Brig Daniels: Climate change finally meets political change

Senate action on climate is as much penance as it is change.

(Tom Brenner | The New York Times) Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) speaks during a news conference on the Inflation Reduction Act at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, Aug. 4, 2022.

Over the weekend the Senate passed the Inflation Reduction Act. The bill is the most significant action that body has ever taken to address climate change. This also represents an enormous role change for the Senate. For decades, the Senate has stood in the way of the country taking meaningful action.

The Senate negotiations that resulted in climate provisions being tucked away in a bill named for reducing inflation is a fitting end to the Senate’s inability to address climate change. The country’s past failures to make progress on climate change are almost entirely explained by the Senate’s long history of framing progress on climate as a threat to the U.S. economy.

So, how did the Senate clear the hurdle? As a razor-thin, partisan majority passed the bill, it relied on tax incentives for green power, energy efficiency, and industrial investment. These senators recognized that changes in the economy made this sort of bill possible—innovations ranging from cheaper electric cars and solar panels to new batteries and energy-efficient appliances. Furthermore, these kinds of investments are critical to keep our economy competitive as the world confronts climate change.

I think of this enactment as much as penance as it is change. After all, the United States has not only caused a wildly disproportionate share of global emissions, but also for decades, due to hurdles posed by Senate ratification, the United States has single handedly made global climate negotiations a mess.

A quarter century ago, Vice President Al Gore went to Kyoto, Japan, and dictated terms of a global agreement. While the world bent to induce our country into the agreement, the United States would not end up ratifying that deal. In fact, it was such a non-starter in the Senate that President Bill Clinton never even presented the treaty that Gore brokered for ratification. Once President George W. Bush was elected, he made it clear he would not act on it either. Our country’s inaction undercut the Kyoto agreement. Those countries bound to the agreement watered it down because we sat on the sidelines.

Then, seven years ago, President Barack Obama advocated for a bottom-up approach in Paris. The world understood why. Voluntary commitments would not bind any country and, therefore, would not require Obama to bring the agreement to the Senate for ratification, which was hostile to climate action due to concerns about the U.S. economy.

Obama’s desired proposal was not far from where the Paris Accord ended up landing. While the United States brokered the Paris Accord, once elected President Donald Trump pulled out of it all together. Trump’s concerns too were framed as avoiding harm to the U.S. economy.

But this weekend, the Senate passed a bill that will provide $369 billion in tax incentives to transform the economy. Unlike the regulations that Obama pushed through using the Clean Air Act, these incentives are not nearly as vulnerable to either a changing of the guards in Washington nor the clawing back of progress by the Supreme Court.

Once the economic incentives are taken advantage of, homes and businesses will keep them regardless of what is happening in Washington. For the foreseeable future, these economic incentives were the best shot (maybe the only shot) the United States had to dramatically reduce our carbon emissions.

So, is this bill going to be enough? No. But that’s not the right question. Avoiding climate change should not be considered a you-did-it-or-you-didn’t sort of problem. Rather, it’s a spectrum-of-possible-futures sort of problem. With this bill, we changed our course for the better. With these incentives—more than before—the economy and climate progress will walk hand-in-hand instead of pushing against each other.

Inaction is the biggest hurdle we face in dealing with climate change. Starting somewhere is the key to progress. Beliefs that we cannot make a difference or that it will be too hard frequently get in the way. But we can make a difference and chart a better course. And this weekend -- thanks to the Senate -- we did. That’s worth celebrating.

Brigham Daniels | BYU Law School

Brig Daniels is a professor of law at Brigham Young University Law School.