Congress Is Considering Two Climate Change Bills. What’s In Them?

17:24 minutes

looking up at the u.s. capitol building on a cloudless day
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President Biden has made many promises about slowing climate change. During his campaign, he pledged to bring the United States’ energy sector to zero carbon emissions by 2035. On Earth Day this year, he pledged to reduce total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by 50% by 2030, and by 100% by 2050.

But the key policy changes that will help the country get there remain pending as the relevant bills continue to make their way through Congress. The first is an infrastructure bill that would pledge billions toward cleaner transit and resiliency projects in disaster-stricken communities. But that measure is tied intricately with the fate of a second, $3.5 trillion budget bill that would direct billions of dollars to incentivize coal and natural gas-burning utilities to switch over to renewable energy

If both are to pass without substantial changes, they rely on consensus among the narrow majorities of Democrats in the Senate and the House—neither of which is guaranteed. 

New York Times reporter Coral Davenport walks through what’s in the bills, and why so much is still up in the air even after a summer of climate-driven disasters.

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Segment Guests

Coral Davenport

Coral Davenport is a reporter focusing on energy and environmental policy in the New York Times Washington D.C. Bureau.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday, I’m Ira Flatow. President Biden ran for office with big goals for combating and adapting to climate change in the US. Now those promises have bills attached to them, and I mean congressional bills. First, a massive infrastructure bill that passed the Senate with a bipartisan vote this August. In that, money for public transportation, electric car charging networks, and resilient measures to help communities already hit hard by flooding, fire, and other consequences of climate change.

Second, an even bigger budget bill that is yet to receive a vote. And in that one, Biden hopes to spend billions of dollars to speed up the transition to renewable energy, and electric vehicle adoption, fund more research into climate change, and even help farmers’ reduce their carbon footprints. Together the two bills would help reduce US carbon emissions by 30% in the next decade, and get the President close to his goal of reducing electricity sector emissions by 80%, by 2030.

But as you might expect, this is Washington. There’s politics to consider, and some of the biggest provisions hang in the balance, as lawmakers beholden to different groups of constituents jockey for victories. With me is Coral Davenport, energy and environmental policy reporter for the New York Times. Welcome Coral.

CORAL DAVENPORT: Hi, it’s great to be with you, Ira.

IRA FLATOW: Did I get anywhere close to summing that up correctly?

CORAL DAVENPORT: Absolutely, the numbers are all right. I mean, if you were to actually put together the impact of these two pieces of legislation combined, it would be far and away the largest thing that the US has ever done to combat climate change, and it would profoundly reduce US carbon emissions. And those emissions would start to go down and we would see a difference in less than a decade.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s talk about climate resiliency money, what do we mean by that?

CORAL DAVENPORT: That is mostly money, the infrastructure bill, that’s the one that you talked about. The trillion infrastructure bill that passed the Senate last month and is at the moment, still expected to go up for a House vote, possibly to go to President Biden’s desk as soon as next week. That bill includes $47 billion for what you said, is called climate resiliency. This is the first time the federal government has ever spent money on something with that label.

That money acknowledges that we are going to have to rebuild our infrastructure in a way that accounts for stronger flooding, stronger storms, greater heat waves, rising sea levels, the impacts of climate change. So that means we’re going to have to build roads and bridges, build our infrastructure in a way that accounts for stronger storms and much higher surges of water, when those storms come. What we just saw, the devastation and the deadly impacts of the flooding from Hurricane Ida in the New York City-area.

The idea would be to use some of this $47 billion to rebuild a lot of that infrastructure. Rebuild subways, rebuild buildings, rebuild coastal areas in a way that acknowledge more of that is on the way. So that’s a really big deal. Again, the federal government has never said, let’s take climate studies into account and rebuild our infrastructure in a way that makes us prepared and resilient for it.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah that would be a new idea, and a new direction. Let’s talk about the budget bill because there are huge investments in there for transition to renewable energy. What are some of the carrots, what are some of the sticks?

CORAL DAVENPORT: So the way I like to think about these two bill is the infrastructure bill, which right now is about a third smaller, contains this idea, a lot of money to help us prepare for the climate change that’s coming. It doesn’t contain very much at all to help us keep climate change from getting worse. It just says climate change is coming, that’s baked in, we’ve got to get ready for it.

The budget bill, the reconciliation bill, goes much further. It says, how can we spend federal money to keep climate change from getting profoundly worse. And that means what can we do to reduce the cause of climate change, that’s fossil fuel emissions. And the central piece of that bill, the climate piece of that bill, is a program called the Clean Electricity Payment Program. It’s $150 billion, and it is specifically aimed at the electric power sector. Why?

