline of a bill—not a bill itself. And it still faces significant hurdles to make it out of the Senate. Hours after providing a key vote to approve the budget blueprint, Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia, a moderate Democrat, issued a statement declaring that he has “serious concerns” about the impact of the budget’s price tag on “our children and grandchildren.”

Climate-action advocates say that the cost of inaction is even higher.

“We need to think about the impact that not passing a climate bill will have for future generations—and, let’s not kid ourselves, this current generation,” Neuberger said. “We’ll be leaving a lot of opportunities on the table. The opportunity to create good jobs. The opportunity to clean our air. The opportunity to make a lot of things more affordable. The loss of not taking those opportunities will be felt for a very long time.”