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An Integrated US Climate Policy, Will Wishing Make It So?

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By Joel B. Stronberg

· 5 min read

Hobson’s Choice: the necessity of accepting one of two or more equally objectionable alternatives

If for no other reason than peace of mind, it is critical for climate champions to remind themselves periodically that as overwhelming as Earth’s warming is in its many consequences—fires, floods, and pestilence—we are NOT powerless to do something about it.

Quite the contrary, there are serviceable answers not only for adapting and making our built environment healthier and more resilient to the dangers we face but also for slowing the rate of warming.

The next few weeks will see whether President Biden and the progressive Democrats in Congress can overcome the resistance of their conservative colleagues like Senators Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ). Both senators are opposed to the $3.5 trillion price tag on the reconciliation bill. Moreover, they appear to have reservations about the breadth and depth of Biden’s proposed climate plans.

It’s unlikely that the President’s proposals going into the negotiations will be the same coming out—assuming they manage to come out at all. How they are changed will determine whether the nation can meet the 80 percent clean energy goal by 2030, net-zero greenhouse gas emissions from the electric power sector by 2035, and net-zero emissions economy-wide by 2050.

There are mounting tensions between progressive and conservative Democrats in both the House and Senate—with each side threatening to torpedo either or both the reconciliation and infrastructure bills. At least 50 of the 100 members in the House Progressive Caucus and a dozen or so Blue Dog conservatives appear willing to play congressional chicken.

Each is waiting—even expecting the other to steer away to avoid what would be a catastrophic clash for them and the nation. They know there’s little to be gained by a collision. There are those times, however, when emotions become the enemy of the good.

Because of the Democrat’s poor showing in the 2020 elections, both the Democratic factions punch at about the same weight. Speaker Pelosi is working with a three-vote margin—slim enough for either side to make good on their threats.

Senate Majority Leader Manchin has no margin. For the Democrats to act like the majority, all 50 Democrats must vote as one—with the tie broken by Vice President Harris.

Without a doubt, the final infrastructure and reconciliation bills will be the product of what’s essentially horse-trading at scale. And, therein, lies a problem not easily solved in a representative democracy—particularly one so clearly and evenly in conflict with itself as ours.

Notwithstanding all the bipartisan talk of President Biden and others, compromise is not always a win-win. Is it a win when a spousal abuser promises to cut back attacks by 50 percent? What about 75 percent?

I’m not suggesting that everything is a binary moral imperative—black or white. Gray is everywhere as it should be much of the time. If two bodies are to occupy the same space—overall equally—then flexibility is a good thing. It’s been my experience that once egos are removed from the discussion, it’s not that difficult to engage in give and take—especially when each side is committed to making it work.

The unwillingness to yield even an inch is what I dislike most about politics at the extreme. To my mind, there’s little difference between Trump’s my way, or I’ll primary you, and the left’s litmus tests that brokers no deviation.

Then—there are those times when decisions must be based on structural integrity. You can’t build a house starting with the second floor. There’s no substitute for a solid foundation. It’s the same in policymaking.

What does this have to do with the negotiations going on around the infrastructure and reconciliation acts? Ordinarily, I would say everything. However, to show that I can be as flexible a partner as the next one—I’ll say a lot.

The danger I see in the ongoing negotiations between and within parties is that the result will be disjointed, possibly conflicting, policy snippets. How this happens isn’t much of a mystery.

As policy discussions move from the 10th to 11th hours, the natural mindset is to go into the negotiations thinking more about what you can get rather than what may be needed. An obvious example has to do with building electric vehicles (EVs) in numbers that outstrip charging infrastructure.

President Biden has thrown his support squarely behind electric vehicles. He’s ordered the federal government to be a large purchaser. With the auto industry’s support, it’s hoped that 24 percent or more of the vehicles on the road will be EVs and up to 40 percent zero-emission ones.

Biden’s proposed charging station budget was $15 billion to install 500,000 charging stations around the country. The Senate passed a bill this summer cutting the dollars down to $7.5 billion.

What is the impact of halving the appropriation? Fewer plugs with the same number of fast chargers? Or the same number of plugs but no fast chargers? What impact will these decisions have on consumer vehicle demand?

I’m confident that some version of the infrastructure and the reconciliation bills will end up on the President’s desk before this session of Congress is over. Between now and then, what will happen is what always happens.

Members of the House and Senate will be asked what they wish to keep. Key stakeholders outside of Congress, e.g., environmental and industry groups, will be polled as well. It’s here that the structure of Biden’s climate plans will be weakened. How much is the question?

Biden and the Democratic progressives have put together the semblance of an integrated energy and environment policy framework for the first time in US history. It can only be whittled on so much before it’s just another bunch of disjointed pieces.

The closer the Democrats come to an agreement amongst themselves, the greater the pressure will be for the parties to get what they can and not what’s demanded of sound policymaking. It’s a Hobson’s choice if ever there was one.

Energy Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Energy & Sustainability writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

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About the author

Joel B. Stronberg is a senior executive and attorney and the founder and principal of The JBS Group, a Washington, DC consulting firm. Joel is currently advising the Legal Pathways to Deep Decarbonization project at Columbia University’s Sabin Center along with his other clients.

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