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The True Cost of the Climate Stalemate in Congress

How bad is the climate stalemate? In the United States, we have gotten used to legislative inaction, on climate as with much else. But even by those debased standards a failure to pass a major emissions-cutting bill this Congress would be, potentially, a generational setback — pushing hopes for paradigm-shifting legislation so far over the time horizon they effectively disappear. To listen to many on the environmental left, it could prove to be a defeat worse than the election of Donald Trump — potentially more damaging both because it comes at a more perilous and urgent time and because it’s not at all clear when the next opportunity would materialize.

At the moment, prospects for such a bill seem grim. The key vote, Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia, has rejected version after version of Build Back Better and has recently begun huddling with Republicans to talk about a bipartisan energy bill — which may or may not be political theater, and surely signals at least frustration with, and possibly disinterest in, negotiating further with other Democrats and the White House.

But since Memorial Day is one conventional-wisdom deadline for introducing new legislation, since no major replacement has publicly emerged, and since the political prospects for passing anything headlined by climate action on a bipartisan basis seem intuitively thin, the most recent iteration of Build Back Better still hangs in the air as a sort of natural comparison point and conceptual model — what we talk about when we talk about Democrats passing climate legislation. And when we talk about it in those terms, the cost of inaction looks really, really large.

Here are seven ways of tabulating it.

We would add about five billion tons of additional carbon to the atmosphere.

It can be hard to calculate the precise effect of legislation before it is passed and implemented (as some of the underwhelming impacts of Obamacare have demonstrated). But a team of Princeton researchers led by Jesse Jenkins, an assistant professor of energy systems engineering and policy, has been running real-time projections of the impact of Build Back Better as it evolved (including finding that when the bill was revised to offer much more carrot and much less stick, there was a negligible effect on its estimated impact.)

With no bill at all, by 2030, Jenkins and his REPEAT (Rapid Energy Policy Evaluation and Analysis Toolkit) team calculate, the country would be 5.5 billion tons short of a net-zero pathway by 2030. Five billion of those tons would be the result of this legislative failure, and the gap would be growing by the year; in 2030, they calculate an annual shortfall of 1.3 billion.

91 percent of Biden’s decarbonization pledge would go unfulfilled.

President Biden has repeatedly pledged to make America carbon-neutral by 2050, and to meet the necessary interim target of cutting the country’s emissions in half by 2030. Overall, Jenkins and his team calculate, legislative failure would leave 91 percent of the job unfulfilled.

Jenkins also estimates that failure to pass the bill will cost two million American jobs, compared to a future in which it had become law; withdraw $1.5 trillion of necessary investment from new energy supplies and sectors, potentiallykilling the future of not just much-debated carbon-capture projects but also nuclear and hydrogen power as well; and raise overall energy expenditure by 7 percent nationwide, despite what critics often say about the “costs” of clean energy.

We almost certainly lose two years — and possibly a decade or more.

It’s always foolish to game out legislative dynamics past the next election. But as Beltway thinking currently holds, it is a very safe bet that Democrats will lose at least one chamber of Congress this fall, and given the shape of the Senate map (and its much-discussed imbalance toward Republicans) it isn’t likely that Democrats would regain a legislative trifecta before … well, honestly, it’s hard to say when. Perhaps 2026, 2028, or potentially past 2030, at which point the country is supposed to have cut its carbon emissions in half.

For the most casual observers, another delay may seem like not a terrifically big deal — a failure now, sure, but, hey, we’ll get it done next time. But even putting aside the matter of the Senate map, climate action doesn’t work that way. Push a bill expanding health care back a decade and you impose 10 years of needless suffering, but you don’t make it trickier — or impossible — to reach the same number of uninsured at the end of that time. With climate, every year of delay eats into our carbon budget, raises global temperatures, and makes the future path to any hoped-for target that much more vertiginous, as this memorable graph from last fall by the German scientist Lasse Kummer, illustrating the global story, makes quite clear:

Tens of thousands of American lives would be needlessly lost to air pollution.

According to REPEAT, at least 24,000 additional Americans would die by 2030 without Build Back Better than would if it became law, all from the effects of air pollution produced by the continued burning of fossil fuels.