Electricity generation is the second largest cause of CO2, of fossil fuel, emissions in the US. Number one cause is cars. What this bill would do, as written right now, not necessarily going to say the same, is it would take this $150 billion and it would pay electric power providers to shut down their coal and gas-fired power plants, their fossil fuel-fired power plants. And switch to zero carbon, clean sources of electricity, such as wind, solar, and nuclear power.

If companies wanted to get this money from the federal government, they could switch over 4% of their electric generation per year. So each year another 4%, another 4%, shut down 4% of your polluting generation, replace it with clean generation. So that’s the carrot, that’s something companies would be excited to get that. And companies that did not do that, they would pay a fine. That’s the stick. If you don’t do it, or if you do less than 4%, then you have to pay a penalty.

The structure of that has been analyzed as having the potential to basically totally transform the electric power sector in the next eight or nine years, to get us to probably 80% clean sources of electricity in the US by 2030. That’s a profound change, and it really would go very far to lowering the US carbon emissions. And there’s one more thing that’s super important about this. It wouldn’t just lower carbon emissions in the electricity sector.

A lot of the legislation is also about promoting the use of electric vehicles. They might not be burning gasoline, but if the electricity is coming from dirty sources, those cars are still dirty. But if the electricity has been turned over and is coming from cleaner sources, that means you’ve also had the follow-on effect of cleaning up emissions from vehicles as well. So that’s why analysts see this as, if this provision passes, if it stays in, as having a very profound impact on US fossil fuel emissions. And very fast as well.

IRA FLATOW: Of course I would imagine there’s going to be some pushback from the coal industry, and the states where coal is big still.

CORAL DAVENPORT: There’s a lot of pushback. The electric utilities certainly like the idea of a way that they can get money from the government, they don’t like the penalty. Analysts say if you take away that penalty, it’s a subsidy. It’s a clean energy subsidy, but it doesn’t, it won’t have the power, that transformative power. The natural gas industry is lobbying to get paid from switching to coal, which is the most heavily polluting source of fossil fuel emissions, to natural gas, which is still a polluter but only about half as polluting as coal.

So they’re saying, hey, we’re not 100% clean, but we’re a lot cleaner than coal. So you could, how about you get paid to switch to us. That would still lead to reductions in emissions, but not nearly as dramatically as envisioned by the President, or at the rate that scientists say needs to happen to prevent a lot of the worst climate catastrophes.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s go back to the cars. Because you mentioned how important they are to a clean energy future. Can these bills help clean up other kinds of transportation? I’m thinking about public transit, shipping, other kinds of stuff.

CORAL DAVENPORT: There is a lot of money in both of these bills aimed at transit. The bipartisan bill would include about $7 billion for building electric vehicle charging stations, it would include about $5 billion to help provide electric and low emission school buses, it would include broadly about $39 billion to modernize public transit systems, including replacing heavily polluting diesel buses with zero or low carbon electric buses.

There’s money in there, in the reconciliation bill, the budget bill, there’s provisions for tax credits for consumers to buy electric vehicles. Both of the provisions are loaded with proposals and provisions designed to build out our almost non-existent electric vehicle charging infrastructure, to make it easier and cheaper for consumers to buy electric vehicles. It also has tax credits, manufacturing credits, for automakers. To help them build and sell the kinds of electric vehicles that consumers would want to buy.

So all of those, I would say, are designed to supplement support and accelerate this sort of central clean electricity program. That’s the biggest piece. And then all this other spending on charging stations, tax credits, helping companies make this transition, building out more of the electric grid to support more wind, and solar, and renewable electricity. All of that is a very important part of supplementing and making this transition happen.

IRA FLATOW: You know, as someone who installed solar panels on my house this year to take advantage of a big federal solar tax credit, I’m wondering if they’ve left that in the bill, because it’s set to expire. Are those kinds of things for consumers still left in the bill?

CORAL DAVENPORT: They are. So another thing in the budget bill would be extensions of tax credits, again, for manufacturing and for electric utilities that sell solar. So both. If you’re a company, you can get tax credits for selling solar electricity to your consumers, and there are tax credits, more tax credits, for consumers. So a lot of the budget bill is just extensions of these tax credits, keeping them alive.

IRA FLATOW: Are people saying, even though this is like an historic clean energy bill, are people saying, well you know it’s still not enough.

CORAL DAVENPORT: I mean, yeah.


CORAL DAVENPORT: The problem is, it’s just that the world has waited too long.

IRA FLATOW: Right, right.

CORAL DAVENPORT: So the math doesn’t add up. And you know this, Ira. If you look at the amount of CO2 that’s in the atmosphere right now, and the amount of heat-trapping CO2 that’s going up right now, the rate of it. We’ve already heated up 1.1 degrees Celsius, since pre-industrial times. And the sort of tipping point is, that scientists tell us, is 1.5 degrees Celsius. And there’s basically no way to not go past that. The planet needs to be prepared to go past that, and to accept and deal with a lot of the catastrophic impacts of that.

