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Climate change policy: the way it has to be

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By Joel B. Stronberg

· 6 min read

The impact of the Fiscal Responsibility Act

The nation dodged a big one with the passage of the Fiscal Responsibility Act of 2023 (FSA)–at risk was the nation’s status as a debtor. Had Congress and the White House failed to act in time, the US would have had deadbeat debtor attached to its name, and most of the world would have gone into recession.

It’s a marker of today’s politics that something so impossible as the US becoming a deadbeat debtor became possible because of hyperpartisanship and raging culture wars.

Thankfully, more moderate minds in Congress, along with that of President Biden’s, prevailed. The US is now back on the borrowing trail, at least until the next time, which is at the first tick of the clock on January 2, 2025.

For reasons I’ll go into in a moment, there’s an important lesson to learn from this most recent episode of the telenovela that now passes for our political process. Messy as the process was, it got the nation when and where it needed to be.

The question is, can the process be repeated when it comes to other critical topics of the day—climate, education, immigration, public health, economic growth, national security, technological research, etc.?

Political positions

The right and left sides of the political spectrum were not at all happy about the contents of the debt ceiling legislation. On the right were ultra-conservative Republicans, i.e., the House Freedom Caucus. They were mainly upset because the spending cuts and accompanying language were nowhere close to what they wanted and believed House Speaker McCarthy had agreed to when they elevated him to the speaker’s chair.

On the left were Democratic progressives. With respect to energy and environmental matters, the liberal Democrats were against the language that amended the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). The offending provisions of the FSA shortened the times to complete environmental impact assessments and studies and greenlit the Mountain Valley Pipeline.

The case of the debt ceiling was made all the more dramatic because of the competing interests within the Republican House Caucus. The debt ceiling was the first real test of Kevin McCarthy’s (R-CA) speakership. It may also be one of the last tests of McCarthy’s speakership.

Moderates on both sides of the aisle and in both chambers of Congress have given the speaker grudging credit for getting the deal done. Far-right members of the House Republican Conference didn’t share that opinion.

Following the passage of the FSA, Texas Representative Chip Roy (R) said that McCarthy’s actions “have torn the conference asunder” and called for a “reckoning.” As reported by Axios, Representative Dan Bishop (R-NC) called the vote on the bill “a career-defining vote for every Republican.” He, too, accused the speaker of “forfeiting the unity the House GOP forged through the backroom talks that anointed him, speaker.”

McCarthy’s bowing to the demands of Representatives Roy, Bishop, and other ultra-conservatives before he became speaker, and the House passage of a series of early messaging bills that had little chance of passage by the Senate, e.g., an end to vaccine mandates, led to suspicions that he would stakeout and defend their cut and slash positions in return for raising the debt ceiling.

Ironically, what McCarthy and Biden came up with was an old-fashioned compromise. Something that is rarely spoken of in these days of deeply divided partisanship and dueling until the death of political philosophies.

Even more ironic, perhaps, is that Speaker McCarthy needed the votes of Democrats to pass the legislation and avoid a worldwide recession. Averting the crisis was a bipartisan lesson in government. It needs to be repeated over a host of issues.

Trust is key

Under the best of circumstances, politics is a messy business. Absent one-party government control and in an era of slim majorities, almost nothing gets done in Washington without compromise.

It was as true for the previous Congress as it is for the current one. Peel away all the political sniping in the 117th Congress and what you come up with are historic investments in sustainable infrastructure, clean energy technologies, and domestic manufacturing, i.e., the CHIPS Act, largely due to bipartisan support arrived at through dealmaking—even the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), required negotiation albeit it with two Democratic senators.

All comprise is not by its nature good. The old bromide that if those on the right and the left both don’t like something, it must be a good measure is bull.

No one would view a peace agreement in Putin’s war based on ceding half of Ukraine to the aggressor as a good compromise. Similarly, getting a coal-fired power plant to dump only half of its toxic ash into potable water sources is not a win for the environment.  

Not every compromise deal should be supported any more than every collaborative arrangement should be opposed.

The rarest commodity in Washington is trust. Its absence greatly complicates the dealmaking needed to keep democracies strong and running smoothly.

However, it’s critical to understand that dealmaking comes with certain obligations—not the least of which is keeping one’s word. A case in point are the FSA sections amending NEPA and approving the MVP.

The FSA provisions were what West Virginia Senator Manchin (D) believed he was promised in return for his support of the IRA in the last Congress. Considering what the IRA has already begun to do, e.g., an extension of residential tax credits through 2032, and what it—along with the CHIPS and infrastructure bills will accomplish, e.g., trillions of dollars of investments in domestic battery and photovoltaic panel manufacturing—the compromise seems worth it.

For the US to transition to a low-carbon economy within the timeframe the scientists say we must—to avoid the worst consequences of a warming planet—tradeoffs are going to be necessary.

The well-respected environmentalist Senator Angus King (I-ME) reminds us that “in order to achieve our environmental goals, you have to build things.” He goes on to say,

“You cannot love EVs and hate lithium mines.”

Should there have been at least some subject matter committee hearing on the impacts of the proposed NEPA language? Absolutely. Has the inclusion of the MVP in the debt ceiling bill set a precedent for working around the Administrative Procedures Act? Possibly.

However, stopping the debt ceiling bill and forcing the US to become a deadbeat debtor was hardly a good alternative. The solution is to address climate issues in a more timely and collaborative manner. In the final analysis, the nation is the winner of the debt ceiling kerfuffle.

The two losers may be Speaker McCarthy and Senator Manchin. McCarthy may have written his congressional epitaph when he agreed to a single House member being able to introduce a motion to vacate the chair. And Manchin is trailing his likely opponent in the 2024 West Virginia senate election, Governor Jim Justice, by 22 points.

If compromise is an evil, then it’s a necessary one for our republic to work. Without it, I fear we’ll default on more than the national debt. What’s at stake here is democracy itself.

This article is also published on the author's blog. illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Sustainability & Energy 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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