That number may well be low, I think, given that a new paper published by researchers from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, finds that clean energy policy could save 50,000 lives and $600 billion each year, and that a high-end estimate by Harvard researchers published last year suggested that 350,000 Americans may die annually from such pollution from the burning of fossil fuels.

The energy portions of Build Back Better wouldn’t fully eliminate that pollution, on their own, or entirely clean up America’s energy systems; the bill would be just a start. But in 2020, the Duke climate scientist Drew Shindell testified before the House Committee on Oversight and Reform that the public health costs of air pollution were so high that a total decarbonization of the American energy sector would entirely pay for itself through the public health benefits alone. You don’t even need to consider climate, in other words, for decarbonization to make sense, even according to the strictest cost-benefit analysis. Which means that in failing to pass such legislation we are not just failing to seize those gains, but paying for the privilege — the privilege of dying sooner and living less healthily in the meantime, that is.

We would be imposing climate damages of at least $500 billion on the rest of the world.

The phrase “social cost of carbon” may make your eyes glaze over, but while there is enormous academic disagreement about exactly how to “price” damages — the costs of extreme weather and natural disaster — from every ton of emissions, the current figure used internally by the Biden administration is $51. Multiply five gigatons by that number, and you get $255 billion in climate damages.

Of course, that figure is a political compromise, and most climate economists believe it is much too low. According to the economists Joseph Stiglitz and Nicholas Stern, the social cost of carbon should be calculated at closer to $100 per ton, making the “price” of failure to pass Build Back Better something like just under $500 billion. And while uncertainties govern all these efforts, there are other estimates that run to $300 per ton and even higher.

Globally, the idea of American leadership on climate would become even more of a joke.

The United States is the world’s biggest economy and its second-biggest emitter of carbon, behind China. It is also still the world’s most powerful nation, geopolitically, which means that America will always have a prominent seat at any table it wants to sit at. But the country has also abandoned the Kyoto Protocol; pulled briefly out of the Paris climate accord; and fought against climate financing for the world’s poorest, among other episodes of seeming climate hypocrisy that have produced both exasperated eye-rolls and deep outrage in other corners of the world.

Given that backdrop, the failure of a Democratic president to secure meaningful climate legislation from a Congress under unified Democratic control, even after riding into office on language borrowed from the Green New Deal and declaring warming an existential threat of the first order — it is not going to play well abroad.

But if you’re looking for a reason to be equanimous about future decarbonization, squint and consider this

When Joe Biden talks about cutting emissions in half or Jesse Jenkins calculates how far from that promise his policies will take us, they are not using a baseline of emissions in 2022, when a version of Build Back Better might (conceivably) be enacted; or in 2020, when Biden was elected on a platform promising F.D.R.-sized climate action; or in 2016, when the Paris agreement was ratified. The baseline is 2005, and in fact, judging against that baseline, the country has already cut emissions by about 20 percent, believe it or not.

In fact, American emissions have fallen faster since Barack Obama was elected than he argued would happen if the country passed cap-and-trade legislation in 2010. That bill, and its entire approach to the problem of carbon, famously failed. And nothing replaced it, legislatively, leaving Obama — who had entered the race thinking climate change might be his top priority and who declared that his nomination would be remembered as “the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal” — with only the limited tools of executive action to use. And, crucially, the tailwinds of private-sector changes to harness.

There are probably some gains still to be had from that private-sector momentum, given the remarkable recent decline in the cost of renewable energy — as much as 90 percent cost declines for solar and almost as much for wind in just a decade. But Jenkins and his team have already factored those gains into their analysis. And, in their view, the gains are small — they estimate 500 million tons of additional reductions, about 5 percent of the present total.

Perhaps the true number will be higher, and more gains can be achieved while the legislature sits idle. But that would be the experiment we would be running, more or less: that the country could manage rapid decarbonization without the help of any new federal law (and with a very skeptical Supreme Court standing in the wings). Those market tailwinds are still relatively strong, so the country is likely to keep moving in the right direction, at least, but much more slowly than would be ideal — and much more slowly than anyone dreaming of major climate action before the midterms would count as a success.

So if all those consolations all look like thin gruel to you, well, fair enough. They look that way to me, too.

David Wallace-Wells (@dwallacewells), a writer for Opinion and a columnist for The New York Times Magazine, is the author of “The Uninhabitable Earth.”

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