We will see more record devastating heat waves, floods, wildfires, and storm surges. And so what the scientists are saying is if you don’t want it to get a lot worse, you have to act very quickly. This bill gets really good reviews from analysts, who say this could really just change the trajectory of the US, and start making those numbers go down. And the other thing, of course, is the rest of the world has to act as well.

But the US is the biggest historic emitter, and for it to actually enact something that would measurably ratchet down those emissions, so like, the line starts going down fast, to say hey other emitters we’ve done this. Again, not clear, don’t know if it’s going to happen.

IRA FLATOW: Talking with Carl Davenport, climate and energy policy reporter at the New York Times on Science Friday from WNYC Studios. This is, as you say, a huge bill. It comes with a huge price tag, $3.5 trillion. And of that, at least for now, $150 billion is devoted to the Clean Energy Program. Will it make enough of an impact, do you think, to bring consumers along? Will they say, hey, this is something good that we think we should help? For example, one of the things that the President has been talking about is, we’ve seen with all of these storms, we have the hurricanes, the fires, the flooding. Look, it’s an infrastructure, we need to really build the infrastructure. And here is your opportunity to do that.

CORAL DAVENPORT: That is certainly how this pair of packages is envisioned by President Biden, and by a lot of the Democratic leadership. One reason they say they believe that they have the political capital to push such massive pieces of legislation and such massive spending, is they do believe that public opinion is with them. They do believe that this moment, after this summer in particular, when the United States has experienced record devastating and deadly weather events in almost all corners of the country. Wildfires in the West, deadly flooding in the East, heat waves and droughts that devastated crops, and agriculture, and livestock across the North and South.

The political reckoning is that this is sort of a moment where this is unavoidable. And people are looking and they’re saying, people are dying. I know someone who died of extreme weather. When it is so real, and so personal, and hits people’s lives and livelihoods, that’s the pitch.

IRA FLATOW: But there’s the pushback, isn’t there? I mean, we’ve gone through all the numbers and the line items. This is politics playing out, there are key players here, are there not? What needs to happen to get these bills to pass and what might make them fall apart?

CORAL DAVENPORT: One of the biggest players in this space is Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia. The centrist Democrat in the Senate, who’s up or down vote could make or break certainly the budget bill. He supported the infrastructure bill, he was a co-author of it. But right now, he is saying he wants all kinds of changes in the reconciliation bill. Senator Manchin, in addition to being the pivotal central up or down vote, is also chairman of the Senate Energy Committee.

And that means that under the Senate rules, he has the legislative authority to actually write this climate provision. Senator Manchin comes from West Virginia, the nation’s number two producer of coal and number seven producer of natural gas. He is the Senate’s number one recipient of campaign contributions from the coal, oil, and gas industry.

He personally profits from coal, he owns stock in a coal brokerage company that he founded, and turned over to his son. His son began running it when he entered politics. But last year he made over $400,000 in dividends from that coal brokerage stock, so he’s personally invested in the fates of these industries that could be killed by this climate legislation. And he is the one who holds the pen to write the bill.

At this moment, the expectation is that, if this legislation goes forward, Senator Manchin is going to try to find a way to write this bill that will be the most friendly to coal, natural gas, and electric utilities, as possible. That said, I’ve also talked to a lot of analysts who said, if the basic structure of the legislation stays the same, and he writes it in a way that is really weak, and really watered down, and really slows the pace, and contains big giveaways to coal and gas. But the basic structure of rewarding the companies for getting going clean and making them pay for staying dirty.

If that stays, it could still be the biggest climate change bill that has ever passed Congress. For the reason that Congress has never passed a meaningful climate change bill. The emissions reduction impact of it could be a lot less. And it could be the US’s first climate change law. That would be new and different, and would make a difference.

IRA FLATOW: Let me play devil’s advocate. On the devil’s side here, of course. It could also evaporate if they sit on these bills in Congress so long that they go through the midterm elections, which is a year from now. And that might change the whole face of the House and the Senate majority that the Democrats have.

CORAL DAVENPORT: This is why President Biden and house progressives have put so much capital in pushing these things through to get to the President’s desk this year. You’re absolutely right. I don’t even think it’s the midterms, if these things don’t get done this year, you know I think there’s no question that Republicans will clearly take a majority in one, if not both Senate chambers after 2022. And that’s it for this legislation, if that happens.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah well the clock is ticking Thank you for taking time to be with us today.

CORAL DAVENPORT: Thank you for having me. I hope I wasn’t too much of a downer.

IRA FLATOW: No, no, no. Sometimes the truth is a little bit of tough medicine to swallow. Coral Davenport, energy and environmental policy reporter for the New York Times.

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